People with unnaturally low levels of testosterone may find hormone therapy to be a helpful treatment. But HRT has risks that may outweigh the benefits so it’s best to discuss this option with your healthcare team.

Hormone replacement therapy is a bit of a misnomer. It’s natural for men’s testosterone levels to decrease as they get older. So, hormone therapy doesn’t replace anything that is naturally missing.

Testosterone is required for:

  • male sexual development
  • reproductive function
  • building muscle bulk
  • maintaining healthy levels of red blood cells
  • maintaining bone density

However, the natural decrease of this hormone in men typically doesn’t affect overall health any more than the aging process does. Medical experts disagree about the significance of a testosterone level decrease. They also disagree about the health benefits of hormone therapy use to combat the natural aging process in men, especially given the risks.

Learn more: Is low testosterone dangerous to your health? »

Some men with unnaturally low levels of testosterone can benefit from hormone therapy. For example, the condition hypogonadism can cause unnaturally low levels of testosterone. It’s a dysfunction of the testicles that prevents the body from producing the right amount of testosterone.

What’s less certain is whether testosterone therapy can benefit healthy men whose testosterone decline is simply caused by aging. This has been a difficult question for researchers to answer. Not many studies have observed the effects of testosterone therapy in men with healthy levels of the hormone. The studies that have were smaller and had unclear results.

Read more: Testosterone levels by age »

If your doctor suggests testosterone therapy, several options are available. These include:

Side effects are a primary drawback of hormone therapy with testosterone. While some of the side effects are relatively minor, others are more serious.

Minor potential side effects of hormone therapy with testosterone include:

  • fluid retention
  • acne
  • increased urination

More severe potential side effects include:

  • breast enlargement
  • decreased testicle size
  • worsening of existing sleep apnea
  • increased cholesterol levels
  • decreased sperm count
  • infertility
  • increased number of red blood cells

An increased number of red blood cells can cause:

  • muscle pain
  • high blood pressure
  • blurry vision
  • chest pain
  • blood clots in your blood vessels

Hormone therapy can be a helpful treatment for men with unnaturally low levels of testosterone. However, it doesn’t come without risks. These risks may outweigh the benefits if you’re considering hormone therapy to make up for a natural decrease in testosterone levels.

Talk with your doctor about safer alternatives. Resistance exercise can help you build muscle mass, and walking, running, and swimming can help keep your heart strong.