Steroids and Young People

With public officials repeatedly calling on America's professional team owners, union representatives, coaches, and players to end the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, the depth of steroid abuse in the US is starting to finally come to light. The use of performance-enhancing drugs by elite athletes sets a dangerous example for millions of young Americans, encouraging young people to take dangerous risks with their health and safety. Sports play an important role in the physical and mental development of young people, and provide them with valuable lessons about teamwork, goal-setting, discipline, and the value of hard work. The use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs directly undermines these benefits. 

Scope of the Problem: According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse-sponsored survey of middle and high school youth known as Monitoring the Future, youth non-medical use of steroids has been steadily increasing since 1996. The initial year of the study reported only 1.9 percent use compared to 2002 when it had more than doubled to 4.0 percent. Recent national studies have estimated steroids use among teenage boys to have grown to over 12% tripling the 2002 estimates.

Steroids Threaten Young People's Health and Development: The major side effects from abusing anabolic steroids can include liver tumors and cancer, jaundice (yellowish pigmentation of skin, tissues, and body fluids), fluid retention, high blood pressure, increases in LDL (bad cholesterol), and decreases in HDL (good cholesterol). Other side effects include kidney tumors, severe acne, and trembling. In addition to these side effects, adolescents risk their growth being halted prematurely through skeletal maturation and accelerated puberty changes. This means that adolescents risk remaining short for the remainder of their lives if they take anabolic steroids before the typical adolescent growth spurt. In addition, there are other side effects and risks:

  • For males—shrinking of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, development of breasts, increased risk for prostate cancer.
  • For females—growth of facial hair, male-pattern baldness, changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle, enlargement of the clitoris, deepened voice. Steroid abuse can also trigger aggression, extreme mood swings, and other psychiatric side effects, including depression.
  • For both—In addition, people who inject anabolic steroids run the added risk of contracting or transmitting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, which causes serious damage to the liver.

Importance of Professional Athletes as Role Models: High-profile athletes are influential role models to young people, and recent trends suggest a link between these athletes' decisions related to steroids and the use of steroids among America's youth.

According to Monitoring the Future, in 1999, teen use of anabolic steroids spiked upward, particularly among young males. While overall use, as measured by annual prevalence rates, remained stable between 1991 and 1997, in 1999 use jumped from 1.2 percent to 1.7 percent in 8th and 10th grades. Almost all of that increase occurred among boys (increasing from 1.6 percent in 1998 to 2.5 percent in 1999 in 8th grade, and from 1.9 percent to 2.8 percent in 10th grade). That is, annual prevalence rates for boys increased about 50 percent in a single year (1998-1999).

Equally troubling, perceived risk of using steroids steeply declined among 12th graders during this time period that use was going up. Among 12th graders, for instance, there was a 6 percentage-point drop in perceived risk between 1998 and 1999 and another 4 percentage-point drop in 2000. In 2002, perceived risk was at its lowest level ever measured (57.1 percent). As the National Institute of Drug Abuse observed, "This sharp change is quite unusual and highly significant, suggesting that some particular event (or events) in 1998 changed beliefs about the dangers of steroids."

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