So, what is the reality? Do men universally experience mood swings, lack of energy and/or sexual desire at around 50 and beyond? And is it a physical phenomenon or psychological?
According to some experts, it’s a condition that needs to be taken more seriously. “Men do experience a decline in the production of the male hormone testosterone with ageing,” says cognitive neuroscientist and age specialist Dr Linda Shaw.
Unlike menopause in women, when hormone production stops completely, testosterone decline in men is a slower process. Other experts argue that the male menopause, or andropause as it’s also termed, is just another example of how normal processes, in this case ageing, are being medicalised unnecessarily.
Whatever the cause of it, however, it does seem that men do go through ‘a change’ during midlife. A survey commissioned by a bike insurer found that of 1,000 British men 73% said they were concerned with the direction of their life and that a third of men who bought motorbikes did so specifically to try and cope with what they termed as midlife crisis.
Given that men’s testosterone levels do decline, albeit usually gradually over time, it would make sense that they would also go through some related physical changes and therefore also psychological changes. But how much and what depends very much on the individual. Below are details of how the male body may change, hormonally, as it ages, as well as other factors that can affect a man physically and psychologically.
Gradually falling testosterone levels
All men’s testosterone levels decrease as they age but because the decrease is gradual, unlike for women who may experience a comparatively sudden change in hormone production, men’s physical responses aren’t so easy to study. Testosterone levels fall by about 1% per year from the age of 30, on average. That means that by the time a man reaches 70 years of age, he might have 60% or less of the testosterone he once had.
Exceptionally low testosterone levels
Research from the University of Manchester showed that there are some men who go through what’s termed late-onset hypogonadism. This is where men’s testosterone levels fall relatively quickly and they experience symptoms such as less frequent morning erections, reduced sex drive and erectile dysfunction. The findings revealed, however, that from a study group of around 3,500 men only around 2% went through this type of low-testosterone-related ‘menopause’. Testosterone supplementation may help reduce symptoms in these men but taking medication must be weighed up against the possible side effects, which include enlarged breasts or testicle shrinkage.
Common effects of lower testosterone
Bearing in mind that men will experience these changes gradually, the effects may still be the same as for men who experience a sudden drop in testosterone but less noticeable as they will occur over a far longer period of time.
- Loss in muscle strength.
- Weight gain.
- Loss of sexual desire.
- Loss of erectile function.
- Feeling of unhappiness, probably related to one or more of the above symptoms.
According to the NHS it’s common for men over the age of 40 to experience one or more of the symptoms that could be classed as part of ‘male menopause’, but the term itself isn’t useful because men are no more likely to experience symptoms in mid-age than they are earlier or later, seeing as testosterone is decreasing gradually and steadily from the age of 30.
While some men do have exceptionally low testosterone levels (see above) most men who experience symptoms of ‘male menopause‘ such as tiredness, poor concentration, loss of enthusiasm, increased sweating and loss of muscle mass could be doing so as a result of lifestyle or psychological factors.
Stress, depression or anxiety, lack of exercise, and also alcohol use or smoking, can work together to trigger a ‘midlife crisis’ and the symptoms outlined above could be a side effect of this. This is not the same as a hormonal disruption that causes psychological and physical changes.
What to do
See your GP if you feel your symptoms are too much to bear. Your GP can organise a testosterone test and may advise you to cut back on alcohol or caffeine, drink more water and do more exercise in order to get back to good health. He or she may also offer you psychological treatment, therapy, anti-depression medication, or some other form of treatment.
Be upfront with your partner
One of the biggest problems relating to male menopause is loss of sex drive. This can be a big psychological issue and even lead to depression. “If lack of sex drive is causing a rift between a man and his partner, it is a good idea to talk,” saysLinda Shaw.
“Holding hands and hugging will stimulate oxytocin in the brain, which will reignite feelings of closeness and intimacy. The upside is if testosterone is diminishing in the male brain some researchers suggest his response to oxytocin and oestrogen may now become stronger thus resulting in more nurturing behaviour.”