Preventative medicine specialist Dr. Karron Power says the therapy she's used to treat scores of patients has also had a profound effect on her own family. Her husband Oliver had gained weight and was increasingly tired. She says a blood test revealed lowered testosterone levels. "Typically, symptoms of low testosterone would be fatigue, low mood, depression, poor sleep, aches and pains," she says.
Power began treating Oliver with regular injections of testosterone replacement. She says the drug is chemically identical to the hormone that's produced in the body which can drop off as men age. She says the doses used to bring a patient back up to normal are far different than the doses commonly associated with sports like bodybuilding. "There are huge differences between maintaining, doing this as a proactive or preventative medicine program and doing it for bodybuilding," she says.
Testosterone replacement has been the focus of several recent studies. One of the latest, by Bayer Pharmaceuticals in Germany, which markets a testosterone product, found that middle-aged and older men suffering from obesity lost an average of 35 pounds over five years. Researchers believe testosterone replacement boosts the body's ability to build muscle, encouraging exercise. "I probably exercise more. I had more energy to do so, but I lost about 25 pounds in six months," Oliver says.
Prescriptions for testosterone replacement have more than doubled in the last five years, as have the indications for its use. Patient Ashley Tucker says his symptoms were closer to depression. "Like dismal, I mean, no energy," he recalls. He says the injections helped him to return to martial arts training.
While testosterone replacement has documented benefits, some doctors are cautious about potential downsides that could develop, especially for patients who may stay on the drug for decades.
Dr. Paul Turek is a urologist in San Francisco who also prescribes testosterone in specific cases. "The rigorous data that you need to really establish a field of good hard data is not in yet," he says.
On-going research will likely focus on long-term cancer and heart disease risks, but given the current demand among aging baby boomers, several companies are already offering new testosterone-based drugs and some analysts have predicted that prescription sales could triple to more than $5 billion a year, putting testosterone replacement in the financial league of Viagra.
"Testosterone, I have to say, is kind of an elixir. If taken in the right way, it improves quality of life. It has a lot of effects on a lot of the body. It's like putting premium fuel in the body," Turek says.
"There are a lot of men now on testosterone for these general health optimization reasons and it's one of the most rapidly growing fields in medicine," Power says.
Power adds that if lab tests confirm the diagnosis of low testosterone, the treatments are most often covered by insurance.