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Saturday, 27 April, 2002, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
High altitude 'speeds up ageing'
Peruvian woman
Andes women may experience hormone deficiencies
Women who live at high altitudes are likely to age faster, research suggests.

Scientists drew their conclusions after finding lower concentrations of hormones, which are important for maintaining health and youthfulness, in women living in the mountainous areas of Peru.

A team led by Dr Gustavo Gonzales studied the hormone levels of 210 women living at above 4,000 metres in the Peruvian Andes.

For comparison they looked at a control group of 170 women of similar age and ethnic origin who lived at just 150m above sea level, in the Peruvian capital Lima.

It's known that women living at high altitude are more susceptible to disease, and tend to die earlier

Dr Gustavo Gonzales, study co-ordinator
They found concentrations of the hormones DHEA and DHEAS (dehydroepiandrosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate) rose more slowly during puberty in women living at high altitudes.

These steroid hormones are produced by the adrenal gland and occur naturally in the bloodstream and brain tissue of all healthy individuals.

They are important for physical and mental wellbeing, but levels decline with age.

The research team discovered the concentration of these hormones in women living at high altitude never reached the levels found in those living at sea level.

They found DHEA levels in mountain-living women aged between 60 and 70 were only at about 40% of the levels found in the control group.

Geographical risk

Dr Gonzales said: "It's known that women living at high altitude are more susceptible to disease, and tend to die earlier.

"Our findings show that changes in the levels of these hormones with age seem to be associated with both maturation and ageing, and that where you live affects this.

"The early decline in the concentration of these hormones in women living at high altitude may suggest that women age earlier at high altitudes.

"These hormonal changes might have a significant effect on the lives of women living in high altitude areas such as the Andes, the Alps, the Rockies, and the Himalayas."

Other studies have shown the importance of DHEA and DHEAS in the ageing process.

One found that when DHEA was fed to mice it increased their life expectancy by a third.

The treated mice seemed younger and had a lower incidence of the typical diseases of ageing, including diabetes and cardiovascular complications.

The hormone has also been shown to have a role in countering obesity and cancer.

'Health' supplements

Endocrinologist at Manchester's Christie Hospital, Professor Steve Shalet, said the results of the study were interesting, but far from conclusive.

He said: "A number of hormone systems change with age, under normal circumstances, including DHEA and DHEAS, testosterone in men and growth hormones in both sexes.

"Maybe the decline in one of these three hormone levels is key to the ageing process and maybe if you reverse it, you might reverse the ageing process."

"However, I think it is too simplistic to draw any conclusions."

People with Addison's disease, where the adrenal gland fails to work properly, are low in DHEA.

They are prescribed synthetic DHEA to treat the condition.

Similar synthetic versions of DHEA are available over-the-counter in the USA and sold as "health promoting" products.

Endocrinologist at Sheffield University, Professor Richard Ross, said: "If you give synthetic DHEA to people who are deficient, their energy levels improve, their bones get a little thicker and their libido sometimes improves.

"Substitute DHEA is definitely of benefit, but whether it's of benefit in ageing is still open to question."

See also:

11 Jan 00 | Medical notes
Health and ageing
24 May 00 | Health
Anti-ageing pill moves closer
12 Apr 00 | Health
Smoking link to premature ageing
29 Mar 00 | Health
Women grow old genetically
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