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DHEA is a supplement believed by many to help prevent chronic diseases. It is a hormone that occurs naturally in the human body and serves as a precursor to male and female sex steroid hormones. The peak level of DHEA occurs between 20-30 and then begins a slow decline as we age. By age 70, DHEA levels are about 20% of what they were at their peak levels.

Donna Kritz-Silverstein, PhD, adjunct professor, Family & Preventive Medicine, University of California, San Diego, and colleagues, studied effects of DHEA supplements on 110 men and 115 women, between 55-85. The participants received either 50 mg doses of DHEA or a look-a-like placebo. Six cognitive function tests were given and measures of depression, perceptions of physical and emotional health, life satisfaction and sexual function were recorded at the beginning of the study and again at the conclusion of the study one year later.

Although the group receiving DHEA had returned to youthful levels of the drug there were no benefits for cognitive function. Also, there were no differences seen between those taking DHEA and those taking placebo in quality-of-life measurement scores.

Previous clinical trials examining the effects of DHEA supplementation on cognitive function and quality-of-life have inconsistent results, with some showing positive effects and others showing no effect. However, these trials used small sample sizes, were of short duration (generally 2 weeks to 4 months) and did not include older men and women who were at an age when memory loss and cognitive impairment become more apparent. Also, unlike the participants in the majority of previous studies, the participants in this study were not selected for lower levels of DHEA, meaning the results reflect what would be found in the general population.

The study is published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society.