What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of "testosterone"? The hormone conjures images of fit, active, and physically and mentally driven men at their prime. Yes, it’s also known to be overused by body builders and athletes—it builds strength and endurance and aids recovery. This often makes us forget about testosterone's most basic and important function: sustaining good physical and mental health.

As we age, our hormone levels decline. We consider this "normal aging" because everyone goes through it. Testosterone levels typically fall about 10% per decade but research has also shown that declining testosterone levels are not entirely age dependent and that lifestyle choices play a significant role in the rate of decline. Correspondingly, retaining and restoring a healthy youthful testosterone level can slow down the aging processes.

So why is testosterone so important and what happens when it declines?

1. Putting on the Pounds

Declining testosterone levels can trigger an increase in body fat through the negative effect that low levels have on metabolism and fat storage, which can make it more challenging to lose weight after-middle age. Its decline has been linked to fat deposition not just on the abdomen but inside the abdominal cavity and in the liver. Chest fat is called gynecomastia and can also be a sign of low testosterone.

2. Muscle Mass Loss

Testosterone helps build and retain muscle, and declining testosterone can result in the reduction of the characteristic lean muscle and classic triangular upper/mid body shape that is so prominent and attractive in a man's earlier years. Unfortunately, this is also accompanied by a loss of strength and sometimes mobility, endurance and function.

3. The Difference Between 6' and 5'11

Have you recently felt that shrinking feeling? It might only be an inch or two, but it's an indicator of multiple changes happening within your body, that are related to aging and low testosterone.

Low testosterone levels are a major factor in the onset of male osteoporosis, in which bones become porous and brittle and fracture easily. Falling testosterone accounts for up to a 15% loss of bone density in men after the age of 45. It is not just women that this silent disease afflicts, and osteoporosis can seriously affect mobility and quality of life.

4. Metabolic and Other Effects

Low testosterone levels also affects aspects of mens bodies that we can’t see, higher blood sugar and insulin levels, and unhealthy cholesterol levels, Metabolic Syndrome, low mood and motivation are all seemingly unrelated except that low testosterone may be the common thread. Hot flashes and night sweats may also be low testosterone symptoms.

5. Couch Potato Syndrome

Finding you are less physically driven? Remember back to the time where there was never enough time in the day? The physical changes that testosterone loss causes can also affect your energy and drive. It's not because you're lazy, but because your body is telling you to slow down so it can keep up.

6. Sexual Function

Testosterone is what makes men men: an anabolic (building) hormone as well as a reproductive hormone. Loss of testosterone lowers libido and affects erectile function. While there are other contributors such as relationship strain, stress, certain medications and poor general health, it may be worth looking at testosterone levels if there is not an obvious explanation. Viagra, Cialis and Levitra have high sales because erectile dysfunction is common. What they don’t do is raise libido. In the setting of low testosterone, erectile dysfunction and libido can be improved with replacement.

What you can do?

You're probably wondering what can be done to prevent testosterone loss. To start, it's always important to maintain healthy lifestyle; specifically following a low carbohydrate diet, exercising to build strength and getting a good night’s sleep can naturally raise testosterone levels. If you believe testosterone loss is becoming problematic or lifestyle efforts are not working, look into getting a blood test. The results may lead you to the next course of action: get advice about testosterone replacement. Dr. Maureen Sweeney has been working with men using lifestyle and hormone treatment to optimize their health since 2003.

Want to test how old you really are?

Photos: Pixabay, Jim Fischer, Getty Images

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