Aging in humans is accompanied by a progressive decline in the secretion of the adrenal androgens dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and DHEA sulfate (DS), paralleling that of the GH-insulin-like growth factor-I (GH-IGF-I) axis. Although the functional relationship of the decline of the GH-IGF-I system and catabolism is recognized, the biological role of DHEA in human aging remains undefined. To test the hypothesis that the decline in DHEA may contribute to the shift from anabolism to catabolism associated with aging, we studied the effect of a replacement dose of DHEA in 13 men and 17 women, 40-70 yr of age. A randomized placebo-controlled cross-over trial of nightly oral DHEA administration (50 mg) of 6-month duration was conducted. During each treatment period, concentrations of androgens, lipids, apolipoproteins, IGF-I, IGF-binding protein-1 (IGFBP-1), IGFBP-3, insulin sensitivity, percent body fat, libido, and sense of well-being were measured. A subgroup of men (n = 8) and women (n = 5) underwent 24-h sampling at 20-min intervals for GH determinations. DHEA and DS serum levels were restored to those found in young adults within 2 weeks of DHEA replacement and were sustained throughout the 3 months of the study. A 2-fold increase in serum levels of androgens (androstenedione, testosterone, and dihydrotestosterone) was observed in women, with only a small rise in androstenedione in men. There was no change in circulating levels of sex hormone-binding globulin, estrone, or estradiol in either gender. High density lipoprotein levels declined slightly in women, with no other lipid changes noted for either gender. Insulin sensitivity and percent body fat were unaltered. Although mean 24-h GH and IGFBP-3 levels were unchanged, serum IGF-I levels increased significantly, and IGFBP-1 decreased significantly for both genders, suggesting an increased bioavailability of IGF-I to target tissues. This was associated with a remarkable increase in perceived physical and psychological well-being for both men (67%) and women (84%) and no change in libido. In conclusion, restoring DHEA and DS to young adult levels in men and women of advancing age induced an increase in the bioavailability of IGF-I, as reflected by an increase in IGF-I and a decrease in IGFBP-1 levels. These observations together with improvement of physical and psychological well-being in both genders and the absence of side-effects constitute the first demonstration of novel effects of DHEA replacement in age-advanced men and women.