Q. I've been reading about athletes using steroids to build themselves up. Do these drugs work for older men?

First some background on steroids. There are two types of steroids: corticosteroids and anabolic steroids. Corticosteroids, such as cortisone and prednisone, are drugs that help control inflammation. Anabolic steroids, such as androstenedione or andro, are substances that can help the body make muscle.

Corticosteroids, which are like hormones that your adrenal glands produce to fight stress, are used to treat arthritis, asthma, lupus, multiple sclerosis, eczema and some kinds of cancer.

Anabolic steroids are drugs that are like the body's natural sex hormone testosterone. Testosterone directs the body to produce or enhance male characteristics. Medical uses of anabolic steroids include some hormone problems in men, late puberty and muscle loss from some diseases.

When anabolic steroids increase the levels of testosterone in the blood, they stimulate muscle tissue in the body to grow larger and stronger. The effects of too much testosterone can be harmful. Some of the negative effects are rage, liver disease, high cholesterol, severe acne, baldness and infertility.

So-called natural steroids such as DHEA that are sold as over-the-counter supplements at many health food stores can have the same harmful effects as synthetic steroids. The only difference between natural and synthetic steroids is that synthetic steroids are made in a lab and are chemically altered.

Prior to January 2005, anabolic steroid supplements containing androstenedione also were available at health food stores. Because of safety issues, however, these supplements now cannot be sold without a prescription.

Because some hormone levels drop with age, there's a theory that this decline causes us to age. Declining levels of testosterone, the male sex hormone, have been linked with decreased energy and sex drive, muscle weakness and osteoporosis. But, can you reverse aging by restoring your hormones?

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland. DHEA levels in the body begin to decrease after age 30. Your body converts DHEA into the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. Proponents say it slows aging, increases muscle and bone strength, burns fat, improves cognition, bolsters immunity and protects against chronic diseases.

There is no convincing medical evidence to support these claims about DHEA. Even short-term use of DHEA may cause liver damage

There is sufficient evidence supporting the use of DHEA in the treatment of adrenal insufficiency, depression, induction of labor, and lupus.

There is a lack of available studies on the long-term effects of DHEA. However, DHEA may cause higher than normal levels of androgens and estrogens in the body, and theoretically may increase the risk of prostate, breast, ovarian, and other hormone-sensitive cancers. Therefore, it is not recommended for regular use without supervision by a licensed healthcare professional.

Don't believe advertisements that tell you supplements are natural remedies, implying that they can't hurt you. Some people try supplements such as coral calcium, ginseng and echinacea to stop aging. There isn't any evidence to support the claims for these supplements either.

Talk to your doctor before taking any supplement. Ingredients in supplements can cause harmful interactions with your medications and serious side effects.

If you have a question, please write to fred@healthygeezer.com.

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