Still, anti-aging doctors routinely diagnose otherwise healthy middle-aged people with an HGH deficiency, simply because their levels are lower than in young adults. "Basically anyone going through midlife," can benefit from the drug, declared one prescriber, Dr. Howard Elkin, of Whittier, Calif., who has himself competed as a bodybuilder.
Dr. Kenneth Knott, of Marietta, Ga., said HGH helps his older patients feel "more vibrant" and look "more alive."
Like many anti-aging doctors, he diagnoses patients by testing for a blood component called insulin growth factor, which is indirectly tied to HGH. Endocrinologists use a more authoritative test that stimulates the pituitary gland to make HGH itself. Nearly all insurers insist on this stimulation testing, and that's why clinic patients almost always pay for HGH out of their own pockets.
Bob Vitols, a 50-year-old lab assistant at a veterinary medicine company in Lincoln, Neb., is a rare exception. His unusually generous health plan isn't allowed to challenge a doctor's prescription.
Four years ago, Vitols began feeling run down. So he Googled his symptoms on the Internet, decided he had a hormone deficiency, and sought out a clinic.
One doctor put him on testosterone replacement therapy. A second clinic added HGH after diagnosing him with osteopenia, a mild bone thinning common in aging adults. It is not, however, a condition that can properly be treated with HGH.
Despite the diagnosis, the treatments — which can cost $10,000 per year — have been covered by his health insurance, he said. He takes Genotropin, the HGH made by Pfizer. His prescriptions are filled via mail order by CVS Caremark Corp., one of the largest dispensers of prescription drugs in the U.S.
Vitols said the drug changed his life: his mood is better, and he isn't burning out every day at 2 p.m. "I feel like I could walk outside and just walk through a fence — and come out fine on the other side," he said.
His experiences with the drug haven't all been positive, though. Vitols said he initially developed elevated liver enzymes and went to a specialist, who told him to stop taking hormones immediately.
Instead, Vitols said, he adjusted his dosage, and the problem disappeared.
He also dumped the specialist:
"I could tell he was against hormones right at the start," Vitols said.