In the last few decades, women were given a choice to pursue hormone replacement therapy while going through menopause. After years of the therapy, however, doctors and patients found that the treatment put women at risk for a variety of diseases from stroke to cancer. Now men want in on the game and think that a boost of testosterone will make them more active and feel younger through middle age. A new study by the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows evidence that prescriptions for testosterone have jumped in the last 10 years.

Not all of the men found to be prescribed the steroid were using it just for recreational use, as 50 percent were diagnosed with hypogonasiam (also called 'manopause'), which disables them from producing adequate levels of testosterone themselves. Interestingly, however, 25 percent of men who were taking testosterone had never been screened for low levels in their body and, for the remaining 75 percent, researchers were unsure how many actually had low levels.

The study was performed looking at 10 million men over the age of 40 and found an increase of testosterone use from 0.81 percent in 2001 to 2.91 percent in 2011. This number jumped to 3.75 percent for men over 60 in 2011. "This trend has been driven, in large part, by direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns that have targeted middle-aged men and the expansion of clinics specializing in the treatment of low testosterone - or 'low-T centers,'" said Dr. Jacques Baillargeon, M.D., lead author of the study and an associate professor in preventive medicine and community health at UTMB.

But is it safe?

With prescriptions for testosterone being filled at local pharmacies and given the availability of self-injections, hormone patches, and topical gels, patients have a greater ease in treating themselves when they do acquire a prescription. But like hormone replacement therapy for women, the steroid use comes at a price for the body. Among the cosmetic issues that come with taking testosterone is an increase in acne on the body and shrinkage of testicles, hair loss/thinning, sleep apnea, and decreased sperm production, leading to infertility. Additionally, any usage of artificial steroids can derail the normal hormone production system in a man's body permanently, causing lifelong dependence on the drug.

But even more serious side effects can result. Although there aren't many studies that have linked the development of prostate cancer to the use of prescription steroids, some do exist. The cancer can show up anywhere from months or years into treatment. It is also presumed that testosterone can exacerbate prostate cancer in men who already have it, as many prostate cancers rely on testosterone as a signal for growth.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Lisa Schwartz and Dr. Steven Woloshin, of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice, called the direct marketing of testosterone to men "a mass, uncontrolled experiment that invites men to expose themselves to the harms of a treatment unlikely to fix problems that may be wholly unrelated to testosterone levels...Before anyone makes millions of men aware of low T, they should be required to do a large-scale randomized trial to demonstrate that testosterone therapy for healthy aging men does more good than harm."

Although treatment for a youthful look is alluring, the usage of steroids is an important medical decision to make. The long-term consequences may outweigh the short-term gains in many men and could instigate a serious health issue.

"More research is needed to determine the extent to which men with normal testosterone levels and ambiguous symptoms seek and are prescribed [testosterone therapy]," the reseachers concluded from the study.

Source: Baillargeon J, Urban R, Ottenbacher K, Pierson K, Goodwin J. Trends in Androgen Prescribing in the United States, 2001 to 2011. JAMA. 2013.