SAO PAULO, Brazil — Steroids in sports today already come with a stigma likened to a scarlet letter, but the long-term health effects from doping could be far more punishing than the court of public opinion. A new study finds indicates a possible link between anabolic androgenic steroids and early onset coronary artery disease.
“Anabolic androgenic steroid abuse among young people is a widespread problem worldwide, and adverse events such as sudden cardiac death and heart attack have been reported in athletes,” says first author Francis Ribeiro de Souza, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sao Paulo Medical School, in a press release.
The study examined 51 men with an average age of 29. Of this cohort, 21 lifted weights and used anabolic androgenic steroids for at least two years. Twenty lifted weights but didn’t take steroids, and ten didn’t take steroids, but also didn’t exercise often.
Using a type of medical imaging to show the arteries, the researchers assessed the presence and prevalence of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries. The researchers tested for steroids using urine tests. They took blood samples and tested them for lipid levels, including high-density lipoprotein (HDL). The researchers then used cell cultures to measure the effectiveness of each participant’s HDL to perform its regular function of removing cholesterol from the bloodstream.
According to the results, 24% of steroid users had atherosclerosis in their coronary arteries, compared to none of the participants who didn’t use steroids.
“Our study suggests that anabolic androgenic steroid use may be associated with the development of coronary artery disease in apparently healthy young people. Steroids may have an impact on the ability of HDL to remove cholesterol from macrophages, thereby promoting atherosclerosis,” says Ribeiro de Souza.
He cautions that the study was based on observation and doesn’t prove that steroid use is a cause of coronary artery disease.
“Larger studies with longer follow-up are needed to confirm these results,” he says.
The study was presented at the Brazilian Society of Cardiology in São Paulo in Nov. 2017.