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  health > heart > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

A new risk factor for heart disease

July 14, 1999
Web posted at: 5:13 PM EDT (2113 GMT)

In this story:

Impacting Americans

Associated but not necessarily a cause

Taking preventive measures


By Laura Lane

Cardiovascular disease is devastating, claiming more lives in this country than any other disease. However, you can play a part in reducing your risk of having a heart attack or suffering a stroke. The American Heart Association suggests that you:
  • Stop smoking -- Cigarette smokers are at greater risk for developing not only cardiovascular disease but also several types of cancer. Smoking is a major cause of coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack.
  • Get some exercise -- Scientists have shown that lack of physical activity is a risk factor for heart disease. Exercise reduces your risk of heart disease by improving blood circulation throughout the body, keeping your weight under control, improving blood cholesterol levels and preventing and managing high blood pressure.
  • Control your cholesterol -- A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease. When a person has too much cholesterol circulating in the blood, it can slowly build up within the walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain, leading to a heart attack or a stroke.
  • Control your blood pressure -- Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to stroke, heart attack, congestive heart failure and kidney failure. While doctors typically prescribe medications for high blood pressure, you can also do your part by reducing the amount of sodium and alcohol in your diet and losing weight and exercising.
  • Lose weight -- About one-third of Americans are overweight. All this excess weight places an additional strain on the heart and increases your risk for heart problems. Lose weight by decreasing the amount of fat in your diet and by exercising.
  • (WebMD) -- Older people with a certain heart condition may be more at risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than was once thought, researchers have found.

    Physicians have always viewed this condition, aortic-valve sclerosis, as benign and insignificant when it comes to causing serious health problems. The new study, published in the July 15 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that the sclerosis renders people more susceptible to dying from a heart attack or stroke, said Dr. Catherine Otto, lead author of the study and professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

    Impacting Americans

    Nearly 1 million Americans die of cardiovascular diseases every year, accounting for more than 40 percent of all deaths in the country, according to the American Heart Association. And about 25 percent of Americans aged 65 years or older have an aortic-valve sclerosis, a hardening or calcification of the valve.

    The condition does not affect the function of the aortic valve, which serves as a doorway, allowing blood to exit the heart and enter the rest of the body. For people whose valves thicken to the point of blocking blood from flowing out of the heart, physicians recommend surgery.

    However, they don't usually recommend any kinds of therapies for people who have the sclerosis, said Dr. David Siscovick, one of the authors of the study and a professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

    "Up to this point, there was no perceived need to prevent aortic-valve sclerosis or its course," he said.

    The study, which observed 5,621 randomly selected people 65 or older for five years, showed that those who had an aortic-valve sclerosis at the beginning of the study had about a 50 percent greater risk of dying from a heart attack, Siscovick said. People with the sclerosis also had more incidents of congestive heart failure and stroke.

    Associated but not necessarily a cause

    The authors emphasize that the study does not prove that the sclerosis causes cardiovascular disease, nor how it develops as a result of the sclerosis. Rather, the results merely show that an aortic-valve sclerosis is associated with more cardiovascular disease.

    Lead author Otto emphasized that additional research is required to confirm the results of her study. In addition, other studies should be done to investigate the best ways to prevent the sclerosis from influencing cardiovascular disease.

    What the study did do was to unveil a new and easy way to pinpoint another risk factor for heart disease, said Dr. Blase Carabello, chief of medicine at the Houston Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Texas. Though the study used an echocardiogram, a sonar-like imaging device, to diagnose an aortic-valve sclerosis, doctors can usually diagnose the condition using a stethoscope, a convenient way for people to find out if they are at risk for a heart attack or other cardiovascular disease.

    "The most interesting point about the study is that it's an accessible finding for the physician," said Carabello, who wrote an editorial to accompany the research article.

    He said that doctors should treat an aortic-valve sclerosis more seriously and look for ways to reduce a patient's risk factors, which include high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Doctors should also perform more tests to examine the heart for disease if they think that a patient has the sclerosis.

    The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and is part of the Cardiovascular Health Study, which began in 1988 to identify new risk factors for heart disease and stroke among older adults.

    Taking preventive measures

    Until medical scientists find out more, Otto recommends that people stop smoking, watch their diet and adopt other healthy habits to prevent cardiovascular disease.

    "It would be appropriate for everyone, sclerosis or not, to be a heart-healthy person," she said. "That's the message I would take home."

    Copyright 1999 by WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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