- Analysis of herbal supplements finds that many are contaminated with species not listed in the ingredients label. Herbs are typically classified as supplements in the United States, and are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration the way medications are. The FDA website has more on the regulation of herbs. Source.
- One dose of Gardasil may be enough to protect against cervical cancer (but please remember to follow your physician’s instructions about vaccines!). Source. At the same time, the HPV vaccines may be less effective for people of African heritage than for people of European heritage. Source.
- More evidence that monthly changes in sex hormones in cisgender women are associated with changes in sex drive. Source.
- Germany’s “indeterminate” birth certificate sex designation law comes into effect. The “Indeterminate” marker is, from what I understand, intended to denote intersex babies, not transgender people. The BBC did a fairly good summary of some community reactions. Source.
- Low prolactin levels in cisgender men as they age has been correlated with reduced sexuality and sexual functioning. Low prolactin levels were also correlated with general unwellness. Prolactin is a hormone most well known for being involved with lactation in breast-feeding parents, but has other effects too. Source.
- A new study examining sexual satisfaction in women with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) or Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome (MRKH Syndrome, aka Müllerian agenesis). Women with CAIS reported less sexual satisfaction and confidence than women with MRKH Syndrome, who mostly reported being satisfied with their sex life. The abstract on this paper is fairly scarce so I’ll try to grab a copy for better examination. Source.
- A study in Ontario, Canada found that 1/3 of trans people needed emergency medical services in 2012, but only 71% were actually able to receive it. 1/4th of those in the survey reported avoiding the emergency room because they are trans, and just over half needed to educate their provider. Source.
- Another study has found a decrease in psychopathology (i.e., symptoms of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety) when trans people transition. The biggest drop was just after starting hormone therapy. Source.
- A study on the changes in sexual desire/activity in trans people was published. In a nutshell, sex drive went down for trans women with hormone therapy but recovered a bit after surgery (compared with those who wanted/planned surgery but hadn’t had it yet). In contrast, trans men generally had their sex drive go up with hormones/surgery. Source.
As a group non-heterosexual people have poorer mental health than heterosexuals do. LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) folk have higher rates of mood/anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation/attempts, and substance use. Why? The dominant theory is minority stress: simply being a minority is stressful, especially if one is a minority who faces discrimination. Higher levels of stress are associated with poorer mental health. For LGB folk, the fact that their minority status is invisible is an additional factor. Research is conflicted on whether “coming out” improves mental health or not. While coming out in a supportive environment may improve mental health, coming out in a discriminatory environment may do the opposite.
Before I jump into the actual study, a little background on stress. Stress that comes from a psychological or social source is called psychosocial stress. Like all stress, it isn’t just psychological. There’s a biological component too! In the laboratory, there are at least two different ways of measuring stress. The first, and easier, is through cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone made from cholesterol that is released by the adrenal glands. It’s a small, non-polar molecule, so it passes right cellular membranes into every cell in the body. Because of this, cortisol can be measured in saliva, making its collection easer, cheaper, and less riskier in research than other measures. Cortisol also has a cyclical pattern; it’s lowest in the morning but rises in concentration through the day. Cortisol measurement is not without its problems. Levels of cortisol, and the reactivity of cortisol concentration to stress, varies between men and women, and between women of varying menstrual cycles and oral contractive use. It’s also worth noting that cross-sex hormones may be a confounding variable for cortisol testing, which is why this study did not include transgender people.
Another way of measuring stress requires a blood sample and lots of blood tests. Stress affects many different body systems. Everything from sex hormones to triglycerides to insulin can be affected, so those levels can be used to help detect stress levels in participants. Non-blood tests such a blood pressure may also be used. These non-cortisol factors were referred to as “allostatic load” (AL) in this study. AL broadly refers to the cumulative biological effects of being ready for “fight or flight“, or in other words, stress.
So what about this study in particular? This study has two goals:
- Compare the stress levels of LGB people with heterosexual people
- Compare the stress levels of “closeted” LGB people with “out” LGB people.
