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'Low T': Fanning Fears and Making a Fortune

by Health After 50  

“Is low-T making you feel like a shadow of your former self?” Chances are you’ve seen that pitch, featured in slick TV or magazine ads that warn about the risks of low testosterone, or “low T.” In 2012 alone, pharmaceutical companies spent more than $100 million fanning fears—and promoting gels, patches, and other testosterone replacement products.

The trouble is, “low T” isn’t a bona fide medical condition. And the “symptoms” associated with it—flagging energy, declining sex drive, memory lapses—are part of normal aging. But that hasn’t stopped some doctors from endorsing the idea of “low T” and profiting by setting up clinics to treat this “disorder.”

What’s more, direct-to-consumer ads fueled an unprecedented explosion in testosterone sales even though there was scant evidence that the ”cure,” testosterone replacement, was safe or effective. A study in JAMA in March 2017 looked at 75 major regions in the United States where ads were broadcast and found that the more often men were exposed to advertising, the more likely they were to get their testosterone tested and begin taking the hormone.

That alone wouldn’t be cause for worry if men actually had low testosterone. But the researchers found that, of the more than 17 million men in the regions they studied, nearly 138,000 started therapy without having their blood tested for low testosterone—even though that’s contrary to current medical guidelines. In other words, many of those men using testosterone probably didn’t even have low levels.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Health After 50.