Could testosterone explain why men are at increased heart disease risk?

21 April 2016        

Gillian Grey relfections of research image

A study that we've funded suggests a link between testosterone and heart disease, which may explain why men are more at risk of heart disease than women. The discovery offers hope of treatments to reduce that risk.

The researchers have found that the hormone testosterone may be linked to the hardening of blood vessels associated with heart disease. The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, might help explain why men have a greater risk of heart attacks than women of similar age.

Each year in the UK around 188,000 people visit hospital suffering from a heart attack, which is around one person every three minutes. Around 119,000 of those people are men compared with 69,000 women. Researchers are keen to understand why men are at such increased risk and this study offers a possible explanation.

Bone-like deposits

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh, funded by us and the Government through the BBSRC, examined the effects of testosterone on blood vessel tissue from mice. They found that the hormone triggers cells from the blood vessels to produce bone-like deposits – a process called calcification.

Calcification causes blood vessels to harden and thicken, which means the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body. It is strongly linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Calcification can also affect the heart’s valves, meaning that the valves cannot open and shut properly and may need to be replaced.

New way to treat heart disease

Researchers from our Centre of Research Excellence at Edinburgh, including BHF Professor David Newby and BHF Research Fellow Dr Marc Dweck, worked on the study. They provided valve tissue from patients who had valves replaced because they became too calcified.

Dr Marc Dweck discusses earlier research looking at the role of calcification in heart valve disease.

 

This tissue was then studied and compared with the cells from the mice. The human cells contained the hard bone-like deposits and also carried the same proteins found in the mice which, in combination with testosterone, triggered the calcification process.

Dr Vicky MacRae, who led the research at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said: "Calcification is particularly difficult to treat, as the biological processes behind the disease are similar to those used by our body to make and repair bone. By finding this link between testosterone and calcification we may have discovered a new way of treating this disease and also reducing heart disease."

Future research

Our Associate Medical Director, Professor Jeremy Pearson, said: "The role of male sex hormones in the control of vascular calcification is poorly understood.

"This study, in cells taken from mice and human tissue, provides new evidence that testosterone can increase calcification. But significantly more research is needed to understand whether the results have implications for patients with heart disease."

While this research is at an early stage, and more evidence is needed to conclusively show that testosterone causes increased heart disease risk, men should not be unduly concerned. But it is important for both men and women to adopt the simple lifestyle changes that can help reduce a person's risk of heart disease and stroke.

Help continue our research

We are able to fund hundreds of research projects each year thanks to the generosity of our supporters. We need continued support to keep making discoveries like this which bring us closer to new treatments to beat heart disease and save lives.

Donate