Steroid Use Among High School Girls on Rise, Study Says

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With ever more athletic opportunities being dangled in front of them, growing numbers of high school girls are leaping at their peril for the brass ring.

That is the message conveyed in a recent Pennsylvania State University study showing that more and more young girls are abusing anabolic steroids in an effort to build strength and trim fat.

The study, published last month in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, an American Medical Association journal, found that as many as 175,000 high school girls--or 1.4 percent of girls in 9th to 12th grades nationwide--reported that they had used steroids at least once in their lives, up from 0.4 percent in 1991.

Titled "Trends in Anabolic-Androgenic Steroid Use Among Adolescents," the report attributes the increase to several factors, including growing participation by girls and women in competitive sports, greater competition for athletic scholarships, and expanded Olympic and professional opportunities for female athletes. In addition, the study says, the lean, muscular "hard body" seen as an ideal by many women--and yet attainable to few--may serve to encourage steroid use.

Use of anabolic steroids--any of a group of synthetic steroid hormones that help the growth of muscle and other tissue--can cause such side effects as cardiovascular disease, liver dysfunction, reproductive dysfunction, and increased aggressive behavior, the report says. Girls and women who use anabolic steroids can experience shrinkage of the breasts, male hair growth and male-patterned baldness, deepening of the voice, and menstrual abnormalities. The use of steroids among adolescents is particularly troubling, the authors say, because long-term use may stunt growth.

Follows Use by Boys

Although experts concede that anabolic steroids can improve strength, performance, and appearance in the short term, they say that the long-term effects far outweigh the short-term benefits.

"Some people don't want to go through the sweat, blood, and tears" it takes to get in peak physical shape, said Diana Everett, the executive director of the National Association for Girls & Women in Sport in Reston, Va. "But they have to know that [anabolic steroid use] comes with an enormous price."

Ms. Everett, who has years of teaching and coaching experience at the high school level, said that even though she has not known of any female high school athletes using steroids, she has been involved in school efforts to curb steroid use among boys.

"We targeted young guys trying to gain weight and build muscle mostly for football," she recalled, "and I think the message got through. The side effects are not subtle. We said, 'Do this and you could end up like Lyle Alzado,'" the former professional football star who blamed the brain cancer that eventually killed him on years of steroid use.

But as Dr. Charles E. Yesalis, an epidemiologist at Penn State in University Park, Pa., and the lead author of the study, noted in a recent interview, high levels of competitiveness and low levels of self-esteem may override teenage concerns about adverse consequences.

"It's a win-at-all-costs mentality," he said. "People--coaches, parents, and the athletes themselves--are turning a blind eye to the effects that these drugs can have. Female athletes are going down that same dead-end road as male athletes."

Sounding an Alarm

The Penn State research is based on three national surveys and 18 more limited studies of steroid use and alcohol and other illicit drug use among adolescents.

After a small climb in the mid-1980s, Dr. Yesalis pointed out, steroid use among adolescent boys has leveled off over the past few years, suggesting that prevention and intervention programs have met with success.

"We have 175,000 girls putting the primary male sex hormone [testosterone] into their bodies" in the form of anabolic steroids, he said. "That should sound the alarm."

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