The prevalence of biochemical testosterone deficiency increases with age. This is partly due to decreasing testosterone levels associated with illness or debility but there is also convincing epidemiological data to show that serum free and total testosterone levels also fall with normal aging (Harman et al 2001; Feldman et al 2002). The symptoms of aging include tiredness, lack of energy, reduced strength, frailty, loss of libido, decreased sexual performance depression and mood change. Men with hypogonadism experience similar symptoms. This raises the question of whether some symptoms of aging could be due to relative androgen deficiency. On the other hand, similarities between normal aging and the symptoms of mild androgen deficiency make the clinical diagnosis of hypogonadism in aging men more challenging.
Free testosterone (T) is transported into the cytoplasm of target tissue cells, where it can bind to the androgen receptor, or can be reduced to 5α-dihydrotestosterone (DHT) by the cytoplasmic enzyme 5α-reductase. DHT binds to the same androgen receptor even more strongly than testosterone, so that its androgenic potency is about 5 times that of T. The T-receptor or DHT-receptor complex undergoes a structural change that allows it to move into the cell nucleus and bind directly to specific nucleotide sequences of the chromosomal DNA. The areas of binding are called hormone response elements (HREs), and influence transcriptional activity of certain genes, producing the androgen effects.
Testosterone is an important hormone for both men and women. Even though it’s often associated with a man’s libido, testosterone occurs in both sexes from birth. In females, it plays a part in sexual drive, energy, and physical strength. In males, it stimulates the beginning of sexual development and helps maintain a man’s health throughout his life.
The reliable measurement of serum free testosterone requires equilibrium dialysis. This is not appropriate for clinical use as it is very time consuming and therefore expensive. The amount of bioavailable testosterone can be measured as a percentage of the total testosterone after precipitation of the SHBG bound fraction using ammonium sulphate. The bioavailable testosterone is then calculated from the total testosterone level. This method has an excellent correlation with free testosterone (Tremblay and Dube 1974) but is not widely available for clinical use. In most clinical situations the available tests are total testosterone and SHBG which are both easily and reliably measured. Total testosterone is appropriate for the diagnosis of overt male hypogonadism where testosterone levels are very low and also in excluding hypogonadism in patients with normal/high-normal testosterone levels. With increasing age, a greater number of men have total testosterone levels just below the normal range or in the low-normal range. In these patients total testosterone can be an unreliable indicator of hypogonadal status. There are a number of formulae that calculate an estimated bioavailable or free testosterone level using the SHBG and total testosterone levels. Some of these have been shown to correlate well with laboratory measures and there is evidence that they more reliably indicate hypogonadism than total testosterone in cases of borderline biochemical hypogonadism (Vermeulen et al 1971; Morris et al 2004). It is important that such tests are validated for use in patient populations relevant to the patient under consideration.
The regulation of testosterone production is tightly controlled to maintain normal levels in blood, although levels are usually highest in the morning and fall after that. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland are important in controlling the amount of testosterone produced by the testes. In response to gonadotrophin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland produces luteinising hormone which travels in the bloodstream to the gonads and stimulates the production and release of testosterone.
Intracoronary artery infusion of testosterone causes significant coronary artery dilatation and not constriction as previously thought (Webb et al 1999). When degree of coronary obstruction is assessed by angiography, there is a direct relationship between degree of coronary artery narrowing and reduced testosterone levels (Phillips et al 1994). Men with low testosterone levels have been observed to have: premature atherosclerosis, increased visceral adipose tissue, hyperinsulinemia, and other risk factors for myocardial infarction (Phillips 2005). Insulin resistance has been shown to be associated with a decrease in Leydig cell secretion of testosterone (Pitteloud et al 2005). Muller and colleagues suggest that low endogenous total testosterone and SHBG levels increase the risk of metabolic syndrome in aging and aged men. They demonstrated that low levels of testosterone are related to lower insulin sensitivity and higher fasting insulin levels (Muller et al 2005). These authors speculate that testosterone might play a protective role in the development of metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease in aging men.