The elderly transgender population is rapidly expanding and remains significantly overlooked. Although emerging evidence provides some guidance for medical and surgical treatment for transgender youth, there is still a paucity of research directed at the management of gender-diverse elders.
To a large extent, the challenges that transgender elders face are no different from those experienced by the general elder population. Irrespective of gender identity, patients begin to undergo cognitive and physical changes, encounter difficulties with activities of daily living, suffer the loss of social networks and friends, and face end-of-life issues.1 Attributes that contribute to successful aging in the general population include good health, social engagement and support, and having a positive outlook on life.1 Yet, stigma surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation continues to negatively affect elder transgender people.
Many members of the LGBTQIA+ population have higher rates of obesity, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, depression, suicide, and intimate partner violence than the general same-age cohort.2 Compared with lesbian, gay, and bisexual elders of age-matched cohorts, transgender elders have significantly poorer overall physical health, disability, depressive symptoms, and perceived stress.2
Rates of sexually transmitted infections are also rising in the aging general population and increased by 30% between 2014 and 2017.2 There have been no current studies examining these rates in the LGBTQIA+ population. As providers interact more frequently with these patients, it’s not only essential to screen for conditions such as diabetes, lipid disorders, and sexually transmitted infections, but also to evaluate current gender-affirming hormone therapy (GAHT) regimens and order appropriate screening tests.
Hormonal therapy for transfeminine patients should be continued as patients age. One of the biggest concerns providers have in continuing hormone therapy is the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and increasing thromboembolic risk, both of which tend to occur naturally as patients age. Overall, studies on the prevalence of CVD or stroke in gender-diverse individuals indicate an elevated risk independent of GAHT.3 While the overall rates of thromboembolic events are low in transfeminine populations, estrogen therapy does confer an increased risk. However, most transgender women who have experienced cardiac events or stroke were over the age of 50, had one or more CVD risk factors, or were using synthetic estrogens.3
How these studies affect screening is unclear. Current guidelines recommend using tailored risk-based calculators, which take into consideration the patient’s sex assigned at birth, hormone regimen, length of hormone usage, and additional modifiable risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity, and smoking.3 For transfeminine patients who want to continue GAHT but either develop a venous thromboembolism on estrogen or have increased risk for VTE, providers should consider transitioning them to a transdermal application. Patients who stay on GAHT should be counseled accordingly on the heightened risk of VTE recurrence. It is not unreasonable to consider life-long anticoagulation for patients who remain on estrogen therapy after a VTE.4
While exogenous estrogen exposure is one risk factor for the development of breast cancer in cisgender females, the role of GAHT in breast cancer in transgender women is ambiguous. Therefore, breast screening guidelines should follow current recommendations for cisgender female patients with some caveats. The provider must also take into consideration current estrogen dosage, the age at which hormones were initiated, and whether a patient has undergone an augmentation mammaplasty.3
Both estrogen and testosterone play an important role in bone formation and health. Patients who undergo either medical or surgical interventions that alter sex hormone production, such as GAHT, orchiectomy, or androgen blockade, may be at elevated risk for osteoporosis. Providers should take a thorough medical history to determine patients who may be at risk for osteoporosis and treat them accordingly. Overall, GAHT has a positive effect on bone mineral density. Conversely, gonadectomy, particularly if a patient is not taking GAHT, can decrease bone density. Generally, transgender women, like cisgender women, should undergo DEXA scans starting at the age of 65, with earlier screening considered if they have undergone an orchiectomy and are not currently taking GAHT.3
There is no evidence that GAHT or surgery increases the rate of prostate cancer. Providers should note that the prostate is not removed at the time of gender-affirming surgery and that malignancy or benign prostatic hypertrophy can still occur. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that clinicians have a discussion with cisgender men between the ages of 55 and 69 about the risks and benefits of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening.5 For cisgender men aged 70 and older, the USPSTF recommends against PSA-based screening.5 If digital examination of the prostate is warranted for transfeminine patients, the examination is performed through the neovaginal canal.
Caring for elderly transgender patients is complex. Even though evidence guiding the management of elderly transgender patients is improving, there are still not enough definitive long-term data on this dynamic demographic. Like clinical approaches with hormonal or surgical treatments, caring for transgender elders is also multidisciplinary. Providers should be prepared to work with social workers, geriatric care physicians, endocrinologists, surgeons, and other relevant specialists to assist with potential knowledge gaps. The goals for the aging transgender population are the same as those for cisgender patients – preventing preventable diseases and reducing overall mortality so our patients can enjoy their golden years.
Dr. Brandt is an ob.gyn. and fellowship-trained gender-affirming surgeon in West Reading, Pa. Contact her at.
1. Carroll L.
2. Selix NW et al. Clinical care of the aging LGBT population. J Nurse Pract. 2020;16(7):349-54.
3. World Professional Association for Transgender Health.;8th version.
4. Shatzel JJ et al..
5. Wolf-Gould CS and Wolf-Gould CH. Primary and preventative care for transgender patients. In: Ferrando CA, ed.. Philadelphia: Elsevier, 2020, p. 114-30.