Cushing’s Disease Stresses Your Heart and Your Mental Health

Written by Kathleen Doheny

With Oskar Ragnarsson, MD, PHD, and Tamara Wexler, MD, PhD

Adults with Cushing’s syndrome, also called hypercortisolism, have a three-fold higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to the general population,1 according to findings reported by a Swiss research team. Although the researchers found that the risk drops when patients are under care, receiving treatment, and are in remission, the risks don’t disappear completely.  For some perspective, heart disease is common in the United States, affectingone in four adults, regardless of health status.2

Patients with Cushing’s disease have excess mortality [risk],” says Oskar Ragnarsson, MD, PhD, associate professor and a senior consultant in internal medicine and endocrinology at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. He is the author of the study, which appears in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Having Cushing’s Requires Vigilance Beyond Disease Symptoms

Still, the news is not all bleak, he says. Simple awareness of the increased risks can help individuals reduce their risk, just as following your doctor’s treatment plan so remain in remission, Dr. Ragnarsson tells EndocrineWeb. In addition, patients who received growth hormone replacement appear to have better overall outcomes.1

Cushing’s syndrome occurs when your body is exposed to high levels of the hormone cortisol over a long period of time. This can be caused either by taking corticosteroid medicine orally, or if your body just makes too much cortisol. Common symptoms of this condition include: having a fatty hump between the shoulders, a rounded face, and stretch marks with pink or purple coloring on the skin. Complications, if Cushing’s disease goes untreated, may include bone loss (leading to increased risk of fractures and osteoporosis), high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and other problems. Usual treatment includes medication and surgery that are aimed to normalize cortisol levels.3

Increased Risks Are Cause for Concern in Cushing’s Disease

The researchers analyzed data from 502 men and women, all of whom were diagnosed with Cushing’s disease between 1987 and 2013 as indicated in a Swedish health database.1 The average age of these patients at diagnosis was 43 years, and, 83% of these individuals were in remission. During a median follow up of 13 years—half followed for longer, half followed for less time—the researchers noted 133 deaths, more than the 54 that had been anticipated in this patient population.

From this data,1 Dr. Ragnarsson and his team calculated that people with Cushing’s disease were about 2.5 times more likely to die than the general population. The most common reason, with more than a 3-fold increased risk, was attributed to events associated with cardiovascular disease, encompassing both heart disease and stroke. This group also appeared to have a higher risk of death from infectious and respiratory diseases, and conditions related to gastrointestinal problems.

Fortunately, just being in disease remission helps to reduce the risk of all-cause mortality,1 the researchers’ report, with both men and women whose Cushing’s disease is well-managed having a two-fold lower risk of death during the follow-up period.1 Those in remission who were receiving growth hormone had an even lower risk of death than those on other forms of treatment.

In addition, the researchers looked at the 55 patients with Cushing’s disease who were in remission and also had diabetes, finding that their risks remained the same. In other words, despite a strong relationship between diabetes and increased heart disease, the risks of death were not increased in this group of patients.1

In considering the impact that treatments may have, the researchers found:

  • 3 in 4 of these patients (75%) had undergone pituitary surgery
  • 28% had undergone radiotherapy
  • 1 in 4 (24%) had had both adrenal glands removed

Those who had their adrenal glands removal experienced a 2.7-fold higher risk of death, while those who were treated with radiotherapy or had pituitary surgery did not have an increased risk associated with cardiovascular events. When glucocorticoid therapy was added, it did not affect results, according to Dr. Ragnarsson and his research team.

Bottom line? “Even though patients in remission have a better prognosis than patients not in remission, they still have more than a 2-fold increased mortality [risk],” he says. The study, he says, is the first to uncover a high rate of death from suicide in Cushing’s patients. It has been reported before, but the numbers found in this study were higher than in others.

The findings, he says, emphasize the importance of treating Cushing’s with a goal of remission. Ongoing surveillance and management are crucial, he says. “Also, evaluation and active treatment of cardiovascular risk factors and mental health is of utmost importance,” Dr. Ragnarsson tells EndocrineWeb.

Remission Reduces But Doesn’t Eliminate Serious Risks 

The study findings underscore the message that ”the priority for patients is to achieve biochemical remission,” says Tamara L. Wexler, MD, PhD, director of the NYU Langone Medical Center Pituitary Center, in reviewing the findings for EndocrineWeb.

