On my desk I have a coaster with a picture of a man saying ‘drinking can cause memory loss… or even worse, memory loss.’
It’s a nice play on the irony that, while the man looks smooth and cool in an old-fashioned way, the drinking is making a fool of him.
And it now seems the same applies to anabolic steroids: they may help you attain the ‘ideal’ body, but they could impair your memory and turn you into a laughing stock.
New research by academics at Northumbria University suggests the drug can affect recollection in long-term users, adding another dimension to concerns about the health risks of steroid abuse.
The Northumbria study, which has been published in The Open Psychiatry Journal, assessed 95 male regular gym users aged 18-30 in an online survey, having eliminated 55 people from the sample to exclude anyone whose memory might be impaired by other drugs such as cannabis and alcohol.
Of the final sample, 47 had used anabolic steroids regularly – on average for two and a half years – and the other 48 had not. Each participant completed three memory-related sets of questions.
The first measured retrospective memory – the recall of past memories or previous facts, for example the name of your favourite soap star – and found 28% more ‘forgetting’ among steroid abusers.
A second measured prospective memory – the process of carry out a planned activity at future point in time, for example remembering to post a birthday card – and found 39% more forgetting.
And the third measured executive function – processes that help an individual pay attention, coordinate information and plan and execute tasks – and found 32% more function ‘deficits’.
This new study builds on an exploration of this area in 2013 by Harrison Pope and others, who discovered long-term anabolic steroid users performed significantly worse than non-users on ‘visuospatial memory’ tasks, where they had to remember visual patterns they were previously shown.
Pope, who is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the Adonis Complex, explained that problems in visuospatial memory might lead to difficulties finding a specific location, such as someone’s address or a room in a building.
Tom Heffernan, who led the Northumbria study, says: “Although much is known about the physical and psychiatric effects of anabolic steroid abuse, very little is known about their putative impact upon learning and memory.
“We wanted to find out if anabolic steroid users reported any differences, and our findings suggest the drug can affect recollection in long-term users.
“Such deficits could affect many spheres of life, including interpersonal, occupational, educational and health-related aspects, given the ubiquitous nature of everyday remembering.
“Of course, these findings need further verification before any firm conclusions can be reached given that self-reports can be subject to a range of biases, for example some people may think their memory is poor and respond accordingly, while some think it is better than perhaps it is.
“The next step would be to look at more objective measures and to show why the use of anabolic steroids affects memory and learning, and what impact steroid abuse has on the brain and its cognitive functions.”
The interest of Heffernan and his colleagues in the effects on memory of anabolic steroids reflects growing concern about what the future holds for the tens of thousands of people – including many teenagers – now using the drug routinely.
Health warnings on the physical side effects are clear. NHS Choices says steroid abusers can develop medical conditions such as heart attack or stroke, liver and kidney tumours, high blood pressure, blood clots, fluid retention and high cholesterol.
Concerns about the mental side effects have previously focused mainly on depression and mood swings known as ‘roid rage. But steroids have been widely used in gyms and sport for so many years, are now able to assess longer-term psychiatric damage.
Heffernan admits more work needs to be done. But in the meantime steroid abusers are taking a risk with their memory that could leave them open to ridicule in later life – if indeed they live that long.
Steve is the author of Over The Line, the hard-hitting story of an Olympic athlete who becomes embroiled in a police investigation into the steroid-related death of an old school friend.