Blog | Monday, December 10, 2012

'Men'opause and the risks of treating low testosterone


Everyone has heard of menopause, but is there a male equivalent? Two weeks ago at Personalized Primary Care Atlanta we discussed treatment of testosterone deficiency, or so called "andropause," in an evening health talk. PPC was happy to host Wayland Hsiao, MD, Assistant Professor of Urology from Emory University, as our discussant.

Dr. Hsiao pointed out that declining testosterone levels are normal as men age and that while some men may be asymptomatic, others may suffer with symptoms that may negatively impact quality of life.

What are the symptoms of testosterone deficiency? Loss of energy, decreased strength, reduced exercise capacity and erectile dysfunction are some. Testosterone deficiency may also contribute to metabolic syndrome, loss of lean muscle mass, and osteoporosis. The ADAM questionnaire is a validated tool that can help identify symptomatic men. [Morley et al. Validation of a screening questionnaire for androgen deficiency in aging males. Metabolism. 2000;49(9):1239-1242.]

Testosterone deficiency may be diagnosed on the basis of blood tests. Dr. Hsaio pointed out that saliva tests are not accurate. Typically total testosterone and free testosterone levels are measured. Free testosterone is the active version of the hormone. If levels are low and men are deemed symptomatic, treatment involves supplementation with testosterone, which is available in various delivery systems including transdermal gels, patches and pellets (implanted beneath the skin of the buttocks). Dr. Hsiao is of the opinion that injections of testosterone are not as well tolerated as the other delivery methods as they produce hormonal peaks and troughs that are associated with more adverse effects including flushes.

Given the common nature of some of the described symptoms of testosterone deficiency it is not always clear who should be treated. One approach, for symptomatic men who have low or borderline testosterone levels, is a three month trial of treatment to see if symptoms improve.

What is the downside of testosterone replacement? One large clinical trial reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010 demonstrated increased cardiovascular events in men who were randomized to treatment, and the trial was terminated early because of these adverse outcomes. However, Dr. Hsiao is skeptical that these risks translate to all men, and he noted that the population studied was primarily elderly, frail and immobile.

Another concern with testosterone therapy is whether it has potential to promote prostate cancer growth in a man who may have subclinical prostate cancer or prostate cancer that has not yet been detected, and also whether it can cause enlargement of benign prostate tissue and contribute to worsening of urinary symptoms in men. Benign prostatic hypertrophy is another common condition that impacts quality of life in men as they age by causing reduced ability to urinate. Dr. Hsiao felt that evidence is lacking to suggest that either of these prostate conditions is affected much by testosterone therapy and sited data supporting this viewpoint.

It's good to know that testosterone therapy exists as an option to help men with symptoms of andropause, which can adversely affect quality of life. However, those of us who have doctored through the era of the Women's Health Initiative, which studied the effects of hormonal therapy for menopause, have to be somewhat cautious about prescribing treatment for a condition that affects a huge segment of the population.

In the case of estrogen and progestin therapy in women, as discussed in a recent blog, the pendulum has swung for, then against, and now recently partially back in favor of a cautionary approach to post-menopausal hormone replacement for symptom management during the time immediately following menopause in women.

To date testosterone therapy has been less well studied, and it could be years before the safety data for testosterone replacement in men is as good as the data for hormone replacement in women, which has been the subject of intense research in the previous decade.

Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, is a primary care physician in Atlanta, Ga. Previous to her primary care practice, she served on the general internal medicine faculty of Emory University, where she practiced clinical medicine and taught internal medicine residents for 12 years, and led initiatives to improve the quality of care for patients with diabetes. This work fostered an interest in innovative models of primary care delivery. Her blog, DrDialogue, acts as a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals. This post originally appeared there.