Top athletes live just as long as ordinary people despite steroid use
During the sixties and seventies steroid use was not controlled, so wrestlers, power lifters, weight lifters, shot putters and javelin throwers – if they wished – could inject as much as they wanted. And although quite a few of them did just that, it had no effect on their life expectancy, researchers at the University of Gothenburg report in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
Anabolic steroids & longevity
Cyclists who participate in the Tour de France live six years longer than the average male, despite the intensive use of performance-enhancing drugs that is prevalent among professional cyclists. Cycling is a typical endurance sport. But what about sports where maximal strength and explosive strength are paramount? Wrestlers, power lifters, weight lifters, shot putters, and discus and javelin throwers are also fans of illegal performance enhancing substances. Do they also live longer than 'normal' humans? Or is their life expectancy shorter?
One small study
A scientific literature search reveals exactly one study that answers this question. [Int J Sports Med. 2000 Apr;21(3):225-7.] In 2000 epidemiologists at the Finnish National Public Health Institute published a study in which they calculated that the mortality risk of elite power lifters was almost five times as high as that of the rest of the population.
The size of the study was small, however. The researchers collected data on just 62 power lifters, most of whom had probably used steroids. The Finns also only managed to follow the power lifters for twelve years.
We can improve on that, the Swedes thought. They gathered data on nearly 1200 athletes, all of whom did power sports during the sixties and seventies. The researchers discovered that in this group 20 percent of the athletes admitted to having used anabolic steroids. [Br J Sports Med. 2013 Oct;47(15):965-9.] The actual percentage of users was probably higher.
The Swedes followed these athletes for 30 years. For this period there was hardly any difference between the mortality rate of the athletes and that of the Swedish population as a whole, as the figure below shows.
More suicide, less cancer
The suicide rate of the group studied was noticeably high, the researchers found when they analysed the cause of death among the athletes.
"The death risk from suicide was 3.9 times higher for athletes than the normal population at the age of 30, 2.8 times higher at the age of 40 and 2.1 times higher at the age of 50", the researchers write. The increased likelihood of suicide among the athletes is offset by a reduced chance of dying from cancer [Malignant disease]. The athletes were thirty percent less likely to die from cancer than the rest of the population. As a whole, the power athletes lived to the same age as the average Swede.
It should be noted though that steroid use in the sixties and seventies was minimal in comparison with levels reached as doping became more widespread. What's more, the quality of drugs available on the black market has deteriorated. Just ask William Llewellyn. [amazon.com] If the Swedes were to repeat their study in thirty years time, the results might be very different.
Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2014 Dec;24(6):1000-5.
Tour de France cyclists live six years longer 19.10.2013