For the past four years, Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and author of Anatomy of Love, has been crunching the numbers from a massive sex survey undertaken by the Match.com dating site. (It sampled 20,000 unmarried American men and did not include Match.com clients.) "I was horrified," Fisher says. She found that for men in their sexual prime, or twenties through forties, 20 percent hadn't had sex in the past year and 25 percent reported it happened once a month or less. "It's really a sexual famine for single people in this country."
Mind you, we don't know for sure that men are getting it on with startling infrequency compared with a generation ago. Anthropologists weren't consulting for dating websites 30 years back. But modern life – the brutally competitive job market, the ever-plugged-in digital culture, the ready access to sex-drive-depleting medications (SSRI antidepressants, blood pressure meds) – suggests it. "These guys are coming out of the woodwork," says endocrinologist Florence Comite, a New York City antiaging doctor. "They're feeling overwhelmed, they're juggling a million things, and their libido is down."
Even psychologists agree that the remedy may be to focus on the body before the brain. "The solution to low sex desire has to do with lifestyle change more than some blinding insight about how sex really represents some subconscious thing that you didn't know it represented," says Russell Stambaugh, a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a spokesperson for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. Focus on key physiological factors and your mind follows. The bigger takeaway: Loss of sex drive isn't the inevitable baggage of aging – your sex-life success is in your own hands. So to speak.
Testosterone decline isn't due to aging (in which case we'd be screwed), argues Massachusetts General Hospital endocrinologist Frances Hayes; it's due to what happens to us as we age – so we've got a big say in the matter. Weight gain is at the top of that list. We're not talking about obesity, which is no one's idea of an aphrodisiac, but the undramatic creep that turns a lithe 160-pound collegian into a 190-pounder 20 years later. You might look fine (in clothes anyway), but the extra weight does a number on your hormones.
In 2012, Hayes coauthored a study that looked at 900 men for one year, with one group reforming their diets and exercising a modest 2.5 hours a week to lose weight, another group taking blood sugar–lowering meds, and a control group doing nothing. The latter two groups saw no changes, but the dieter-exercisers dropped 15 percent of body weight and, correspondingly, their testosterone levels rose 15 percent. The number of men in this group whose T count, according to the standard medical thinking, put them in the red zone was cut almost in half.
An even bigger whammy: When European researchers tracked 2,700 men for four years to see how weight and testosterone levels lined up, "we found that having your BMI increase by, say, 5 percent was equivalent to a decade of aging," says Hayes. Closer to home, she adds, "I've definitely had patients who had success normalizing their testosterone by losing weight without having to go on hormone-replacement therapy."
Extra fat secretes the hormone aromatase, Hayes explains, and it converts some of the androgens in your body into estrogen. That then signals the brain to slow production of more androgens. The fatter we get, the more womanly we become. No surprise to any guy who's pulled off his shirt at the beach and revealed middle-aged man boob.
Credit: Rob Melnychuk / Getty Images