Menopausal hormone dip tied to sexual dysfunction

Women who have particularly low levels of the hormone DHEA during menopause may be more likely to have sexual dysfunction, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that among more than 300 women they followed for 3 years, sexual dysfunction became more common as women progressed through menopause. Postmenopausal women were more than twice as likely as premenopausal women to report problems like lack of interest in sex, pain or difficulty reaching orgasm.

But there was also evidence that other factors contributed to sexual dysfunction, including the women’s levels of DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone. Women with relatively low blood levels of the hormone were 59 percent more likely to report sexual problems than those with high levels.

Dr. Clarisa R. Gracia and colleagues report their findings in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

DHEA is a hormone produced mainly by the adrenal gland that acts as a precursor to testosterone and estrogen. The body’s DHEA production peaks in young adulthood and gradually declines with age; because of this, supplements of synthetic DHEA are widely marketed as an anti-aging panacea.

However, the current findings do not mean that women with sexual dysfunction should turn to the supplements, as there’s not yet any evidence that they’d help, according to the study authors.

“A randomized controlled trial assessing the safety and efficacy of (DHEA) is needed to support its use for the treatment of sexual dysfunction,” Gracia and colleagues write.

The study included 311 women who were between the ages of 35 and 47 at the outset. Once a year, the researchers took blood samples from the women to measure various hormone concentrations. They also questioned the women about their health, menstrual cycles and sex lives.

Overall, Gracia’s team found, one-third of the women had some degree of sexual dysfunction by the end of the 3-year study period.

Women with relatively low DHEA levels were at greater risk, as were those with anxiety symptoms and those who lacked a regular sex partner. Women who had children younger than 18 living with them were also more likely to report sexual problems.

The findings, according to Gracia’s team, confirm that sexual dysfunction becomes more common as women move through menopause, and that hormones may be one of several factors that play a role.

They call for more research to understand the various reasons for women’s sexual dysfunction so that effective therapies can be developed.

SOURCE: Obstetrics & Gynecology, April 2007.

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