Low testosterone, also known as “low T,” is a common condition in men as they get older. Testosterone levels naturally decline with age. In their 60s, roughly 20 percent of men have low testosterone, according to the Urology Care Foundation. Among men in their 70s, that number rises to 30 percent. And by the time men have reached their 80s, about half of them have had a drop in testosterone levels.
Testosterone is a sex hormone that is produced in a man’s testes. When a male baby is developing, this hormone helps the sex organs form. During puberty, testosterone plays a key role in physically developing boys into men. It makes hair grow on the face, builds muscles, and causes the voice to deepen. Later in life, testosterone also plays an important role in a man’s sexual function.
Decreasing levels of testosterone are a natural part of the aging process. The older a man gets, the lower his testosterone levels may drop. Several causes other than aging can also lead to low testosterone, however. These include injuries to the testicles as well as chemotherapy or radiation for treating cancer in the genital area. Other causes include diseases of the pituitary gland, and medicines that affect this gland, such as steroids.
Low testosterone can have real, and important health effects—especially on a man’s sex life. Men with low testosterone may have trouble getting and keeping an erection. The erections they do have may come less often and not as strongly as before. A man’s desire to have sex (libido) also decreases as testosterone drops. All of these factors can lead to less frequent sex. This can have a real effect on partner relationships.
Having low testosterone doesn’t only affect your sex drive and your ability to have sex; it can cause other symptoms as well. If you’re suffering from low T, you may notice that you’ve put on weight, and that you have less energy than you used to. Low T increases body fat and reduces muscle mass. It also can affect your mood, making you feel depressed. Some men with low testosterone have trouble concentrating.
A lack of testosterone can sometimes have long-term, serious effects on the body. In men with very low levels, the bones can become weak, potentially causing a condition called osteoporosis. Osteoporosis makes people considerably more prone to injury. One study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism also linked low testosterone to a higher risk of death from heart disease and other causes.
If you have symptoms such as reduced sex drive or erection problems, you should see a doctor. The doctor can do a blood test to help determine whether you have low testosterone. Because testosterone levels can rise and fall during the day, you may need to have more than one test. Your doctor may take the blood test in the morning, which is when testosterone levels are highest.
If your levels are low, you may be prescribed testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). Most men with low testosterone rub a testosterone gel on their arms or shoulders, according to the Urology Care Foundation. Another method is to get a shot into a muscle, or you can wear a patch that slowly releases testosterone into your blood. There are also pellets that go under the skin. Men with prostate cancer shouldn’t take testosterone because it can fuel cancer growth.
Over the last few years, many drug companies have started advertising products designed to treat “low T.” Between 2001 and 2011, the number of men over age 40 using testosterone therapy tripled, according to a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine. It’s important if you have symptoms of low testosterone to get tested so that you only get treated if you really need it.