“One question raised by the study findings is whether patients listed as being in remission were truly in (consistent) remission,” Dr. Wexler says. “One or more of several testing methods may have been used, and the data were based on medical record reviews so we can’t be certain about the status of these patients’ remission. In addition, we don’t know how much excess cortisol patients were exposed over time, which may change their risks.”

I have another concern about the findings, she says. While the method of analysis used in the study suggests that the length of time from diagnosis to remission is not associated with increased death risk, ”it may be that the total exposure to excess cortisol—the amplitude as well as duration—is related to morbidity [illness] and mortality [death] risk.” And, she adds, any negative effects experienced by patients with Cushing’s disease may be reduced further as remission status continues.

In addition, Dr. Wexler considers the authors’ comments that sustained high cortisol levels may impact the cardiovascular system in a way that is chronic and irreversible ”may be overly strong.” She believes that the total cortisol exposure and the duration of remission may both play important roles in patients’ ongoing health.

She does agree, however, with the researchers’ recommendation of the need to treat heart disease risk factors more aggressively in patients with a history of Cushing’s disease. Equally important, is for patients to be warned that there is an increased concern about suicide, she says, urging anyone with Cushing’s disease to raise all of these concerns with your health practitioner.

Overall, the study findings certainly suggest that it is important for you to know that if you have Cushing’s syndrome, you are at increased risk for not just heart disease but also mental health disorders and other ailments than the general population, she says, and that the best course of action is to work closely with your doctor to achieve remission and stick to your overall treatment plan.

Steps to Take to Reduce Your Risks for Heart Disease and Depression

Dr. Ragnarsson suggests those with Cushing’s disease make adjustments as needed to achieve the following risk-reducing strategies:

  • Be sure your food choices meet the parameters of a heart-healthy diet
  • You are getting some kind of physical activity most every day
  • You see your doctor at least once a year to have annual checks of your blood pressure, blood sugar, and other heart disease risk factors.

For those of you receiving cortisone replacement therapy, you should be mindful of the need to have a boost in your medication dose with your doctors’ supervision when you’re are sick or experiencing increased health stresses.

From https://www.endocrineweb.com/news/adrenal-disorders/61675-cushings-disease-stresses-your-heart-your-mental-health

Laparoscopic Removal of Adrenal Glands Safe for Obese Cushing’s Patients

Laparoscopic adrenalectomy — a minimally invasive procedure that removes the adrenal glands through a tiny hole in the abdomen — can be safely performed in obese patients with Cushing’s syndrome, a retrospective study reports.

The surgery resolved symptoms in 95% of cases, reducing cortisol levels, lowering blood pressure, and leading to a significant loss of weight in morbidly obese patients.

The study, “Minimally invasive approach to the adrenal gland in obese patients with Cushing’s syndrome,” was published in the journal Minimally Invasive Therapy & Allied Technologies.

Cushing’s syndrome results from the prolonged secretion of excess cortisol, the major glucocorticoid hormone. While most cases are caused by tumors in the pituitary gland, up to 27% result from tumors in the adrenal glands.

In these cases, the standard therapeutic strategy is to remove one or both adrenal glands, a surgical procedure called adrenalectomy. However, because glucocorticoids are key hormones regulating fat metabolism, Cushing’s syndrome patients are known to be prone to obesity, a feature that is often associated with post-operative complications.

In this study, researchers aimed to compare the outcomes of morbidly obese patients versus the mildly obese and non-obese who underwent a minimally invasive procedure to remove their adrenal glands.

The approach, called laparoscopic adrenalectomy, inserts tiny surgical tools through a small hole in the abdomen, along with a camera that helps guide the surgeon.

The study included 228 patients (mean age 53.4 years). Of them, 62 were non-obese, 87 were moderately obese, and 79 were considered morbidly obese. There were 121 patients with tumors in the right adrenal gland, 96 in the left gland, and 11 in both glands.

High blood pressure was the most common symptom, affecting 66.7% of the participants.

Surgery lasted 101 minutes on average, and patients remained in the hospital for a median 4.3 days afterward. Six patients had to be converted into an open surgery because of uncontrollable loss of blood or difficulties in the procedure. Post-surgery complications, most of which were minor, were seen in seven patients.

One patient had blood in the peritoneal cavity and had to have surgery again; another patient had inflammation of the pancreas that required a longer admission.

The analysis showed no statistical differences among the three groups regarding the length of surgery, length of stay in the hospital, or the rate of conversion into open surgery.

