Intriguing new research is helping solve the mystery of why some seemingly healthy people suffer heart attacks and other cardiovascular events, despite lacking any of the traditional risk factors.
Indeed, if the five leading cardiovascular threats–smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity–were entirely eliminated, only half of deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD) would be prevented, according to a new study published in Annals of Internal Medicine.
Here is a look at unexpected heart health risks identified in new studies, and what you can do to protect yourself.
A weak handgrip.
The strength of a person’s grip may be a better predictor of risk for heart disease, stroke and early death than systolic blood pressure, according to a new study of nearly 140,000 adults in 17 countries, published in Lancet. The researchers tested the strength of the participants’ grip (using a dynamometer) at the start of the study and then roughly four years later. For each 5-kilogram drop in grip strength, risk for heart attack rose by 7 percent, stroke risk jumped by 9 percent, and risk for death from CV causes increased by 17 percent. While it’s not yet known if exercises to improve grip strength would help lower CVD risk, the American Heart Association advises moderate-to-high intensity muscle strengthening workouts at least twice a week combined with at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercises at least 5 days a week for overall cardiovascular health.
Low levels of vitamin C.
Skimping on vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables isn’t just unhealthy–it could actually be fatal, a new study of more than 97,000 people suggests. The researchers found people who ate the most fruit and vegetables had a 15 percent lower risk for developing CVD and a 20 percent lower risk for early death from cardiovascular causes, compared to those who rarely ate these foods. “At the same time, we can see that the reduced risk is related to high vitamin C concentrations in the blood from the fruit and vegetables,” reported lead study author Dr. Camille Kobylecki. The researchers advise getting ample amounts of vitamin C–a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from disease-inducing damage–through a healthy diet, rather than a supplement. The research was published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Giving birth prematurely.
Mothers of preterm babies (those born before the 37th week of pregnancy) have up to 4 times higher risk for CVD mortality later in life, according to a number of epidemiological studies. A new study published in European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found the combination of smoking and giving birth preterm more than triples the threat of developing CVD, compared to nonsmokers who gave birth to full-term babies. The study examined medical records of 902,008 mothers and found that smoking and preterm birth are independent risk factors for CVD. “Our research shows for the first time that smoking and preterm birth interact to create a greater CVD risk than either risk factor on its own,” says lead study author Dr. Anh D. Ngo, a research fellow at the University of Sydney in Australia. “Smoking women who stop smoking when planning to get pregnant will receive dual protection,” adds Dr. Ngo. “They will avoid the increased risk of having a preterm birth and they will avoid the elevated risk of getting cardiovascular disease when they reach an older age.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Along with sparking such debilitating symptoms as nightmares, terrifying flashbacks, depression, anxiety and trouble sleeping, PTSD may also raise women’s risk for cardiovascular events, according to new data from the Nurses’ Health Study II, published in Circulation. The study included nearly 55,000 women who had completed questionnaires in 2008 about traumatic events they had experienced in the previous 20 years, such as physical assault or a natural disaster. Those who had experienced a trauma and reported four or more symptoms of PTSD were 60 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than women who reported no trauma. Doctors should be aware of this link, screen patients with PTSD for CVD risk, and encourage healthy lifestyle changes to lower risk, said Jennifer Sumner, PhD, lead author and an epidemiology merit fellow at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. “This is not exclusively a mental problem–it’s a potentially deadly problem of the body as well.”
As we recently reported, inflammation has been linked to a wide range of chronic conditions, from CVD to type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and depression. Now, a new study of 160,481 people suggests that measuring levels of certain inflammatory biomarkers can help physicians better predict patients’ prognoses. The research, published in PLOS ONE, found that elevated levels of the inflammatory markers C-reactive protein (CRP) (greater than 10 mg/dL) and low levels of albumin, (less than 35 md/dL) were independently predictive of increased risk for cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and all-cause mortality. The scientists also reported that lower CRP levels (less than 3 mg/dL) “appeared to better differentiate those patients that were likely to do particularly well,” adding that, “high sensitivity C-reactive protein has been recommended for use in the risk stratification of cardiovascular disease in certain patient groups.” Levels of CRP and other inflammatory markers can be measured with simple blood and urine tests, and may help detect hidden risk for heart attack or stroke.