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Many older patients go for HGH treatment to scores of anti-aging practices and clinics heavily concentrated in retirement states like Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California.

These sites are affiliated with hundreds of doctors who are rarely endocrinologists. Instead, many tout certification by the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, though the medical establishment does not recognize the group’s bona fides.

The clinics offer personalized programs of “age management” to business executives, affluent retirees, and other patients of means, sometimes coupled with the amenities of a vacation resort. The operations insist there are few, if any, side effects from HGH. Mainstream medical authorities say otherwise.

A 2007 review of 31 medical studies showed swelling in half of HGH patients, with joint pain or diabetes in more than a fifth. A French study of about 7,000 people who took HGH as children found a 30 percent higher risk of death from causes like bone tumors and stroke, stirring a health advisory from U.S. authorities.

For proof that the drug works, marketers turn to images like the memorable one of pot-bellied septuagenarian Dr. Jeffry Life, supposedly transformed into a ripped hulk of himself by his own program available at the upscale Las Vegas-based Cenegenics Elite Health. (He declined to be interviewed.)

These promoters of HGH say there is a connection between the drop-off in growth hormone levels through adulthood and the physical decline that begins in late middle age. Replace the hormone, they say, and the aging process slows.

“It’s an easy ruse. People equate hormones with youth,” said Dr. Tom Perls, a leading industry critic who does aging research at Boston University. “It’s a marketing dream come true.”

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Associated Press Writer David B. Caruso reported from New York and AP National Writer Jeff Donn reported from Plymouth, Mass. AP Writer Troy Thibodeaux provided data analysis assistance from New Orleans.

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AP’s interactive on the HGH investigation: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/hgh

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The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org