However, in obese women, surgeons chose a different surgical incision when removing the left adrenal gland, “suggesting that the distribution of visceral fat in these patients could constitute a drawback for the [standard] approach,” researchers said.

After the surgery, 95% of patients saw their symptoms resolve, including cortisol levels, high blood pressure, and glucose metabolism, and none had a worsening of symptoms in the 6.3 years of follow-up. Obese patients also showed a significant reduction in their weight — 2 kg by 18 months, and 5 kg by the end of follow-up.

Overall, “laparoscopic adrenalectomy is safe and feasible in obese patients affected with Cushing’s disease and it can lead to the resolution of the related symptoms,” researchers said.

The benefits of the surgery in patients with Cushing’s syndrome “could be extended to the improvements and in some cases to the resolution of hypercortisolism related symptoms (i.e. hypertension or even morbid obesity),” the study concluded.

Adapted from https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2019/02/07/laparoscopic-removal-of-adrenal-glands-safe-for-obese-cushings-patients/

Cushing’s Syndrome Patients at More Risk of Blood-clotting Problems After Adrenal Surgery

Cushing’s syndrome patients who undergo adrenal surgery are more likely to have venous thromboembolism — blood clots that originate in the veins — than patients who have the same procedure for other conditions, a study suggests.

Physicians should consider preventive treatment for this complication in Cushing’s syndrome patients who are having adrenal surgery and maintain it for four weeks after surgery due to late VTE onset.

The study, “Is VTE Prophylaxis Necessary on Discharge for Patients Undergoing Adrenalectomy for Cushing Syndrome?” was published in the Journal of Endocrine Society.

Cushing’s syndrome is a condition characterized by too much cortisol in circulation. In many cases, it is caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland, which produces greater amounts of the cortisol-controlling adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). In other cases, patients have tumors in the adrenal glands that directly increase cortisol production.

When the source of the problem is the pituitary gland, the condition is known as Cushing’s disease.

The imbalance in cortisol levels generates metabolic complications that include obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular complications. Among the latter, the formation of blood clots in the deep veins of the leg, groin or arm — a condition called venous thromboembolism (VTE) — is higher in both Cushing’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome patients.

VTE is believed to be a result of excess coagulation factors that promote blood clot formation, and is thought to particularly affect Cushing’s disease patients who have pituitary gland surgery.

Whether Cushing’s syndrome patients who have an adrenalectomy — surgical removal of one or both adrenal glands — are at a higher risk for VTE is largely unknown. This is important for post-operative management, to decide whether they should have preventive treatment for blood clot formation.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland did a retrospective analysis of a large group of patients in the American College of Surgeons National Quality Improvement Program database.

A total of 8,082 patients underwent adrenal gland surgery between 2005 and 2016. Data on these patients included preoperative risk factors, as well as 30-day post-surgery mortality and morbidity outcomes. Patients with malignant disease and without specified adrenal pathology were excluded from the study.

The final analysis included 4,217 patients, 61.8% of whom were females. In total, 310 patients had Cushing’s syndrome or Cushing’s disease that required an adrenalectomy. The remaining 3,907 had an adrenal disease other than Cushing’s and were used as controls.

The incidence of VTE after surgery — defined as pulmonary embolism (a blockage of an artery in the lungs) or deep-vein thrombosis — was 1% in the overall population. However, more Cushing’s patients experienced this complication (2.6%) than controls (0.9%).

Those diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome were generally younger, had a higher body mass index, and were more likely to have diabetes than controls. Their surgery also lasted longer — 191.2 minutes versus 142 minutes — as did their hospital stay – 2.4 versus two days.

Although without statistical significance, the researchers observed a tendency for longer surgery time for patients with Cushing’s syndrome than controls with VTE. They saw no difference in the time for blood coagulation between Cushing’s and non-Cushing’s patients, or postoperative events other than pulmonary embolism or deep-vein thrombosis.

In addition, no differences were detected for VTE incidence between Cushing’s and non-Cushing’s patients according to the type of surgical approach — laparoscopic versus open surgery.

These results suggest that individuals with Cushing syndrome are at a higher risk for developing VTE.

“Because the incidence of VTE events in the CS group was almost threefold higher than that in the non-CS group and VTE events occurred up to 23 days after surgery in patients with CS undergoing adrenalectomy, our data support postdischarge thromboprophylaxis for 28 days in these patients,” the researchers concluded.

