Testosterone Could Protect Older Women from Heart Disease

Daily Mail

07-11-07

OLDER women with low levels of the male hormone testosterone are at greater risk of heart disease, claim researchers.

For the first time a study shows those with a testosterone 'deficiency' after the menopause are more likely to have blocked arteries.

Usually thought of as the male hormone, testosterone is made in small amounts by the ovaries and is believed to be instrumental in promoting sexual desire in women.

Levels naturally decline after the menopause, but can fall dramatically in women when the womb and ovaries are removed surgically.

In Britain, women can already get testosterone patches on prescription to help regain their sex drive when they have had an early menopause because of hysterectomy.

But this latest research suggests far more post-menopausal women should be prescribed patches on the Health Service because higher levels of the hormone may protect against cardiovascular disease.

A team led by Dr Erik Debing at Belgium's Free University of Brussels examined 56 post-menopausal women who had atherosclerosis or 'furring up' of the carotid artery, which supplies blood to the head and neck. Levels of testosterone in these women were compared with 56 females of similar age and background.

The women with atherosclerosis had significantly lower testosterone reserves, yet there was no difference between levels of other sex hormones.

Even after the researchers took into account risk factors such as diet, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes, the link between low testosterone levels 'remained strong', says a report today in the European Journal of Endocrinology.

'Important step forward' Dr Debing said statistics show the risk of heart disease increases in women after the menopause compared with younger women, but the reasons have remained unclear.

He added: 'This is the first time that a case-control study has found that post-menopausal women with atherosclerosis have lower testosterone levels.

'Atherosclerosis is the main precursor to heart disease, one of the major causes of death in post-menopausal disease women. Our work suggests that higher levels of testosterone may have a protective role against atherosclerosis in women who have undergone the menopause.' He said the research was an 'important step forward' in understanding the causes of the condition.

'It will allow us to develop more effective treatments and advice,' he added.

Previous research suggests that middle-aged men with low levels of testosterone may have higher rates of heart disease than those with normal levels.

Dr John Stevenson, consultant metabolic physician at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, said around a third of women who have had both ovaries removed are likely to suffer testosterone deficiency and possibly 5 to 10 per cent of other menopausal women.

Dr Stevenson, who is also chairman of the charity Women's Health Concern, said: 'We are increasingly using testosterone to help women and are planning a clinical trial to look at the vascular effect.' But he warned that supplements might be harmful for women with normal testosterone levels.

He explained: 'High doses can create atheroma, or problems in the arteries, and may have an adverse effect in women who are not deficient.'