The steroid in question is called dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, which is secreted by the adrenal gland and circulates in blood mainly in a sulfated form, known as DHEA-S. In other tissues, DHEA-S is converted into sex hormones -- testosterone and estrogen.
Past studies have found an association between low DHEA-S levels and heart and blood-vessel, or cardiovascular, disease, although their results were inconclusive.
In this large-scale study, presented at The Endocrine Society's 94th Annual Meeting here, Swedish researchers found that elderly men with the lowest DHEA-S blood levels were significantly more likely to develop cardiovascular-disease events within five years than those with higher DHEA-S levels.
The increased risk persisted even after controlling for other influences, indicating that low DHEA-S levels are independently associated with a greater risk of disease.
"Our findings may be the result of DHEA-S being protective, or that lower DHEA-S level is a marker for poor general health," said study lead author Asa Tivesten at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
"More research is needed to understand underlying mechanisms and to evaluate the potential benefits of hormone replacement," Tivesten said in a statement.
For the study, the researchers used an advanced technique to isolate, identify, and measure DHEA-S levels in the blood. During the five-year follow-up, they used nationwide medical registries to document 485 cases of cardiovascular disease among the study participants.
Patients included 2,416 men between the ages of 69 and 81 years. All were participants in the Osteoporotic Fractures in Men Sweden study, which is a long-term project designed to examine risk factors for a number of diseases.
According to Tivesten, it is important to note that this study's findings only indicate that low DHEA-S levels may be related to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
"We cannot say that DHEA-S is protective because we have only studied an association," she said.
"A potential practical implication is that established cardiovascular risk factors perhaps should be assessed and treated more aggressively in men with lower DHEA-S levels."
However, this must be evaluated in future studies because DHEA-S level is not part of cardiovascular-risk assessment today, she added.