July 18, 2007 -- The odds of getting heart disease may lie, in part, in six genes identified today by European researchers.
"Even if a person carries one or more of these risk variants, they can still do a lot to reduce their risk by adopting a healthy lifestyle, not smoking, and, if they have high blood pressure or raised cholesterol levels, to have these treated," Nilesh Samani, FMedSci, says in a news release.
Samani works at England's University of Leicester and was involved in the heart disease gene study, which appears in today's online edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.
Heart Disease Genetics
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for U.S. men and women.
Heart disease risk may be handed down from generation to generation through genes. But genetics are only part of the story.
Samani's study focuses only on genetics -- not whether people were couch potatoes, how often they exercised, whether they ate leafy green vegetables every day or once a decade, or had any other habits that might sway their heart health.
The key question: Were the genetic cards stacked against certain people?
6 Heart Disease Genes
First, the researchers scrolled through the DNA of nearly 2,000 Europeans who had a heart attack or other forms of heart disease before age 66.
For comparison, they also studied the genes of some 2,900 Europeans of the same age who had no history of heart trouble.
The people with heart disease were more likely than those with healthy hearts to have certain gene variations.
Samani's checked their findings in 875 Germans who survived a heart attack before age 60 and more than 1,600 Germans with no heart problems.
The scientists combined all their data and came up with six genetic variants that were linked to heart attacks or heart disease.
Those variants are in or near the MTHFD1L, PSRC1, MIA3, SMAD3, CDKN2A/CDKN2B, and CXCL12 genes.
Gene Role in Heart Disease?
The researchers don't yet know exactly how those genes affect heart disease risk.
But a journal editorial notes that the gene variant that was most strongly linked to heart disease is associated with genes that govern cell death.
However, the editorial also points out that all of the participants in the gene study were white Europeans.
More diverse studies are needed to see if the findings apply to people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, notes editorialist Anthony Rosenzweig, MD.
Rosenzweig works in the cardiovascular division of Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Stem Cell Institute.