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Contrary to popular belief, a study suggests the relationship between the two works the other way
FRIDAY, March 13, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Experts have long believed that as a man's testosterone level plummets, so does his libido.
But a new study determined that the reverse may be the case.
"Most people in or out of medicine assume that a lowered serum testosterone may cause reduced sexual activity. But our study questions, if not entirely refutes, that assumption and suggests it is the other way around," said Dr. David Handelsman, a researcher at the University of Sydney, in New South Wales, Australia.
And soaring sales of testosterone supplements are being driven by that assumption, even though it might not be true, Handelsman added.
To illustrate, one doctor not involved in the study questioned the finding, pointing out that several lifestyle factors might be influencing testosterone levels as men age.
Also, the study wasn't conducted to take those factors into account.
For the study, researchers appraised more than 1,700 men, age 70 and above, in Sydney.
The researchers measured the men at the study's start and then again two years later when the group of men in the survey had decreased to around 1,300.
For both measurements, the men responded to questions about sexual functioning, like how often they were able to obtain and maintain a viable erection, how often they had sex that resulted in ejaculation, including masturbation and intercourse, and how their desire for sex compared to when they were 50.
The researchers also determined blood levels of testosterone and other hormones at both visits.
They discovered that a decline in testosterone, although it was less than a 10 percent drop, was connected to less sexual activity and desire, but not to fewer erections.
"The reduction in sexual function was strongly associated with a reduction in serum testosterone [levels] in our study," Handelsman said.
However, the decline was insignificant, and other research has shown that it takes a 70 percent or 80 percent plunge in testosterone to affect sexual functioning, he added.
"So, the effect [of lower testosterone in the study] is too small to cause reduced sexual function, and it must be a cause or an effect, [so] it is most likely a result [of less sexual activity]," Handelsman said.
Study Results Inconclusive
Regardless, a cause-and-effect link cannot be precisely determined, since the study was observational and only uncovered an association, he added.
However, the common assumption that lower testosterone leads to less sexual desire and activity has "been a major motive for the massive epidemic in testosterone prescribing in the United States over recent decades," Handelsman said.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered testosterone supplement makers to include a warning about a possible elevated risk of heart attack and stroke with testosterone supplement use.
The study's conclusions, Handelsman added, don't ignore that testosterone supplementation at high enough doses boosts libido in both young and older men.
He did not provide advice about whether increasing sexual activity of any type might maintain testosterone levels in aging men.
The study findings were presented at the Endocrine Society's annual meeting in San Diego.
Studies presented at medical meetings are viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
Dr. Brad Anawalt, an endocrinologist, and professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle was not convinced, although he called the results exciting.
"I think the underlying premise is not right, and not supported by the study," he said. "You just can't attribute a cause-and-effect relationship in a study like this."
However, Anawalt said, "data are suggesting that increased physical activity does increase serum testosterone."
Men who stay sexually active, he said, may also have a healthier lifestyle, such as eating better and exercising more.
"That may be the relationship we are seeing," he said. "Sexual activity may be a marker for good health habits."
Dr. Anawalt's Advice?
"For men out there interested in having healthy sexual lives and having normal testosterone, if they can maintain better health and be more physically active, they are more likely to have a better sex life."
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