The Primate Diaries

The Potent Fear of Male Menopause


Three products that profit on male insecurities (Enzyte, Viagra and Tiger Penis Wine)
Note: the third image is from a campaign to encourage people to stop, not an actual ad.

In my earlier posts I explored why women experience menopause and discussed the Grandmother Hypothesis as a leading explanation. There is accumulating evidence that suggests reproductive senescence in women is an adaptation promoting inclusive fitness. However, there are many claims that menopause also occurs in men. There’s even a fancy name for it: andropause.

A quick Google search reveals an onslaught of online “health” sites ready to sell an entire range of products to fight this affliction. These varied from “new super potent herbal formulations” to “pure potent 200:1 Tongkat Ali Extract” (whatever the hell that is) to the more general “Ultimate Male Potency Booster”. I think I’m noticing a certain word that keeps appearing in their advertising approach.

Even Harvard Health Publications announces “Is There a Male Menopause: Will Hormones Help?” Apparently we don’t even need to know if there is an actual problem before jumping to an expensive cure. However, after a great deal of discussion about the slow decline of testosterone in men after the age of 40 the good doctors state:

“A 1% yearly drop in testosterone production is imperceptible at first, but by the age of 70, the average man’s testosterone production is 30% below its peak. . . . Despite the obvious appeal of testosterone replacement for older men, most doctors advise against it.”

Their prescription: eat a balanced diet and get more exercise.

So while male menopause seems to have more to do with men’s desire to be 25 forever and less to do with an actual physiological condition (remember, in women menopause is a rapid event that is confined to a specific age window) there is something to this evolutionary question. Why do men undergo a decline in testosterone at all? If evolutionary fitness means leaving the most offspring, wouldn’t the 90-year-old with the enormous Enzyte grin be the ultimate example in “survival of the fittest”? The vast majority of human societies are classified as polygynous (or multiple wife marriage). It seems like natural selection would have benefited those elderly males who maintained higher testosterone throughout their lives.

One potential answer to this has to do with life history theory, or evolutionary cost-benefit analyses. Testosterone has numerous behavioral effects, not least of which are risk taking and aggression. Writing in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology, Richard G. Bribiescas shows how among Ache foragers in Paraguay male reproductive value (i.e. what women want) is greatest between the ages of 18 and 30. During this period, Bribiescas euphemistically notes, “males exhibit an acute spike in mortality.”

In other words, males are willing to take excessive risks (or, in rare cases, even take someone out) in order to have a better shot with the ladies. It is during this same period that male testosterone is at its peak. However, it probably wouldn’t be in an individual’s long-term reproductive interests if they continued such behaviors once they were a successful father or grandfather. As it turns out, this is the pattern seen in many other species.

Human male senescence exhibits characteristics that are like those that occur in most mammals. As in other primates, human gamete production is continuous, robust, and relatively invariant with age. However somatic deterioration seems to reflect changes in investment away from reproductive effort to survivorship.

So the evolutionary strategy may have been to invest heavily in reproduction during early adulthood and then to focus on yourself and your children in later years. Perhaps testosterone declines over time because in those individuals where it did the end result was having more children with those same genes than in the men who continued to display risky behaviors. While our culture encourages men to be young forever, our evolutionary history suggests this is ultimately a failing strategy.

As for male menopause, there doesn’t appear to be much to it. However, the obsession with male potency has long been a successful marketing ploy. In the Victorian era men would pay to have regular injections of crushed goat testicles and in cultures around the world men imagine that eating the reproductive organs of other animals will somehow provide power to their own. It’s all a load of hooey. But, at least with the “super potent herbs” you might get some of the vitamins that Harvard’s health specialists recommend.

PLEASE NOTE: I will immediately delete any comment that links to or advertises a product.

Reference:

ResearchBlogging.orgBribiescas, R. (2006). On the evolution, life history, and proximate mechanisms of human male reproductive senescence Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 15 (4), 132-141 DOI: 10.1002/evan.20087

Comments

  1. #1 frog
    October 16, 2009

    Don’t I remember a study years ago that shows high testosterone among unsuccessful males — in humans and our cohorts? That it’s a stress response to sexual and social failure — you have to be aggressive when you’re a loser, but that aggression is counter-productive for successful folks.

    So you’d expect a testosterone spike with a mortality spike — but both are causative. The stress of being low-ranking and female-less is part of a circuit, a feedback, that leads to riskier behavior, that leads to increased stress, until you either win or die trying.

    Manly men aren’t high testosterone — they’re low testosterone folks. It’s the skinny, acne covered geek who’s pounding out the testosterone in an attempt to catch up with the lady’s men.

    So, in part, the question is upside down here — particular since sexual activity in humans only poorly connected to reproduction; it’s mostly social and rarely directed toward producing offspring.

  2. #2 EMJ
    October 16, 2009

    I don’t recall that study. Do you have a source?

  3. #3 Anonymous
    October 16, 2009

    Manly men aren’t high testosterone — they’re low testosterone folks. It’s the skinny, acne covered geek who’s pounding out the testosterone in an attempt to catch up with the lady’s men.

    If the study you read is correct, then it would be entirely the other way around. The “risky” behaviors are most definitely more associated with guys who are closer to the “jock” stereotype than the “geek” stereotype. The “geeks” would, evolutionarily speaking, have less to worry about early-on because they had some cues in development somewhere along the line that told their bodies that they’re likely to be successful later in life. So the better strategy, if you’re likely to be successful later, is to play it safe and worry about competing when you’ve achieved that success.

  4. #4 Jason Dick
    October 16, 2009

    Oops, didn’t mean to post anonymously. The previous post was by me.

  5. #5 Kevin Slaten
    October 17, 2009

    I appreciate mythbusting, but you may be jumping too quickly in the other direction to claim that there’s “nothing to” male menopause. In this post, you have admitted that the average male’s testosterone level will decline in middle age and onward. So we can agree, first, that there is, indeed, a sort of andropause as males’ hormonal profiles will change significantly, which marks some sort of major biological change.

    If the average male will experience such a decline, then the individuals falling into the lower part of the curve could have some real health problems. Low testosterone is associated with (but not limited to) loss of libido, low energy, osteoporosis, increased body fat/loss of muscle, memory loss, and sleep disturbance. You can shrug this off if you want, but I think that such nonchalance about an integral system in the human body is unwise.

    Normal (when normal is defined as within the average adult range for any given individual) testosterone levels are integral to better quality of life. There may be cultural pressures to stay young, but there are also the individual’s desire to be healthy. Well-monitored, moderate hormone replacement therapy (with bio-identical hormones) are, thus, a major tool in health care.

  6. #6 EMJ
    October 18, 2009

    Yes, a slow decline in testosterone over time could accumulate and manifest as health problems in old age. This is no different from a host of health issues that come with increasing age. But my point is that comparing this condition to menopause is inappropriate. Menopause is a complete cessation of reproduction during a specific time window.

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