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Men are Not Impotent to Postpone their Sexual Decline

By Gail Sheehy

From New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time Order on-line(Random House, $25). Third of three installments.
Copyright © 1995 by The Detroit News. Ran September 21, 1995. Reprinted with the kind permission of The Detroit News.


  "I had a permanent erection from the age of 18 to 35," a dashing bicontinental publisher boasted to me during a dinner party. "Never gave it a thought. At 45, I had a sexual failure for the first time. ... What a devastating reality!"

Now in his early 60s, with a young wife to remind him of his burning youth, the publisher still felt the sting of that moment two decades before, that harbinger of sexual death. "It was a cruel hormonal backfire. Now I see it as the beginning of male menopause, probably the exact equivalent of the female menopause."

This story is probably one that every man can relate to. Having done 70 interviews with males from 40 to 70 and having interviewed the top experts in the United States and Europe who study or treat men over 40 having impotence problems, I can report a broad consensus that there is a middle-life male potency crisis.

It is, in fact, a misnomer to call it male menopause. The reproductive glands in men don't all shut down around the same age, the way women's ovaries do. It also has little to do with fertility. But although it is not strictly a menopause, many men in middle or later life do experience a lapse in virility and vitality and a decline in well-being.

This decline can definitely be delayed. It can even be corrected.

Scientists speculate that hormone research will eventually uncover a biological basis for the male middle-life potency crisis. Even the national Institute on Aging is supporting three different studies to investigate whether testosterone supplements might benefit older men by preventing bone loss, depression and other symptoms.

Hard statistical evidence has been piling up to reveal how widespread the phenomenon really is, and the figures projected for the next two decades are sobering. In the largest study of impotence since the Kinsey Report, it was found in 1993 that:

* About half of U.S. men over 40 have experienced middle-life impotence to varying degrees.

* Problems of declining sexual potency may already affect 19 million American men.

As the first battalions of Baby Boom men march toward 50, the number of males between 40 and 70 is projected to grow to 54 million. That means that America's male menopause population will increase by almost 60 percent in the next 20 years.

British estimates are as startling, according to a 1993 study of 802 older men. Even among those who were still sexually active, almost half complained of poor erections after age 50. The study estimated that nearly a third of all British men over the age of 50 do not have sexual intercourse.

The American medical profession has basically ignored the syndrome of male menopause up until now. It may not be a medical problem at all, but a mind-body syndrome with factors that interact reciprocally.

A man's age, hormonal activity and general health level are mediated by the psychological confrontation he has in middle life over what it means to be "manly," as his physical strength ebbs and he finds he can't depend on being aroused at the drop of a bra. Attitudes that are precursors to male menopausal impotence are:

"It's not going to happen to me"; "my body is bulletproof; it's too late to make any big changes in my life"; "the state of my sexual potency is nobody's business but mine"; "I don't want to talk about it"; "if I can't perform up to my old standards, forget the whole thing."

Married men who haven't been able to perform in the bedroom for months, once they disclose their problem to a doctor, almost always reveal the same jarring truth. All the time this 800-pound gorilla (impotence) has been in their bedroom, the couple has never talked about it. Just breaking through the silence and admitting they have the problem is the hardest part, say experts. But talking about it, and taking the pressure of performance off the man, can be the most effective medicine of all.

Copyright 1995, The Detroit News


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