Big muscles, old mind: Study finds steroids speed up brain aging

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) have been around for decades. This synthetic version of testosterone has some medical uses, but it’s infamous for helping people “pump up” their physiques at any cost. Now, a new Norwegian study finds using such steroids may cause the brain to age prematurely.

This certainly isn’t the first adverse side-effect scientists have discovered connected to steroids. Using anabolic steroids may cause excessive acne, aggression, and heart problems for quite some time. The National Institutes of Health note other side-effects of steroid use includes paranoid jealousy, delusions, and impaired judgment.

“Anabolic steroid use has been associated with a range of medical and psychological side effects,” says lead study author Astrid Bjørnebekk, PhD, from Oslo University Hospital, in a media release. “However, since anabolic steroids have only been in the public domain for about 35 years, we are still in the early phase of appreciating the full scope of effects after prolonged use. The least studied effects are those that relate to the brain.”

Prior research has already uncovered that long-term steroid users tend to perform worse on cognition tests than non-steroid users. Researchers say the human brain contains tons of sex hormone receptors and steroid hormones make direct contact with the mind. Since steroids usually contain much higher doses than natural sex hormones, their effect on the brain may cause long-term harm.

Steroid use results in a ‘brain age gap’

To reach these findings, study authors performed MRI brain scans on 130 male weightlifters with long histories of AAS use. They also examined 99 male weightlifters who claimed to have never used steroids.

Using a dataset filled with close to 2,000 brain readings for healthy men between 18 and 92 years-old, researchers used machine learning to predict the brain age of each person and determine their “brain age gap.”

Brain age gap refers to the difference between a participant’s actual age and their predicted brain age. Sure enough, steroid users showed a much larger brain age gap than non steroid users.

Moreover, weightlifters dependent on AAS or those who admit using steroids for years at a time displayed accelerated brain aging. This held true even after accounting for other potentially influential conditions like depression or using other supplements and drugs.

“This important study shows in a large sample that use is associated with deviant brain aging, with a potential impact on quality of life in older age. The findings could be directly useful for health care professionals, and may potentially have preventive implications, where brain effects are also included into the risk assessment for young men wondering whether to use anabolic steroids,” Dr. Bjørnebekk concludes.

The study appears in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

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