Participants were 87 people, roughly evenly divided between lesbian/bisexual women, heterosexual women, gay/bisexual men, and heterosexual men. The researchers measured a variety of demographics including age, race, sex, occupational status, socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, substance use, religion, and family. They measured sexual orientation with the Klein scale, and asked about disclosure status (i.e., whether participants were “out” or not). Psychiatric variables included perceived chronic stress, anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms, burnout symptoms, and conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is a personality trait that has been found to be a confounding variable in these kinds of studies. Biological variables were salivary cortisol, measured three times a day to track cortisol’s daily cycle, and allostatic load, as I described above.
And what did they find? There were few statistically significant differences between the groups; only sexual orientation and oral contraceptive use were different. That’s important! Any differences between groups would be a confounding variable. They also verified some expected results. For example, that anxiety symptoms are associated with depression and burnout symptoms, and that elevated cortisol levels were correlated with burnout.
First the researchers reported their results for comparing LGB folk to heterosexual folk (goal #1). They found that gay/bisexual male participants had more depression symptoms than the heterosexual male participants. In contrast, their lesbian/bisexual women participants had fewer depression symptoms than the heterosexual female participants. They also found that allostatic load levels were lower in gay/bisexual men than in heterosexual men. They found no other differences between their LGB participants and their heterosexual participants.
Second the researchers reported their results for comparing out LGB folk to closeted LGB folk (goal #2). In this case, they did not separate by sex or orientation. Out LGB people had fewer anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms, burnout symptoms, and lower cortisol levels than closeted LGB folk did. No other differences were detected.
Every study has its limitations. This study was no different. Limitations and potential confounds included:
- Combining homosexuals and bisexuals into one group for analysis. While some issues overlap, bisexuals can face different stressors than homosexuals do (e.g., bisexual folk report facing discrimination from both the gay and straight communities where gay folk don’t; ).
- Relatively small sample size may have made accurately detecting statistical significance difficult.
- Their sample was from the Montéal area, an area that has been called “one of the most gay-friendly places on Earth.” Results may have been different in a less tolerant area. This means that results from this study can’t necessarily be applied to people in other areas (e.g., Uganda, the American South).
- Both age and conscientiousness were found to be confounding variables.
- Variables like gender presentation (e.g., butch vs femme lesbians) were not considered. They could affect how much active discrimination an individual faces and thus might affect their stress load. Other variables, such a family acceptance, were also not considered.
All of this is interesting, but what does this mean? If we interpret these results as true, then there are some interesting dynamics at play. LGB people who are out of the closet have better psychiatric health than closeted LGB people. However, closeted LGB people don’t seem to be at a disadvantage when it comes to the physical effects of stress. As for comparing heterosexuals with non-heterosexuals, gay/bisexual men seem to have poorer mental health than heterosexuals, who have poorer mental health than lesbian/bisexual women. Coming from an American viewpoint, it seems to me that that might be explained by the cultural acceptance of lesbian/bisexual women and rejection of gay/bisexual men. I don’t know how true that is in Canada, though. Do the results support the minority stress hypothesis? Somewhat, but only for the out/closeted comparison. The heterosexual/LGB comparison results partially support minority stress and partially don’t.
I think these results should be interpreted with a large grain of salt. I don’t think it’s justifiable to make conclusions about all LGB people from this one study. These results are curious, certainly. There are factors at play which bear greater examination (e.g., why don’t closeted LGB people show higher cortisol and AL levels?). I’m curious to see what a study replication in a different area and more participants would show.
LGBT youth are at elevated risk for suicide. Researchers have been looking into the risk factors for suicide in LGBT youth. Most of the studies so far have been cross-sectional; that means they only studied how things are once, at one point in time. Longitudinal studies, in contrast, measure at multiple points in time. Longitudinal studies are expensive, and risk losing track of participants, but they provide more information.
