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Developments in Brief : Hormone That Cuts Heart Disease in Men Seems to Increase Risk in Women

September 13, 1987|Compiled from Times staff and wire service reports

A mysterious hormone that seems to be associated with a lower risk of heart disease and longer life span in men apparently has the opposite effect in women, University of California, San Diego researchers reported last week.

It was just last year that the same scientists found that men with high levels of a hormone known as DHEAS in their blood appeared to live longer and have a lower incidence of heart disease.

Since then, they have confirmed the findings in another 510 men between the ages of 50 and 79 and have studied 289 women between ages 60 to 79 to determine whether there is a similar relationship between DHEAS levels and mortality rate and incidence of heart disease in women.

Surprisingly, they found the heart disease and mortality rates were highest among women with the highest DHEAS levels.

"I can't explain it. I was really very perplexed," said Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, who headed the research.

The overall death rate during the study period was 21.1 per 100 women with the lowest DHEAS levels compared to 26.1 per 100 women with the highest levels. The heart disease rate was 8.9 per 100 women with the lowest DHEAS levels and 16.2 per 100 women with the highest.

DHEAS is produced by the adrenal gland. Although the hormone has been associated in humans with fatty proteins and enzymes, its function and how it may affect disease is unknown.

Some scientists have speculated DHEAS may be involved in how the body handles the type of cholesterol that tends to accumulate in arteries, setting the stage for heart attacks.

Since DHEAS is similar in some ways to male hormones, Barrett-Connor speculated, that may somehow explain why men would benefit from high levels of DHEAS while women would not.

"It may be that men are healthy if they have more androgens (male hormones), but for women it may not be the same thing," said Barrett-Connor, who reported her findings in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine.

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