From the Journals

Hormone therapy boosts body image in transgender youth



After a year of gender-affirming hormone therapy, transgender youth showed significant improvement in body image dissatisfaction from baseline, based on data from 148 individuals.

“Understanding the impact of gender-affirming hormone therapy on the mental health of transgender youth is critical given the health disparities documented in this population,” wrote Laura E. Kuper, PhD, of Children’s Health Systems of Texas, Dallas, and colleagues.

In a study published in Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed data from 148 youth aged 9-18 years who underwent gender-affirming hormone therapy in a multidisciplinary program. The average age of the patients was 15 years; 25 were receiving puberty suppression hormones only, 93 were receiving just feminizing or masculinizing hormones, and 30 were receiving both treatments.

At baseline and at approximately 1 year follow-up, all patients completed the Body Image Scale, Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptoms, and Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders. In addition, clinicians collected information on patients’ suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and nonsuicidal self-injury.

Overall, the average scores on the Body Image Scale on body dissatisfaction decreased from 70 to 52, and average scores on the Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptoms decreased from 9 to 7; both were statistically significant (P less than .001), as were changes from baseline on the anxiety subscale of the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders, which decreased from 32 to 29 (P less than .01). No change occurred in the average overall clinician-reported depressive symptoms.

During the follow-up period, the rates of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and nonsuicidal self-injury were 38%, 5%, and 17%, respectively. Of patients who reported these experiences, the lifetime histories of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and nonsuicidal self-injury were 81%, 15%, and 52%, respectively.

The findings were limited by several factors including some missing data and the relatively small sample size, the researchers noted.

Nonetheless, the results suggest “that youth receiving gender-affirming hormone therapy experience meaningful short-term improvements in body dissatisfaction, and no participants discontinued feminizing or masculinizing hormone therapy.” These results support the use of such therapy, Dr. Kuper and associates wrote.

The study is important because of the need for evidence that hormones actually improve patient outcomes, said Shauna M. Lawlis, MD, of the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, Oklahoma City.

“Especially given the rash of legislation across the country aimed at blocking care for transgender youth, it is helpful to show that these treatments really do decrease patients’ anxiety and depressive symptoms,” she said in an interview. “In addition, previous research has been focused on those who have undergone puberty suppression followed by gender-affirming hormone therapy, but many patients are too far along in puberty for puberty suppression to be effective and providers often go straight to gender-affirming hormones in those cases.”

Dr. Lawlis said she was not at all surprised by the study findings. “In my own practice, I have seen patients improve greatly on gender-affirming hormones with overall improvement in anxiety and depression. As a patient’s outward appearance more closely matches their gender identity, they feel more comfortable in their own bodies and their interactions with the world around them, thus improving these symptoms.”

Dr. Lawlis added that the message for pediatricians who treat transgender youth is simple: Gender-affirming hormones improve patient outcomes. “They are essential for the mental health of this vulnerable population.”

She noted that long-term follow-up studies would be useful. “There is still a lot of concern about regret and detransitioning among health care providers and the general population – showing that patients maintain satisfaction in the long-term would be helpful.

“In addition, long-term studies about other health outcomes (cardiovascular disease, cancer risk, etc.) would also be helpful,” said Dr. Lawlis, who was asked to comment on this study, with which she had no involvement.

The study was supported in part by Children’s Health. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Dr. Lawlis had no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Kuper LE et al. Pediatrics. 2020 Mar 27. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-3006.

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