This year, the first longitudinal study of LGBT youth suicide risk factors was published. The participants were interviewed twice, a year apart. Both times, they were psychiatrically evaluated and asked about suicide attempts. They filled out questionnaires evaluating hopelessness, impulsivity, social support, gender non-conformity, age of same-sex attraction, and LGBT-related victimization.
In this sample, roughly 31.6% of the participants had attempted suicide. This is far higher than the 8% rate reported by the CDC. Seven variables were associated with previous suicide attempts: hopelessness, impulsivity, LGBT-related victimization, low family support, being younger when first feeling same-sex attraction (for LGB youth), and symptoms of either depression or conduct disorder. That is, the more hopeless or impulsive the youth, the more likely it is that they have previously made a suicide attempt. Gender non-conforming behavior and peer support did not seem to affect suicide risk. When it came to predicting future suicide attempts, the best predictor was previous suicide attempts. Youth who had previously attempted suicide had a 10 times greater risk of another attempt compared to those who hadn’t attempted suicide.
As always, these results should be accepted with caution. For example, this study did not find that gender non-conforming behavior was associated with suicidality. This is in contrast to other studies which did find an association. This study’s participants may not be representative of the population. They also had a small (ish) sample: 237 participants; 21 were transgender, and 13 had attempted suicide. Small sample sizes can limit a study’s ability to detect statistical significance. Gender non-conforming behavior may actually be associated with suicidality, but this study may not have had a large enough sample to detect it.
For me, this study brings up the question: How do we prevent suicide attempts in our LGBT youth who have already attempted suicide? They’re the most at risk for future attempts, according to this study. I don’t have a solid answer; neither do the researchers. But they do say that “The current ﬁndings underscore the need for increased prevention efforts and speciﬁcally point to the value of targeting youth who have made a prior attempt and who acknowledge their same-sex attractions at younger ages.”
For “older” adults, the IOM uses retirement age (around 60) as their starting age. For this group, there are no well-studied areas of health (beyond HIV/AIDS, which I don’t cover here). I’ve decided to leave the conclusion portion for another post – the last in this series.
- Depression: Definitely more frequent in LGB elders than heterosexual elders. A very significant mental stress for this group is surviving the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One study of elder gay/bisexual men found that 93% of them had known others who were HIV+ or had died of AIDS. There is no empirical data on rates of depression in elder transgender people, but it’s thought to be high.
- Suicide/suicidal ideation: Empirical data suggest the rates of suicide are higher in LGB elders. No data on transgender elders.
- Sexual/reproductive health: This is a rarely studied area. PCOS and its related risks may be an issue in some transgender elders. There is some indication that gay/bisexual men may be at the same risk as heterosexual men for prostate cancer. Early research implies that “lesbian bed death” may be a real phenomenon, but it’s a controversial topic. All cis-gendered women (bisexual, heterosexual, or lesbian) appear to have the same rate of hysterectomies. Sexual violence was reported on for transgender elders and it appears to be high. One study found about half of transgender elders had experienced “unwanted touch” in the past fifteen years.
- Cancers: There are no data on cancers and transgender elders. Elder gay/bisexual men are at a higher risk of developing anal cancer (which is linked to receiving anal sex and HPV). Non-heterosexual women also appear to be at a higher risk for reproductive cancers (due to risk factors like smoking and obesity).
- Cardiovascular health: Data appear to be conflicted. Transwomen using estrogen may be at a higher risk for venous thromboembolism (this may be because of the specific forms of estrogen used). There’s an association between transgender people getting their hormones from someone other than a doctor and poor health outcomes (e.g., osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease). The relevant transition hormones may cause long-term health problems at high doses, but no studies have really looked at this.
Risk factors include those for the younger age groups. Ageism within the LGBT communities may be an additional challenge for LGBT elders. Elders may also feel they need to hide their orientation if they move into a retirement home. Some retirement homes may also be discriminatory. Transgender elders especially face very high threats of violence.
