Have you noticed anything strange about your dad recently? Perhaps he’s got really into going to the gym and looks a lot fitter. Perhaps he’s suddenly got weird muscles where he never used to have them, and has developed a bone-crunching, self-confident handshake. Or perhaps he’s currently being a bit sheepish because last night he lost his rag really badly, smashed the house up then burst into tears.
Hopefully things haven’t got as bad as that, but if any of these symptoms ring a bell, it’s possible that your dad may be part of the growing number of middle-aged men who have started using anabolic steroids in an attempt to fight off the natural decline which comes with the aging process.
Frontline service providers who work with drug users are now reporting that after a couple of years dealing with increasing numbers of young steroid users, they are starting to see men in their 40s and 50s – and in some cases even OAPs – referring themselves for help.
“We have come across a lot of older men using. It’s almost like hormone replacement therapy [used to relieve symptoms of the menopause] for females. Steroids can help you lose body fat as well,” says Julien Baker, an applied physiology professor at the University of the West of Scotland. “It is a major problem, but the evidence isn’t there about what the long-term impact is yet. We are not sure what these drugs are doing to you at that age, but everyone perceives it as safe.”
When I interviewed Baker last year he suggested older men were getting into steroids not just for muscle growth, but “to revisit their youth, to get into good shape, without the effort which that would have previously entailed… Basically, if they think something will work they’ll take it. And the problem is, they do work.” (Legally, steroids are a controlled, Class C substance – it is not illegal to possess them, but it is illegal to manufacture, supply, possess or import/export them unless licensed to do so).
For men, one of the main factors in physical decline is the reduction in the body’s natural level of testosterone. This starts to occur naturally and gradually after the age of 30-40, usually by about 2% per year. This has always been the case, but in a society which places more emphasis on physical appearance, and where a prolonged ‘middle youth’ means that 40-something men are expected to look better than they did in previous generations, the temptation for older guys is to give themselves a competitive advantage.
“Any actor over 50 you’re still seeing with a ripped stomach and veins in his forearms is probably taking Human Growth Hormones,” says one talent manager, quoted in a Vanity Fair report into the use of Human Growth Hormones by older actors desperate to look younger for film roles. A trainer I spoke to anonymously listed the most common substances used by all age groups in British gyms: “It’s mostly derivatives of testosterone, taking what’s in your body anyway and inflating those levels. Anavar and Winstrol are pretty popular as oral steroids and clenbuterol which is similar to ephedrine. The bigger bodybuilding guys will be using a lot of growth hormone and injecting insulin as well.”
“Guys are saying they just want to feel like they can stand alongside the younger generation who are much more aware of how they look,” said Joseph Kean, visiting research fellow at Liverpool John Moores University. From his work, he estimates that the number of over-50s using steroids has doubled over the past five years, while 15,000-30,000 over 40s were using. He also suggested that older men tended to use smaller doses of steroids than younger men.
However, many older men using steroids might be seriously misguided – the NHS warns that many of the conditions men attribute to their dropping testosterone levels (poor muscle condition, lack of sex drive, erectile dysfunction) are actually caused by lifestyle issues, ranging from lack of sleep and exercise, to poor diet and stress. So if men are self-diagnosing themselves as going through a testosterone deficit and taking their own cocktail of steroids without addressing these underlying issues, then the problems are going to stack up.
There’s also a lack of information about how these substances affect the older body – most medical research has looked at the effect of steroids on younger men and athletes, with little awareness of how reintroducing a substance after your body has stopped naturally producing it is going to impact on you. However, given that the risks of taking steroids includes high blood pressure, sterility and hair loss even in young men (and some recent suggestions that memory loss may also be a side effect), the increased risk for older men seems obvious.
Finally, as it gets older, the human body takes longer to recover from any damage caused to it – so even if your dad is just going through a slightly mad phase, any harm he does to himself now could be serious, long lasting and harder to come back from. If you think he’s heading down that road, it might be time for an honest conversation with him.