Inflammation may be new risk factor for heart disease.

If your cholesterol is low, do you feel safe from heart disease?

It might surprise you that many people who have heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels. So, what is causing heart attacks in these people?
Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, being overweight, not exercising and having certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Now there is a new risk factor that may need to be added to the list – inflammation of the blood vessels.

Inflammation may be new risk factor for heart disease
Inflammation may be new risk factor for heart disease

Talk to your doctor
So, with all these risks, where do you start to improve your heart’s health?

First, talk to your doctor. He or she knows your medical history and can provide the most useful advice.

In general, the most successful method of preventing heart disease for the majority of people is probably also the hardest – what doctors call therapeutic lifestyle changes. These changes involve eating smaller, healthier meals, exercising frequently, losing weight and not smoking.

Your doctor is probably already checking your cholesterol level. There are many studies that show the risk of heart disease can be reduced by lowering cholesterol. There are approved drugs a doctor can prescribe to decrease someone’s cholesterol if lifestyle changes alone do not lower it enough.

Inflammation may be new risk factor for heart disease
Inflammation may be new risk factor for heart disease

Recent research suggests even people with low cholesterol levels may have a higher risk of heart disease if they have inflammation (swelling) in their blood vessels.

One way to check for this inflammation is a blood test to measure C-reactive protein. This C-reactive protein is a “marker” of inflammation in your body, which means it gets higher as inflammation increases.

For years, this test has been used to diagnose and monitor patients with inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Now, doctors are starting to look at this test to see if there is inflammation in the blood vessels. The test itself does not tell the doctor where the inflammation is located.

If the doctor knows the patient does not have obvious areas of inflammation (such as swollen joints in rheumatoid arthritis patients), then the inflammation may be in the blood vessels and could increase your risk of heart disease.

Reduce your risk
There are studies that show exercise, a healthy diet and quitting smoking can lower someone’s C-reactive protein level.

Certain drugs also can reduce C-reactive protein, although none have been approved to use for this purpose.

As of now, no studies have been completed to determine if lowering C-reactive protein levels will result in less heart disease in healthy people, but there is at least one that is ongoing.

Additional research is needed in this and other areas, and I am proud to be the director of the Clinical Research Department at Slocum-Dickson Medical Group, where our doctors are involved in many clinical research studies, including one examining C-reactive protein.

Inflammation may be new risk factor for heart disease
Inflammation may be new risk factor for heart disease

We hope that by participating in research studies, Slocum-Dickson physicians can stay on the cutting edge of science and provide additional options to our patients.

Dr. Daniel Goodman is the director of the Clinical Research Department at Slocum-Dickson Medical Group in New Hartford.