Some studies have found that elders felt more prepared for the aging process by being LGBT. Why? They’d already overcome huge difficulties. They’d already done a lot of personal growth. LGBT people are also more likely to have education beyond high school, and education is a well-known protective factor for the negative effects of aging. Conversely, some LGBT elders reported fewer relationship and social opportunities, being afraid of double discrimination, and problems with health care providers.
As for elder interactions with the health care system, again there’s a lot in common with younger age groups. One out of four transgender elders report being denied health care solely because they were transgender. Elders in general face problems if they need to enter assisted living homes, as some homes are discriminatory. It’s also worth noting that LGBT elder social structure is different from heterosexual social structure. LGBT elders rely much more on close friends than relatives (and/or adult children). Their chosen families are less likely to be recognized by the medical community, especially without legal paperwork.
So that’s it for what I’ll summarize from the report. Thanks for sticking around for it… this is hefty stuff.
Welcome back! This part of the IOM report covers adults aged 20 to 60. There are more data available for adults than adolescents, so this part’s broken up a bit different from the last. As a reminder: GLBT (or LGBT – same meaning, different order) stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. I frequently do use GLB separate from T. That is intentional, not a typo. Also, the full report is available here – you can read it online for free.
The best studied aspects of health:
- Mood/anxiety disorders: There are conflicting data here, but the consensus so far is that GLB people have higher rates of these problems. There’s almost no research on transgender people, but one preliminary study found that around half of transgender people have depression. Yikes!
- Suicide/Suicidal ideation: LGBT people as a whole appear to be at higher risk. Bisexuals and transgender people appear to be at an even higher risk. Risk also seems to vary by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and how far out of the closet a person is.
- Cancer: Gay and bisexual men are definitely at a higher risk for anal cancer than heterosexual men. This risk is linked to having anal HPV, which can be spread by anal sex.
- Eating disorders: May be more common for GLB people than heterosexuals, but we’re not sure. No data on transgender people.
- Sexual: Gay/bisexual men don’t appear to be at an elevated risk for erectile dysfunction. Transgender people who have had sexual reassignment surgery may be at a higher risk for sexual difficulties…not entirely surprising given the potential for nerve damage from any surgery.
- Cancer and obesity: Lesbian/bisexual women may be at a higher risk for breast cancer than heterosexual women.
- Hormone replacement therapy -may- affect cardiovascular health, but it’s unknown.
Essentially not studied: Reproductive health (including the effects of hormone therapy on fertility for transpeople), cancer (especially in transgender patients), and cardiovascular health
- Stigma/Discrimination/Victimization: As we all know, LGBT people face these problems all the time. Stigma is strongly associated with psychological distress. Bisexuals have reported facing discrimination from both the straight and gay communities. One study of transgender people found that 56% had faced verbal harassment, 37% had faced employment discrimination, 19% had faced physical violence.
- Violence: LGBT people are at an elevated risk for suffering violence. LGBT people do experience intimate partner violence, but the statistics and relative risk are unknown.
- Substance Use: LGBT people may be more likely to use substances, especially tobacco (read my previous post on this).
- Childhood abuse: LGB may have higher rates of childhood abuse.
Potential protective factors (LGB): supportive environments, marriage, positive LGB identity, good surgical/hormonal outcomes (T)
As for access/quality of health care? Er…it’s complicated. GLB people get less regular screening (like pap smears and basic physical exams) than heterosexuals and use the emergency room more often. Two biggest obstacles to getting good health care?: problems with the health care providers. This could be perceived discrimination (thinking that someone is acting in a discriminatory way, whether that person is or not), or simply lack of knowledge on the part of the provider. One study found only 20% of physicians had received education about LGBT health issues. That’s only one in five! I will note that this is improving – medical schools, depending on the school and its location, are starting to teach LGBT cultural competency more than they used to.
Lack of insurance is another barrier, and it especially affects transgender people. The services they need, like hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery aren’t covered by insurance. In addition, one study found that a third of transgender people had been treated ill by a physician.
Next time: Older Adults and conclusions…