Five years ago, at age 47, Manhattan Pilates instructor Rebecca Collins (not her real name) felt the body she had spent years fine-tuning was starting to decline. “I was a little sluggish, unmotivated to work out and noticing my skin start to sag,” she says. She wanted an anti-aging boost that went beyond the effects of green juice and downward dog, and sought the help of New York City internist Joseph Raffaele, an age-management specialist. His prescription: .5 milligrams of synthetic human growth hormone (HGH) administered daily intravenously, along with a once-in-a-while estrogen cream to tamp down any perimenopausal symptoms, like hot flashes.
Today, at 52, Collins says she feels more energetic than she did decades ago. The fat around her midsection melted off, her muscles became more defined and the skin on her face continues to feel taut. “My sisters and I are close in age, and it’s all the same genes, but my face is plumper than theirs, and I don’t have the creases they have,” she says. “People are amazed when they find out how old I am, though I’m certainly not going to tell them I’m taking HGH, because I work hard, too.”
HGH, a protein naturally produced by the pituitary gland, stimulates growth throughout the body (including cells, muscles and bones). The FDA has approved synthetic injections for those who don’t make enough of it, including kids with growth disorders or adults with degenerative muscle disease. But HGH has also become a tool among athletes and actors trying squeeze better results (or a few more years) out of their bodies: Lance Armstrong, Suzanne Somers and Sylvester Stallone have all reported using HGH, and countless others in Hollywood are rumored to partake. Forty-seven-year-old PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel recently said he’s hoping the hormone will help him live to be 120.
Raffaele started using the hormone himself at 37 and 18 years later looks nothing like other baby-boomer M.D.’s. He’s lean, with shiny hair and skin that’s completely smooth—no jowls, wrinkles or under-eye bags in sight. At his practice, PhysioAge Medical Group, roughly 20 percent of patients take HGH injections, usually in combination with other hormones. Among the benefits he touts: more lean body mass, changes in skin texture and moisture, faster-growing hair and nails, improved cognitive function and even greater bone density.
Aside from anecdotal evidence, however, there isn’t a lot of raw data to confirm that HGH is indeed a miracle elixir. (Which may be why most of the marketing happens at the grass-roots level. “I get all these calls from musicians and actors because they’ve heard about it at a party or at the gym,” says Dr. Andre Berger, founder of the Rejuvalife Vitality Institute in Beverly Hills.)
There are two other issues that keep the hormone from exploding full-throttle. Cost is one—a year’s supply can run around $15,000, since insurance doesn’t cover it. Safety is another. Since hitting the market, HGH has been linked to a host of side effects, including carpal tunnel, diabetes and, most critically, cancer. “There’s a reason our HGH levels go down naturally as we age,” says Kevin Yuen, an endocrinologist at the Oregon Health & Science University Hospital. (The fear is that in large doses, human growth hormone could act like fertilizer on malignant tumors or damaged cells.) Still, for patients like Collins, who simply feel better on the stuff, that’s a gamble they’re willing to take. “I’m not just sitting around pumping this stuff up,” she says. “But diet, exercise, HGH . . . these days, it has to be a combination of everything.”