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Not so long ago, men who had problems in bed were simply impotent. Then along came the rebranding that goes with the marketing of new drugs and we had erectile dysfunction, or E.D. to those who know it well. A similar rebranding appears to be in the works for another phenomenon that affects men. The generic name is aging, but in this brave new world, we have male menopause.
I find it more than a little ironic that anyone thinks the word menopause might be attractive to men. When I was writing a book on menopause a few years ago, not a single man I knew wanted to talk about it. Even women were reluctant to disclose publicly that they were approaching this biological milestone because it marked them as older -- anathema in our youth-oriented culture -- and, according to the stereotype of menopausal women, possibly bitchy, sweaty, sleep-deprived, sexless and depressed.
Much has changed in the last few years. As millions of baby boomer women pass this mark (the average age is 51), menopause has become less of a taboo subject. Even Oprah, now 56, has made it the focus of a number of her shows. Call me an optimist, but I think more and more women are facing the changes that come with aging head on and finding that it’s not necessarily such a hostile world.
Which brings us to the guys.
In the last few months, headlines about this “newly discovered” phenomenon of male menopause have been spreading faster than a hot flash. The idea is that men go through a midlife transition that parallels women’s. When they are depressed or angry or exhibiting a slew of other unpleasant symptoms, we now have a culprit to blame. It’s not them; it’s their hormones.
Here’s some simple advice for the women in their lives: just say no.
First of all, male menopause is a biological impossibility. Women reach menopause when they haven’t had a period for 12 months. Since men have never had periods, they can’t be menopausal. That should be the end of the story, but it isn’t.
Many of the recent headlines appeared after the publication of a study earlier this year in The New England Journal of Medicine about a condition called late-onset hypogonadism. European researchers surveyed more than 3,300 men between 40 and 79 and found that about two percent appeared to be suffering from a drop in testosterone levels along with erectile dysfunction, reduced libido and fewer morning erections.
When this tiny bit of science hit the popular press, it became grossly exaggerated. That two percent figure is already pretty small, but the lead researcher cautioned that the real number could be even smaller because the study was based on interviews with patients who might not be the most accurate reporters of their symptoms.
In addition, many of them had other medical issues, such as obesity, that could be causing these problems. And it’s important to note that all of the symptoms related to their sexual performance, not the other issues that affect women at menopause, including hot flashes and sleep disturbances.
So what’s really going on? The conspiracy theorists among us might be tempted to think that it’s all a plot by people who sell testosterone to get more customers for their products. (That’s not a good idea since little is known about the long-term safety of testosterone therapy.) But it could also be that millions of baby boomer men are looking for a way to turn back time. Just like women, they don’t want to think that they are on an irreversible descent. They’re eager for a diagnosis that can be treated, restoring their youth without consequences. And that makes them a target for unscrupulous manufacturers.
There is a way in which men should be copying the women in their lives who have made the most of the changes that come at midlife. Rather than trying to recapture the past, embrace the present. You are getting older; that’s a fact. But instead of denying it, use this as an inspiration to shed bad habits. If you maintain a healthy weight and get regular exercise, you increase your chances of living well for decades. If sexual problems are an issue, talk to your doctor to see if an underlying medical problem could be the cause.
But don’t call it menopause. It’s just life. Get used to it.
Barbara Kantrowitz is the co-author of The Menopause Book (Workman, 2009).
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