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Impact of Steroids on the Heart continued...

A healthy left ventricle pumps 55% to 70% of the blood that fills the heart. This measurement is known as ejection fraction.

Ten of the 12 steroid users had ejection fractions of less than 55%, which has been linked to an increased risk for heart failure and sudden cardiac arrest.

Only one of the seven weightlifters with no history of steroid use had a low ejection fraction.

The steroid users also showed evidence of impaired diastolic function, which is the ability of the left ventricle to relax and fill with blood following contraction.

Left ventricle relaxation was reduced by almost half among steroid users compared to nonusers.

Doctors Should Ask About Steroid Use

The study appears in the latest issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation:  Heart Failure.

It was originally intended as a pilot study, but the findings were so striking the researchers decided they needed to be published.

It is not clear if the impact of long-term steroid use on the heart is reversible when the drugs are stopped, Baggish says.

"The hope is this will make physicians aware than an important cause of left ventricular dysfunction in young people who are otherwise healthy may be anabolic steroid use," he says. "Doctors need to ask their patients if they use steroids."

San Francisco cardiologist Ann F. Bolger, MD, says larger studies are needed to confirm the findings.

But she agrees that anabolic steroid use needs to be on the radar of clinicians who are evaluating their patients' heart disease risk.

Bolger is a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and she is a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

"This is a wake-up call to practitioners to ask about steroid use," she says. "We would never dream of not asking if a patient smokes or if they have high blood pressure or diabetes. But I'm guessing very few ask about steroid use."

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