Heart disease ranks as the leading cause of death in the U.S., resulting in over 600,000 deaths each year. In addition to the lives taken, heart disease costs the country in excess of $108 billion each year in lost productivity, medication, and health care services. However, a new study may have found a way to help doctors determine whether a patient is at risk of suffering from heart disease.
Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute have found that a blood test that measures the level of a certain compound found in the stomach can be used to determine whether a person will suffer from future heart troubles.
According to researchers, the higher levels of the compound trimethylamine-N-oxide or TMAO an individual has in his or her stomach, the greater their risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease. Researchers are optimistic that TMAO could become a target to help prevent or reduce the risk of heart problems.
A Better Understanding
For years, doctors and medical experts have used blood tests and known risk factors, such as smoking, cholesterol levels, and high blood pressure, to determine a patient’s risk of developing heart disease. However, doctors have never had a reliable tool that measured something in the blood that was capable of providing such an accurate indication of a patient’s risk of heart disease before.
What makes TMAO such a powerful indicator of future cases of heart disease is how the compound is formed in the body. Studies have found that the body metabolizes dietary choline, a compound found in eggs, into TMAO, and the body also metabolizes carnitine, a chemical found in red meat, the same way. This is significant because TMAO alters how cholesterol is metabolized and managed by the body. TMAO attaches itself to blood vessels, while also making it more difficult for the liver and intestines to process cholesterol out of the body.
Researchers feel confident this new type of blood test will help to identify those with the greatest need of receiving preventative care. Since the levels of TMAO in the blood seem directly related to a person’s diet- individuals whose diets contain high amounts of red meat tend to have the highest levels- researchers believe that TMAO blood tests could help people tailor their diet to lower their risk of developing cardiovascular problems later on.
The results of this study were published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine.
During their study, researchers discovered a striking relationship between the amount of TMAO in a person’s blood and their risk of developing a heart-related condition. The higher a person’s TMAO levels, the greater their risk of heart disease, stroke, or heart attack became. Individuals who had the highest levels of TMAO in their blood had a 2.5 times greater risk of suffering one of these heart-related conditions than individuals with the lowest levels.
Additional research has suggested that TMAO may also play a role in the development and progression of atherosclerosis, a form of arterial plaque that can build up and block blood flow to the heart.
As a way to combat the development of TMAO in the body, the American Heart Association recommends individuals eat a heart-healthy diet that contains plenty of foods low in sugar and fat, and to limit dairy consumption. Vegetarians typically have the lowest levels on TMAO.
While more research is needed on this topic, doctors find the early indications of this study to be a positive step towards preventing heart disease in the future.