DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that acts a precursor to the hormones estradiol (a type of estrogen) and testosterone. It is also widely available as a nutritional supplement. While past research findings have suggested an association between increased DHEA levels and a reduction in heart disease, the majority of the studies involving DHEA have been small and/or inconclusive. However, Åsa Tivesten, MD, PhD of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and colleagues set out to substantiate the results of these smaller, less robust studies, and the results were recently presented at The Endocrine Society's 94th Annual Meeting held in Houston on June 23, 2012.
Dr. Tivesten and his colleagues analyzed data from 2,416 men between the ages of 69 and 81 years enrolled in the Osteoporotic Fractures in Men Sweden study, which was designed to evaluate risk factors for several diseases. Blood samples obtained upon enrollment were analyzed for DHEA and DHEA sulfate (DHEA-S)--the sulfate ester of DHEA which is the form of the hormone that occurs predominantly in the blood.
The results were significant. The researchers found that having a higher serum DHEA was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events, as was having a higher level of DHEA-S. Men whose DHEA-S was among the lowest one-fourth participants had a 25 percent higher risk of cardiac events compared to the rest of the subjects, and those whose levels of both DHEA and DHEA-S were among the lowest fourth had a 34 percent higher risk of any major cardiovascular event, and a 41 percent higher risk of a cerebrovascular event compared to the remainder of the group.
While these results are compelling, Dr. Tivesten cautions that this study only shows an association between reduced DHEA levels and increased risk of cardiac event, and that we cannot yet assume a cause-effect relationship. The results of this study might actually mean that DHEA is protective, but it could also mean that low DHEA levels are an indication of poor health. Dr. Tivesten believes that more research needs to be done to solidify the assertion that DHEA helps protect against cardiovascular events.