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DHEA Supplement Linked to Heart Disease

Popular 'Anti-Aging' Supplements May Actually Contribute to Clogged Arteries

Dec 3, 2003 | WEBMD DHEA supplements that are touted to protect against heart disease may actually contribute to it by promoting the formation of fatty plaques in arteries, say researchers.

This finding, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, comes after Australian scientists exposed human cells to DHEA levels typical of over-the-counter supplements. They discovered the cells reacted in a way that's similar to initial signs of heart disease, says lead researcher Martin K.C. Ng, MD, FRACP.

A critical event in the development of heart disease is the accumulation of cholesterol in cells called macrophages, he tells WebMD. "We found that DHEA increases this critical process of cholesterol accumulation in macrophages -- an event which may produce coronary disease."

Meanwhile, other cells not exposed to DHEA experienced no such changes.

DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone naturally made by the adrenal glands and is converted to other steroid hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. Because levels begin to wane after age 30 when risk of age-related health problems such as heart disease increase over-the-counter DHEA capsules and creams have been marketed to combat heart disease and other age-related conditions, including Alzheimer's disease.

In April, another team of researchers reported in Neurology that DHEA supplements did not improve memory or reduce Alzheimer's severity after six months of treatment.

Another recent study, published in July and involving only 24 Japanese men, suggests that small supplemental doses of DHEA could improve insulin sensitivity and blood vessel function two factors that contribute to the development of heart disease. But Ng calls such evidence "indirect" and points to other research that indicates boosting DHEA levels promotes heart disease, rather than prevents it.

DHEA supplements, in fact, were banned by the FDA in 1985 due to their unproven safety and effectiveness. But that ban ended with the adoption of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act, and the following year, the supplements became available again.

"We are concerned that people are taking DHEA supplements in the absence of adequate safety data," says Ng, a cardiologist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Heart Institute in Sydney. "While this study is a lab result, it does suggest that caution should be taken in the unsupervised self-administration of the hormone."

Because Ng's study was performed in laboratory cell cultures and not actual patients it doesn't address what could happen when the human body converts DHEA into testosterone or estrogen, says cardiologist Sam Tsimikas, MD, of the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the research.

Still, Tsimikas also urges against using DHEA supplements until more research is done. "This (finding) adds to the growing evidence that anabolic steroids, or precursors thereof, such as DHEA, may have detrimental effects on cardiovascular health," he says in a prepared statement. "With data showing that approximately one out of two Americans will eventually die of cardiovascular disease, this information has major health implications."

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