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It’s time to rethink heart health

On average, someone dies from cardiovascular disease (CVD) every 36 seconds, approximately 2,380 deaths each day, according to the American Heart Association. Each day, 405 deaths occur as the result of strokes, an average of one death every 3:33.

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On average, someone dies from cardiovascular disease (CVD) every 36 seconds, approximately 2,380 deaths each day, according to the American Heart Association. Each day, 405 deaths occur as the result of strokes, an average of one death every 3:33. More people die annually from CVD than from any other cause including cancer, COPD, diabetes, lung infections and the flu, according to the American Heart Association (AHA) 2021 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics.

Consider these steps to #RethinkCVRisk to change the course of the disease and your life.

Understand Your Risk

COVID-19 has shown that those with underlying CVD face an especially high risk of serious COVID-19-related illness or even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Regardless of whether you’ve received your COVID-19 vaccination, now is a good time to discuss your risk for heart disease with your doctor.

How Cardiovascular Disease Develops

Risk factors for CVD include high cholesterol, high triglycerides, diabetes and high blood pressure. Other factors that contribute to risk are family history, prior cardiovascular (CV) events, smoking, being overweight or obese and unhealthy diet and exercise habits. Over time, these risk factors can lead to injury of the blood vessel lining, causing inflammation, which can then trigger plaque growth. Plaque grows at different rates and in different arteries in the body for everyone and is often a slow, gradual process without symptoms.

As plaque buildup continues, the risk of suffering a CV event – such as heart attack or stroke – increases. If plaque ruptures, the body will try to repair the injury, potentially causing a blockage to form, and when an artery becomes fully blocked, blood flow is restricted. Blocked blood flow to the heart causes a heart attack while blocked blood flow to the brain causes a stroke.

Managing Risk Factors

The most effective way to prevent CVD is to understand and address risk factors. Triglycerides play an important role in heart health. Triglycerides store unused calories to give your body energy and are the most common type of fat in the body. They come from foods you eat such as butter, oils and other fats, as well as carbohydrates, sugars and alcohol. Your diet, lack of exercise, medical conditions, certain drugs and genetics can all cause high triglycerides.

In the past, medicines used to lower triglycerides, like fenofibrates and niacin, were commonly prescribed to help manage CV risk along with statins. However, clinical studies failed to show benefits and both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and American Diabetes Association discourage combining niacin and fenofibrates with statins.

Some turn to dietary supplement fish oil to help manage CV risk. However, supplements contain only 30% of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) with the majority of the product consisting of non-omega-3 ingredients, including saturated fats. Some data suggests certain ingredients in dietary supplement fish oils, such as DHA and saturated fats, may raise bad cholesterol.

While high triglycerides are an indicator of CV risk, lowering them won’t necessarily reduce your risk. However, addressing the underlying causes of high triglycerides can help, according to the AHA.

Treatment Options

With ongoing research, new standards-of-care are emerging. High cholesterol is a key CV risk factor with statins currently the first-line therapy for lowering cholesterol. Statins, diet and exercise can lower your CV risk by about 25-35%, but, for many people, controlled cholesterol doesn’t eliminate CV risk. This residual risk, or “persistent CV risk,” puts millions of patients at risk and has been the focus of therapeutic development for many years.

Talk with your doctor about FDA-approved options that can help further reduce your heart risk if you already take statins.

Truths and Falsehoods About Heart Disease Risk

1. Statins reduce your chance of experiencing a CV event by up to 90%.

False. Statins, diet and exercise can lower your risk by about 25-35%, but for many patients, controlled cholesterol doesn’t eliminate CV risk. This residual risk, or “persistent CV risk,” puts millions of patients at risk and has been the focus of therapeutic development for many years.

2. Managing high triglycerides along with taking statins is enough to reduce your risk.

False. High triglycerides are a CV risk factor but lowering them won’t necessarily reduce your risk. For example, earlier generation medicines prescribed to lower triglycerides, like fenofibrates and niacin, failed to show clinical benefit when used with statins to reduce CV risk. In fact, the FDA withdrew approval for fenofibrates and niacin in combination with statins because they add potential risk with no proven benefit to heart health.

