For too many men, starting a testosterone replacement regimen is driven not by clinical diagnosis, but by their response to TV advertising–with potentially negative health consequences.

Background: Testosterone replacement therapy is approved to treat hypogonadism–a condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough testosterone and that is characterized by low libido, reduced strength, erectile dysfunction, fatigue and depression. Now, many men take testosterone for age-related low testosterone or nonspecific symptoms without having hypogonadism.

In a recent study, researchers found a link between exposure to TV commercials for testosterone therapies and unnecessary treatments for low testosterone. Why it matters: The study indicates that when ad-influenced men ask their doctors for treatment, doctors often comply even when there is no clear indication that testosterone treatment is needed. Some studies have linked testosterone therapy with a greater risk for cardiovascular disease.

Study details: A team of researchers led by J. Bradley Layton, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, examined insurance information of more than 17 million men in 75 market areas in the US to find new prescriptions for testosterone gels, patches, injections or implants. They then checked that data against the monthly rates of television ads promoting testosterone products or testing. Findings: The more frequent the advertising was viewed in a given area (an average high of more than 13 exposures per household per month), the more often they found new use of testosterone therapy, testing for low testosterone and initiation of therapy without testing–pointing to inappropriate or unneeded use. The average age of the men initiating testosterone treatment was 52. Results of the study were reported in JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association.

Bottom Line: Always take TV commercials with a healthy grain of salt, remembering that advertising can create “needs” you don’t actually have. While direct advertising of medications to consumers can be helpful in some circumstances, it doesn’t necessarily improve public health. If you see an ad for a treatment you think would be right for you, be sure to have an in-depth discussion with your doctor to see if you would benefit, and ask to have any baseline testing required.