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Do Anabolic Steroids Make You Stupid?

Tim Boyer's picture
Anabolic Steroids

When it comes to sports and the growing problem of using performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids for building muscle and strength, or blood doping for increasing endurance, the focus is primarily on who the athlete is and whether he or she will be stripped of their medals.

For example, news about blood doping is lately focused on the financial woes of disgraced cyclist and 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong who is facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit accusing him of defrauding the US Postal Service of sponsorship money by taking performance-enhancing drugs in violation of his contract.

Less focused, however, are news stories about the toll that anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing methods place on a body. Possibly the last time the spotlight shined its brightest on the shadowy world of sports and how performance-enhancing drugs affects health was back in 1991 when football great Lyle Alzado wrote the following beginning paragraph for Sports Illustrated magazine confessing what performance enhancing drugs had did to him:

“I lied. I lied to you. I lied to my family. I lied to a lot of people for a lot of years when I said I didn't use steroids. I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969, and I never stopped. Not when I retired from the NFL in 1985. Not ever. I couldn't, and then I made things worse by using human growth hormone, too. I had my mind set, and I did what I wanted to do. So many people tried to talk me out of what I was doing, and I wouldn't listen. And now I'm sick. I've got cancer—a brain lymphoma—and I'm in the fight of my life.”

Lyle Alzado died in 1992 at the age of 43.

Although, it is not a proven fact that his brain cancer was directly due to many years of steroid abuse, medical professionals acknowledge that it was the likely cause of his deteriorating physical and mental health. And while this does not mean to imply that taking anabolic steroids is going to produce a glut of athletes with brain cancer, recent scientific reports tell us that we may see some athletes dumbing down as they grow older.

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In a new study published it the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers from the University of Gothenburg report that there is a link between the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids and reduced mental abilities and mental health in older athletes who admitted to using anabolic-androgenic steroids during their sport careers.

The study consisted of questionnaires filled out by nearly 700 former elite competition level wrestlers, weightlifters, power lifters and throwers in track and field who competed between 1960 and 1979, of which 20% admitted to taking steroids for performance enhancement during their sports careers. The study was designed to investigate potential links between steroid drug use in athletes and mental health problems.

According to a news release, the researchers found that a clear relationship exists between use of anabolic steroids and mental-health problems.

'We found a clear link. AAS (anabolic-androgenic steroids) users were more likely to have been treated for depression, concentration problems and aggressive behavior,' says Claudia Fahlke, co-author of the study who also points out that their research shows that steroid drug abusers tended to abuse other drugs and alcohol as well, which likely contribute to the mental decline experienced by the athletes.

In his letter to Sports Illustrated, Lyle Alzado also discussed difficulties in understanding questions, being able to remember things, and his overly aggressive behavioral problems in public that he attributed to his steroid use.

'What we were able to show, though, is that psychiatric symptoms and use of steroids and other drugs tend to reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. This suggests that the anti-doping efforts remain very important, both in and outside of sports,' says Fahlke.

The authors of the study state that the connection between mental health problems and steroid use is not definitive, but is need of further studies to clarify the relationship between the two events.

Image Source: Courtesy of PhotoBucket

Reference: “A retrospective 30-year follow-up study of former Swedish-elite male athletes in power sports with a past anabolic androgenic steroids use: a focus on mental health” British Journal of Sports Medicine 2013 Apr 23. (Epub ahead of print); A.S. Lindqvist et al.