Don't Miss Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Transgender Patients

Heidi Splete

November 13, 2020

Cardiovascular disease risk is elevated among transgender individuals seeking gender-affirming hormone therapy, according to a retrospective study in 427 patients.

The transgender population often experiences socioeconomic and health disparities, including reduced access to care, Kara J. Denby, MD, said in an interview.

Previous research suggests that the use of gender-affirming hormone therapy (GAHT) may place transgender persons at increased cardiovascular risk, she said.

To identify the potential risk for transgender individuals, the researchers identified baseline cardiovascular risk in patients who had not yet undergone GAHT. Study participants were enrolled in a multidisciplinary transgender program, and the researchers collected data on demographics, medical history, vitals, medications, and laboratory results. The average age of the participants was 26 years, 172 identified as men, 236 as women, and 20 as nonbinary.

Overall, 55% of the participants had a chronic medical condition at baseline. Of these, 74 patients had hypertension, 41 had hyperlipidemia, 2 had a history of stroke, 7 had coronary artery disease, and 4 had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

For all patients who did not have documented atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, their American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association ASCVD and QRISK3 risk scores were calculated. "The incidence of undiagnosed hypertension and hyperlipidemia was 6.8% and 11.3% respectively, and of these cases, only 64% and 24% were on appropriate therapies," noted Dr. Denby of the Cleveland (Ohio) Clinic.

She reported the results Nov. 13 in a presentation at the at the virtual American Heart Association scientific sessions.

The findings were limited by the observational nature of the study.

However, the results suggest that transgender patients "appear to be at higher risk than their age-matched historical cohorts regardless of gender," said Dr. Denby. More research is needed, but cardiovascular disease–prevention efforts may be inadequate in the transgender population given the elevated risk observed in this study, she concluded.

Growing Transgender Population Is Medically Underserved

The transgender population is growing in the United States and internationally, said Dr. Denby. "This group has a history of being marginalized as a result of their transgender status with socioeconomic and health repercussions," she said. "It is well known that transgender patients are less likely to have access to health care or utilize health care for a variety of reasons, including stigma and fear of mistreatment. This often leads transgender individuals to present to care late in disease processes which makes their disease harder to treat and often leads to emergent medical conditions," she added.

"Transgender men and women are at high risk for cardiovascular disease and often aren't screened at recommended intervals because of decreased health care use compared to their cisgender counterparts," she said. "This may lead to untreated diseases that make them even more likely to suffer poor health outcomes."

The current study is important because there are "almost no prior data regarding the cardiovascular health status of this population prior to gender-affirming care," Dr. Denby emphasized. "There are data that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals are at higher risk for poor cardiovascular outcomes, but the same data are lacking in the transgender group," she said.

"As transgender individuals have frequent physician visits while on hormonal therapy, this seems like the opportune time to screen for cardiovascular risk factors and treat previously undiagnosed diseases that can lead to poor health outcomes in the future," Dr. Denby explained. "If we are able to intervene at an earlier age, perhaps we can help prevent poor health outcomes down the road," she said.

Additional Research Can Inform Practice

Dr. Denby said she was not surprised by the findings. "This is a very high-risk population that often doesn't follow closely in the health care system," she said. "These data are very important in thinking holistically about transgender patients." Clinicians can "use the opportunities we have when they present for gender-affirming care to optimize their overall health status, promote long-term health, and reduce the risks associated with hormonal therapy and gender-affirming surgeries," she noted. "We hope to use this information to change our practice at the Cleveland Clinic and nationally as well. Transgender patients should be screened and aggressively treated for cardiovascular disease and risk factors," she said.

Key barriers to overcome include determining the best way to reach out to transgender individuals and then making them feel comfortable in the clinical setting, Dr. Denby said. "This means that we must set up clinics that are approachable and safe for all comers. The lack of laws in many states that protect this vulnerable population also contributes to lack of access to care," she added.

"We hope to continue research in this arena about how to effectively screen and treat transgender patients as they present to care, not only in the transgender clinic, but also to primary care providers (ob.gyn., internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics) who also care for this population" since no specific guidelines currently exist to direct the screening for cardiovascular patients in particular, she said.

Findings Offer Foundation for LGBTQ Cardiovascular Studies

"This [study] provides us with a good rationale for why we should be considering cardiovascular health in transgender adults," Billy A. Caceres, PhD, RN, of Columbia University School of Nursing, New York, said in an interview. "It is largely descriptive, but I think that that's a good step in terms of at least understanding the magnitude of this problem. In addition, I think that what this abstract might do is help lead to future research that examines potentially the associations between not only gender-affirming hormone therapies but other potential social determinants like discrimination or poverty on the cardiovascular health of transgender people," he noted.

Dr. Caceres served as chair of the writing group for the recent American Heart Association Scientific Statement: LGBTQ Heart Health published in Circulation. He had no financial conflicts to disclose.

The study received no outside funding. Dr. Denby had no financial conflicts to disclose.

SOURCE: Denby KJ et al. AHA 2020, Presentation P2274.

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