In a bid to combat the ageing process, more and more middle-aged men are turning to anabolic steroids - used to improve muscle growth and sporting performance - as a means of recapturing their youth, reports

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One estimate from Jim McVeigh, Director of the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, suggests that as many as 30,000 men aged 40 and over are taking steroids in a misguided attempt to counter their naturally declining testosterone levels, to combat weight gain and to reignite their sex drive.

Those steroids promise to boost the production of red blood cells and hence deliver an increased supply of oxygen to muscles, boosting stamina and aiding the production of lean muscle matter.

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It purports to be a formula for more muscle, more energy, more life - but as a growing body of research reveals, far from stopping the ageing process, injecting steroids can speed up the onset of cognitive, physical and sexual decline.

Men who use steroids as a short-cut to bigger muscles have long been shown to suffer with long-term physical reactions such as shrinkage of the testicles, penis problems, pain when urinating and breast growth.

More recently, memory loss has been added to this list of not-so-glamorous health outcomes that are linked to the use of anabolic steroids.

"Although the steroids may come in a fancy blister pack or vial there's no quality assurance" Photo / Getty

"Overall the health-related risks of long-term steroid use are fairly well documented but we know much less about what the everyday consequences of their use may be," explains Dr Tom Heffernan from Northumbria University's Department of Psychology.

"Our findings show that long-term 'juicing' [steroid use] has a significant impact on an individual's everyday memory and ability to remember."

Dr Heffernan, who assessed almost 100 male regular gym users whilst researching the effects of steroid use, published his findings in The Open Psychiatry Journal.

Half of the group he studied used steroids and half did not. The steroid users were found to be 39 per cent more forgetting in terms of prospective memory - the process of remembering to do something you had planned to do in the future. They were also 28 per cent more forgetting when recalling past memories or previous facts (known as retrospective memory).

"The results revealed that those using steroids had significantly more deficits in their memory and mental executive function, compared to non-users," says Heffernan.

This is all the more alarming given the surge in steroid use in Britain over the past decade - up by 600 per cent, according to one study of urban needle exchanges.

It's estimated that as many as 38 per cent of bodybuilders take steroids, while DrugWise, a charity which promotes evidenced-based information on drugs, reports that between 20 and 40 per cent of people attending some gyms use the substances.

As many as 30,000 men in the UK, aged 40 and over are taking steroids, Photo / Getty
As many as 30,000 men in the UK, aged 40 and over are taking steroids, Photo / Getty

The most common side effect is associated with testosterone. "By taking steroids you will inflate your levels of this hormone to the highest you've ever had," explains Jim McVeigh. "In doing so you can 'reap' the rewards, be able to train harder and have greater energy and vitality. But when you stop taking them the 'crash' for many can take years to recover from, if at all."

The body reacts to the surge in testosterone by effectively making the testicles redundant, eventually causing them to shrink. Testicular atrophy or "shrinking balls" was highlighted in a 2014 study published in the journal Urology, where steroid-using bodybuilders presented with shrunken testes that were "comparable to those of pre-pubescent boys."

If that's not enough to make you think twice before reaching for the steroids, I'm not sure what would.

"The brain attempts to achieve a balance by stopping the means of making more testosterone," explains McVeigh. Sexual dysfunction has also been flagged-up as a side-effect of testicular atrophy and spermatogenesis - the production of healthy sperm - has been shown to be suppressed when the testes stop working.

But that's not all.

"The male body also converts excessive amounts of testosterone into oestrogen, the female hormone," explains McVeigh. In some men this can lead to gynecomastia - the growth of breast tissue.

And then there's the behavioural issues. As everyone who's been through puberty knows, fluctuating hormone levels are no easy thing to deal with. "So called 'roid rage', the misplaced aggression attributed to heightened testosterone levels in some users, may affect mood and mental health whilst the very process of injecting these drugs can bring users into contact with HIV," warns McVeigh.

The market in anabolic steroids is an illicit one too. "Although the steroids may come in a fancy blister pack or vial there's no quality assurance, no way of knowing exactly what it is you're putting into body," says McVeigh. And no guarantees that what you think is making you 'younger' isn't actually speeding you towards an early grave.