Even Decades After Use, Anabolic Steroids Could Take Big Toll on Health

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Key Takeaways

  • New evidence finds the harms of anabolic steroids persist even after use is discontinued

  • These harms include risk of heart disease, poorer emotional well-being and lower levels of testosterone

  • Experts have one piece of advice regarding these performance-enhancing drugs: Don't use them

TUESDAY, May 16, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Lured by promises of bigger muscles and better performance on the field, many athletes and bodybuilders turn to anabolic steroids despite their well-known side effects, including increased risk for heart disease and mood issues.

Now, two new studies show these harms may persist after athletes stop taking the synthetic hormones.

The message is clear when it comes to the illegal use of anabolic steroids to boost muscle mass and enhance athletic performance: “Don’t do it,” warned study author Dr. Yeliz Bulut. She is a doctoral student at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark.

In one study of 64 healthy men aged 18 to 50 who engaged in recreational strength training, 28 were using anabolic steroids, 22 were former steroid users and 14 had never taken steroids.

Men underwent a test to see how much blood flowed to their heart muscles when resting and exercising. Both former and current steroid users showed poor blood flow to their hearts compared to those who have never used them. Most former users had stopped taking steroids more than one year before the study.

In another study, three groups of men aged 18 to 50 answered questionnaires and gave blood to measure levels of the male sex hormone testosterone. This study included 89 current anabolic steroid users, 61 former steroid users and 30 men who had never used steroids. About three-quarters of former users stopped taking steroids more than one year before participating in the study; the rest had been clean for more than two years.

Former steroid users reported worse physical and mental health, including higher levels of fatigue, worse social functioning and poorer emotional well-being. What’s more, men who stopped taking steroids had lower testosterone levels compared to those who had never used steroids, the study found.

“Impaired quality of life in previous anabolic steroid users seems to persist several years following cessation,” said Bulut. “We think the decreased quality of life reported by previous anabolic steroid users could be caused by both withdrawal or ... sudden drop in testosterone levels in the blood."

Researchers plan to conduct a larger study to look at heart disease risk and quality of life in former steroid users.

The studies were presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the European Congress of Endocrinology, in Istanbul, Turkey. Findings presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Dr. Richard Auchus agreed that the smartest thing for athletes to do is steer clear of steroids. He is a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan.

“Although fitness and strength are worthy goals, in the end, there is really little difference between androgen abuse and any other form of substance abuse,” said Auchus, who has no ties to the new studies.

There are lots of long-term consequences to steroid use. “Still, it’s hard to dissuade young men from doing this, for whom risk-taking behavior is common,” Auchus added.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on the risks associated with anabolic steroids.

SOURCES: Yeliz Bulut, MD, PhD, doctoral student, Copenhagen University, Denmark; Richard Joseph Auchus, MD, professor, internal medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; presentation, 25th European Congress of Endocrinology, Istanbul, Turkey

What This Means For You

Anabolic steroids used to build muscle mass can affect your physical and mental well-being for years to come.

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