Hormone Decline and Aging: Sociology of a Medical Promise

Friday, July 18, 2014: 7:00 PM
Room: 304
Distributed Paper
Boris HAURAY , IRIS, INSERM / EHESS, Bobigny, France
The promise of slowing down, stopping or even reversing the aging process is, in a sense, medicine’s hyper-promise and the ultimate victory of science over human nature. And indeed this desire has been expressed, in particular through the myth of the fountain of youth, for thousands of years and in a great many civilisations. This idea emerges regularly in the public and scientific space, from the early 20th Century attempts to transplant animal glands in order to restore the vitality of people’s youthful state to the forecasts made about “regenerative” medicine in the wake of the isolation of embryonic stem cells and the cloning of Dolly the sheep.

Since the mid 1990s, research and practices aiming to fight the aging process have even intensified and become more structured, with the development of so-called “anti-aging” medicine. One hypothesis played a key role in this dynamic: that of hormone replacement therapy. The underlying idea is that during life, the production of certain hormones, which are essential for many of the body’s functions, tends to decrease and that by compensating for this decrease, it is possible to tackle the very process of aging. Different hormones were targeted: melatonin, the growth hormone and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). In France, it was above all the latter that was promoted as a possible “youth pill”.

It this presentation we will first examine the construction of DHEA’s anti-aging promise, its underlying roots, the conditions under which it emerged, and the changes it has undergone. We will then analyse the reception of this promise in France, its impact on the representation of the body and on anti-aging practices. A last section will show how this promise was called into question from the mid-2000s onwards but managed to survive.