Testosterone marketing frenzy draws skepticism

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WASHINGTON (AP) - “Are you falling asleep after dinner?”

“Do you have a decrease in libido?”

“Have you noticed a recent deterioration in your ability to play sports?”

“It could be Low-T.”

Welcome to the latest big marketing push by U.S. drug companies. In this case, it’s a web page for Abbott Laboratories‘ Androgel, a billion-dollar selling testosterone gel used by millions of American men struggling with the symptoms of growing older that are associated with low testosterone, such as poor sex drive, weight gain and fatigue.

Androgel is one of a growing number of prescription gels, patches and injections aimed at boosting the male hormone that begins to decline after about age 40. Drugmakers and some doctors claim testosterone therapy can reverse some of the signs of aging _ even though the safety and effectiveness of such treatments is unclear.

“The problem is that we don’t have any evidence that prescribing testosterone to older men with relatively low testosterone levels does any good,” says Dr. Sergei Romashkan, who oversees clinical trials for the National Institute on Aging, a part of the National Institutes of Health conglomerate of research centers.

Low testosterone is the latest example of a once-natural part of getting old that has become a target for medical treatment. Bladder problems, brittle bones and hot flashes have followed a similar path: from inconvenient facts of life, to ailments that can be treated with drugs. The rise of such therapies is being fueled by both demographics and industry marketing.

Baby boomers are living longer and looking for ways to deal with the infirmities of old age: Life expectancy in the U.S. today is 78 years, up from 69 years a half-century ago. And companies have stepped up their marketing to the older crowd: Spending on print and television ads promoting testosterone by firms like Abbott and Eli Lilly has risen more than 170 percent in the last three years to more than $14 million in 2011, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media.

Doctors say that’s led to an increase in men seeking treatment for low testosterone. Prescriptions for the hormone have increased nearly 90 percent over the last five years, according to IMS Health. Last year, global sales reached $1.9 billion.

“People are living longer and want to be more active,” says Dr. Spyros Mezitis, a hormone specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “They no longer consider that because they’re older they shouldn’t have sexual intercourse.”

Former marathon runner Damon Lease, 50, had been complaining of low energy and depression, for which his doctor prescribed a combination of four psychiatric drugs. But since he started taking twice-a-week testosterone injections in May, he says he’s been able to stop taking two of the medications and hopes to eliminate them completely. He says he has more energy, improved mood and concentration.

“I spent 27 years running long distances, I like biking, I like hiking, and I guess every guy wants to have an active sex life … I want to keep doing those things as long as I can,” says Lease, who works as a software company executive. “I feel 20 years younger.”

MASS-MARKET HORMONE

Despite its rising popularity, testosterone therapy is not completely new. Testosterone injections were long used for men with hypogonadism, a disorder defined by low testosterone caused by injury or infection to the reproductive or hormonal organs.

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