Heart attacks: Study finds surprising risk factor – did you know about this?

Heart attacks are sudden and shocking. The pain starts in the chest but can quickly spread to your left or right arm, or to your neck, jaw, back or stomach. A heart attack can be fatal, so it is therefore vital people understand the risk factors. Certain lifestyle factors are well understood, but one study find an interesting link to the environment.

We believe our findings offer an important insight into the biology behind this phenomenon

Dr Azar Radfar

Heart attacks are sudden and shocking. The pain starts in the chest but can quickly spread to your left or right arm, or to your neck, jaw, back or stomach. A heart attack can be fatal, so it is therefore vital people understand the risk factors. Certain lifestyle factors are well understood, but one study find an interesting link to the environment.

According to preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2018, exposure to environmental noise appears to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes by fuelling the activity of a brain region involved in stress response. This response in turn promotes blood vessel inflammation – a major cause of heart attacks.

The findings reveal that people with the highest levels of chronic noise exposure – such as highway and airport noise – had an increased risk of suffering cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes, regardless of other risk factors known to increase cardiovascular risk.

The results of the study offer valuable insight into the biological mechanisms of the well-known, but poorly understood, interplay between cardiovascular disease and chronic noise exposure, researchers said.

Commenting on the findings, study author Dr Azar Radfar, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston said: “A growing body of research reveals an association between ambient noise and cardiovascular disease, but the physiological mechanisms behind it have remained unclear.

“We believe our findings offer an important insight into the biology behind this phenomenon.”

Researchers analysed the association between noise exposure and major cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes, among 499 people (average age 56 years). The participants underwent positron emission tomography (PET) and CT scans of their brains and blood vessels. The researchers also looked at the activity of the amygdala, a region of the brain that regulates stress and emotional response.

All participants were free of cardiovascular illness and cancer at baseline. Using those images, the scientists assessed the activity of the amygdala. To capture cardiovascular risk, the researchers examined the participants’ medical records following the initial imaging studies. Of the 499 participants, 40 experienced a cardiovascular event (e.g. heart attack or stroke) in the five years following the initial testing.

To gauge noise exposure, the researchers used participants’ home addresses and derived noise level estimates from the Department of Transportation’s Aviation and Highway Noise Map.

People with the highest levels of noise exposure had higher levels of amygdalar activity and more inflammation in their arteries. Notably, these people also had a greater than three-fold risk of suffering a heart attack or a stroke and other major cardiovascular events, compared with people who had lower levels of noise exposure. That risk remained elevated even after the researchers accounted for other cardiovascular and environmental risk factors, including air pollution, high cholesterol, smoking and diabetes.

Additional analysis revealed that high levels of amygdalar activity appears to unleash a pathway that fuels cardiac risk by driving blood vessel inflammation, a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

The researchers caution that more research is needed to determine whether reduction in noise exposure could meaningfully lower cardiovascular risk and reduce the number of cardiovascular events on a population-wide scale.

However, “Patients and their physicians should consider chronic noise exposure when assessing cardiovascular risk and may wish to take steps to minimise or mitigate such chronic exposure,” Radfar said.

According to the British Heart Foundation, there are a number of lifestyle factors that can increase the risk, these include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Not doing enough physical activity

“The more risk factors you have the higher your risk. The good news is living a healthy lifestyle can help lower your risk and there are lots of small changes you can make,” said the health body.

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