Androgens, a group of steroid hormones that include testosterone and dihydrotestosterone, are often referred to as "male hormones" because of their greater presence in the male body; however, these hormones play important roles in both sexes. They are responsible for male sexual characteristics, maintaining bone and muscle mass, and sexual behavior in both males and females. When androgen levels are imbalanced, doctors may address the issue with one of two types of androgen therapy: androgen replacement therapy or androgen deprivation/suppression therapy. Androgen replacement therapy is used to treat conditions caused by androgen deficiency, such as some of the effects of aging, delayed puberty in adolescent boys, and sexual dysfunction. The other type, androgen deprivation/suppression therapy, is mainly used to treat prostate cancer.
Generally, androgen replacement therapy may be beneficial for the elderly. As part of the normal aging process, androgen levels typically decline. This is associated with the decreased muscle and bone mass that usually occur as people age. Although more studies must be done to determine whether aging men and women can truly benefit from androgen replacement therapy, some studies have reported positive results. Androgen therapy has helped some aging men experience increased muscle mass and strength.
Doctors sometimes prescribe androgen therapy for boys with constitutional growth delay. Boys who have this condition are characterized by short stature and delayed puberty. Constitutional growth delay is a variation of normal growth and is not considered a health problem. Treatment isn't a necessity, but some boys experience psychosocial stress due to their short height or lack of sexual maturation. In these cases, androgen therapy may alleviate the stress by inducing growth or puberty.
Sexual dysfunction is another condition associated with low androgen levels. Both men and women have successfully been treated for this condition with androgen replacement therapy. Using androgen therapy in this way, however, has not been extensively researched. More studies need to be done to determine the long-term effects, especially in women.
Androgen deprivation/suppression therapy is commonly given to men with prostate cancer. It is not a cure, but reducing androgen levels typically slows down, or even reverses, cancer growth. There are several different methods for reducing androgen levels in men, including castration, anti-androgen drugs, estrogen, luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone analogs, and luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone antagonists.
Both types of androgen therapy carry the risk of side effects. Androgen replacement therapy may cause sleep apnea, overproduction of red blood cells, acne, prostate growth, breast enlargement, lowered sperm count, and testicle shrinkage. Potential side effects associated with androgen deprivation/suppression therapy include reduced libido, impotence, depression, increased body fat, lowered muscle mass, hot flashes, breast growth, osteoporosis, anemia, fatigue, increased cholesterol levels, and decreased mental acuity.