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2019/02/14/cushings-syndrome-patients-blood-clots-adrenal-surgery/

Study Supports Midnight Salivary Cortisol Test to Diagnose Cushing’s in Chinese Population

A simple test that measures free cortisol levels in saliva at midnight — called a midnight salivary cortisol test — showed good diagnostic performance for Cushing’s syndrome among a Chinese population, according to a recent study.

The test was better than the standard urine free cortisol levels and may be an alternative for people with end-stage kidney disease, in whom measuring cortisol in urine is challenging.

The study, “Midnight salivary cortisol for the diagnosis of Cushing’s syndrome in a Chinese population,” was published in Singapore Medical Journal.

Cushing’s syndrome, defined by excess cortisol levels, is normally diagnosed by measuring the amount of cortisol in bodily fluids.

Traditionally, urine free cortisol has been the test of choice, but this method is subject to complications ranging from improper collection to metabolic differences, and its use is limited in people with poor kidney function.

Midnight salivary cortisol is a test that takes into account the normal fluctuation of cortisol levels in bodily fluids. Cortisol peaks in the morning and declines throughout the day, reaching its lowest levels at midnight. In Cushing’s patients, however, this variation ceases to exist and cortisol remains elevated throughout the day.

Midnight salivary cortisol was first proposed in the 1980s as a noninvasive way to measure cortisol levels, but its efficacy and cutoff value for Cushing’s disease in the Chinese population remained unclear.

Researchers examined midnight salivary cortisol, urine free cortisol, and midnight serum cortisol in Chinese patients suspected of having Cushing’s syndrome and in healthy volunteers. These measurements were then combined with imaging studies to make a diagnosis.

Overall, the study included 29 patients with Cushing’s disease, and 19 patients with Cushing’s syndrome — 15 caused by an adrenal mass and four caused by an ACTH-producing tumor outside the pituitary. Also, 13 patients excluded from the suspected Cushing’s group were used as controls and 21 healthy volunteers were considered the “normal” group.

The team found that the mean midnight salivary cortisol was significantly higher in the Cushing’s group compared to both control and normal subjects. Urine free cortisol and midnight serum cortisol were also significantly higher than those found in the control group, but not the normal group.

The optimal cutoff value of midnight salivary cortisol for diagnosing Cushing’s was 1.7 ng/mL, which had a sensitivity of 98% — only 2% are false negatives — and a specificity of 100% — no false positives.

While midnight salivary cortisol levels correlated with urine free cortisol and midnight serum cortisol — suggesting that all of them can be useful diagnostic markers for Cushing’s — the accuracy of midnight salivary cortisol was better than the other two measures.

Notably, in one patient with a benign adrenal mass and impaired kidney function, urine free cortisol failed to reach the necessary threshold for a Cushing’s diagnosis, but midnight salivary and serum cortisol levels both confirmed the diagnosis, highlighting how midnight salivary cortisol could be a preferable diagnostic method over urine free cortisol.

“MSC is a simple and non-invasive tool that does not require hospitalization. Our results confirmed the accuracy and reliability of [midnight salivary cortisol] as a diagnostic test for [Cushing’s syndrome] for the Chinese population,” the investigators said.

The team also noted that its study is limited: the sample size was quite small, and Cushing’s patients tended to be older than controls, which may have skewed the results. Larger studies will be needed to validate these results in the future.

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2019/01/10/midnight-salivary-cortisol-test-helps-diagnose-cushings-chinese-study-shows/

Vision Loss The First Sign Of Adrenal Tumour In 42-Year-Old Patient

A 42-year-old woman who presented to hospital with acute vision loss in her right eye was diagnosed with a benign tumour in her adrenal gland.

Writing in BMJ Case Reports, clinicians described how the patient presented with a visual acuity of 6/36 in her right eye and 6/6 in her left eye.

Investigations revealed an exudative retinal detachment in her right eye as well as a pigment epithelial detachment.

The patient had multifocal central serous retinopathy in both eyes.

The woman, who had hypertension and diabetes, was diagnosed with Cushing syndrome and a right adrenal adenoma was also discovered.

During a treatment period that spanned several years, the patient received an adrenalectomy followed by a maintenance dose of steroids.

The patient subsequently developed central serous retinopathy again which the clinicians believe might be related to steroid use.

The authors advised “careful deliberation” in prescribing a maintenance dose of steroids following removal of the adrenal glands because of the potential link to retinopathy.

From https://www.aop.org.uk/ot/science-and-vision/research/2018/12/17/vision-loss-the-first-sign-of-adrenal-tumour-in-42-year-old-patient

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