Increases in cortisol secretion, even if mild, induce early heart and blood vessel changes that may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, according to Italian researchers.
The findings continue to support the role of the hormone cortisol in heart disease, and demonstrate the need for carefully monitoring cardiovascular risk in patients with high levels of the hormone, including those with Cushing’s disease.
The study, “Cardiovascular features of possible autonomous cortisol secretion in patients with adrenal incidentalomas,” was published in the European Journal of Endocrinology.
While most patients with adrenal incidentalomas don’t have symptoms, nearly half have excess cortisol production. Adrenal incidentalomas are masses in the adrenal glands discovered only when a patient undergoes imaging tests for another unrelated condition.
These asymptomatic, mild cortisol-producing cases are defined as possible autonomous cortisol secretion (pACS), according to the European Society of Endocrinology Guidelines.
Excess production of the hormone, seen in Cushing’s disease patients, is associated with increased mortality, mainly due to heart diseases. Patients with asymptomatic adrenal adenomas and mild cortisol secretion also have more cardiovascular events and generally die sooner than those with normal cortisol levels.
But little is known about the causes behind cardiac and vessel damage in these patients.
To shed light on this matter, a research team at Sapienza University of Rome evaluated the cardiovascular status of patients with pACS. This allowed them to study the impact of cortisol in the heart and blood vessels without the interference of other hormone and metabolic imbalances seen in Cushing’s disease.
The ERGO trial (NCT02611258) included 71 patients. All had been diagnosed with adrenal incidentalomas, 34 of which were pACS with mildly increased levels of the hormone and 37 were defined as nonfunctioning adenoma (NFA) — adrenal masses with normal hormone levels.
The two groups were very similar, with no significant differences in metabolic and cardiovascular risk factors. Adrenal lesions in the pACS group, however, were significantly bigger, which was linked to cortisol levels.
Looking at the heart morphology, researchers found that pACS patients had a significantly higher left ventricular mass index (LVMI), which is a well-established predictive measure of adverse cardiovascular events.
Further analysis revealed that LVMI scores were associated with levels of the hormone, suggesting it has an “independent effect of cortisol on cardiac function,” the researchers wrote.
Slightly more than half of pACS patients (53%) also had a thicker left ventricle, a feature that was seen only in 13.5% of NFA patients. The performance of the left ventricle during diastole (muscle relaxation) was also affected in 82.3% of pACS patients, compared to 35.1% in those with NFA.
Patients with pACS also had less flexible arteries, which may contribute to the development of vascular diseases.
The results show that “mild autonomous cortisol secretion can sustain early cardiac and vascular remodeling” in patients who appear apparently healthy, the researchers said.
“The morphological and functional cardiovascular changes observed in pACS underline the need for further studies to correctly define the long-term management of this relatively common condition,” they added.