June 19, 2007 -- The use of forbidden drugs may start at a young age for some student athletes, according to a new study.
"The results show that doping does exist in preadolescent athletes who train every day. This fact should be taken into account in preventive actions," write the researchers. They included Patrick Laure, MD, PhD, who specializes in youth sports in France's Lorraine region.
Laure and colleagues followed more than 3,500 student athletes in eastern France for four years, starting in 2001, when the students were about 11 years old, on average.
Every six months, the students completed surveys at school about their involvement in sports.
The surveys also asked about the students' doping, including the use of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids, the asthma inhaler salbutamol (when not used to treat asthma), and other prohibited substances such as marijuana.
At the study's start, the vast majority of student athletes -- nearly 98% -- said they hadn't used any doping drugs. However, 1.2% of the students admitted using a "doping substance."
Four years later, 3% of the student athletes said they had used doping substances.
The typical user was an older, male student athlete who trained intensively. Anxiety and low self-esteem were also linked to doping.
In each survey, an average of 4% of the students who admitted using doping drugs reported having a health problem related to doping, but few students described those problems, the researchers note.
Of the student athletes who reported using doping drugs, 44% noted that they had won at least one sporting event as a result of their use of doping drugs. Eighteen percent said they weren't sure whether doping had helped them win.
The study only included student athletes from one area of France, so it's hard to know if those findings apply to other young athletes.
However, the researchers recommend that adults responsible for student athletes keep in mind the possibility that some young athletes may use or feel tempted by prohibited drugs.