Why you should care

Because stigma against steroids might be denying a lot of gray-haired folks some fun. 

So here’s the story. You’re in your golden years, only to you they haven’t felt anything like golden. You have these aches and pains. You can’t remember a damn thing. And the closest you get to sports is your big-screen TV. Then … wham. You wake up one morning and the pains are gone. You feel amazing, vibrant, quick-minded. Even a little horny. Gosh, you could be in your 20s — no, your teens! — even though in the mirror, you are still an old hag.

Welcome to the world of steroids. Yep, the crap that society condemns as one of mankind’s greatest evils. Seriously, who can even look at a picture of Lance Armstrong or Alex Rodriguez without feeling a sense of disgust at how they’ve used this stuff to cheat for a competitive edge? But it turns out ’roids do more than help athletes bulk up and beat the system. Research actually suggests they could also keep us young and healthy, longer. And that brings us to our question of the day, which is basically this: Monitored carefully, why not let elderly people suffering from a whole host of old-age ailments risk the side effects, if they want, and pop them like they were gulping at their own fountain of youth?

There is, of course, a whole industry that sells and believes in the miracles of steroids, mostly bodybuilding or anti-aging clinics, many of which have a terrible stigma. And certainly, some of that is deserved. A very good body of medical evidence suggests that a steady diet of steroids can cause everything from terrible psychiatric problems like “roid rage” to heart disease and breast cancer. Thomas Perls, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of geriatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, says doctors engaging in the controversial practice of prescribing steroids to offset natural age-related hormone declines are just selling a dangerous form of false hope. “It’s one of the worst scams I can imagine,” he says.

But even some of those studies say the side effects can take years to emerge, and some people getting up in years might want to risk that in exchange for one last glorious crack at being young, at being able to play a full set of tennis (not miniature golf), to take their grandchildren on a hike, or to have, well, a romp in bed with an old flame. Much of the concern over steroids stems from the risks of having too much in the body. But older patients often don’t produce enough of them; the meds just restore their steroid levels to normal. And they can administer bioidentical hormones that are chemically identical to those naturally made in the body, reducing the likelihood of scary side effects. (Admittedly, the FDA has not approved the bioidenticals and notes it can’t assure their safety.)

And who knows what other good might happen? Besides all the horror-show studies, others suggest that steroids can stave off age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s, and increase bone strength, reducing osteoporosis risk. Several studies from Georgetown University School of Medicine, meanwhile, suggest that estrogen, a type of steroid, is crucial for healthy lung function in women.

So come on, we say, live a little. Steroids might be a source of head-shaking on ESPN. But outside sports, they might have their place. If science looks beyond the stigma, it may discover cures.

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