3. Fish oil supplements are a proven way to get protection from a CV event.

False. Fish oil supplements are not FDA-approved medicines intended to treat or prevent a medical condition. Despite multiple clinical studies, these products have not been proven, to reduce CV risk on top of current medical therapies including statins.

4. Having a first CV event, such as a heart attack or stroke, puts you at greater risk to suffer another.

True. Having a CV event makes you more likely to suffer another. That’s why it’s important to protect against a first CV event or future events. To closely monitor your heart health, stay in close contact with your doctor and reduce your risk by keeping up with your medications, exercising and sticking to a healthy diet.

For more information about CVD and what you can do, look for #RethinkCVRisk on social media or visit truetoyourheart.com.

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Popular prescription weight loss drugs linked to uncommon blinding condition

Patients prescribed semaglutide (as Ozempic or Wegovy) for diabetes or weight loss had a higher risk of having a potentially blinding eye condition called NAION than similar patients who had not been prescribed these drugs.

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A new study led by investigators from Mass Eye and Ear found that patients prescribed semaglutide (as Ozempic or Wegovy) for diabetes or weight loss had a higher risk of having a potentially blinding eye condition called NAION than similar patients who had not been prescribed these drugs.

Notably, the study found people with diabetes who had been prescribed semaglutide by their physician and then filled the prescription were more than four times more likely to be diagnosed with NAION. Those who were overweight or had obesity and prescribed this drug were more than seventimes more likely to get the diagnosis.

The study, which was led by Joseph Rizzo, MD, director of the Neuro-Ophthalmology Service at Mass Eye and Ear and the Simmons Lessell Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School,  published July 3rd in JAMA Ophthalmology.

“The use of these drugs has exploded throughout industrialized countries and they have provided very significant benefits in many ways, but future discussions between a patient and their physician should include NAION as a potential risk,” said Rizzo, the study’s corresponding author. “It is important to appreciate, however, that the increased risk relates to a disorder that is relatively uncommon.” 

NAION is relatively rare, occurring up to 10 out of 100,000 people in the general population. NAION is the second-leading cause of optic nerve blindness (second only to glaucoma) and it is the most common cause of sudden optic nerve blindness. NAION is thought to be caused by reduced blood flow to the optic nerve head, with the consequence of permanent visual loss in one eye. According to Rizzo, the visual loss caused by NAION is painless and may progresses over many days before stabilizing, and there is relatively little potential for improvement. There are currently no effective treatments for NAION. 

The impetus for the study occurred in the late summer of 2023 when Rizzo, a resident (study co-author Seyedeh Maryam Zekavat, MD, PhD) and other Mass Eye and Ear neuro-ophthalmologists noticed a disturbing trend — three patients in their practice had been diagnosed with vision loss from this relatively uncommon optic nerve disease in just one week. The physicians observed all three were taking semaglutide.

This anecdotal recognition led the Mass Eye and Ear research team to run a backward-looking analysis of their patient population to see if they could identify a link between this disease and these drugs, which had been surging in popularity.

Semaglutide was developed to treat type 2 diabetes. The drug encourages weight loss, and its use has snowballed since its launch as Ozempic for diabetes in 2017. The drug was also approved for weight management, branded as Wegovy, and released in 2021.

The researchers analyzed the records of more than 17,000 Mass Eye and Ear patients treated over the six years since Ozempic was released and divided the patients in those who were diagnosed with either diabetes or overweight/ obesity. The researchers compared patients who had received prescriptions for semaglutide compared to those taking other diabetes or weight loss drugs. Then, they analyzed the rate of NAION diagnoses in the groups, which revealed the significant risk increases.

There are several limitations to the study. Mass Eye and Ear sees an unusually high number of people with rare eye diseases, the study population is majority white, and the number of NAION cases seen over the six-year study period is relatively small. With small case numbers, statistics can change quickly, Rizzo noted. The researchers also couldn’t determine if the patients actually took their medication or if they started and then stopped taking semaglutide at some point and how this might have impacted their risk.  

Importantly, the study does not prove causality, and the researchers don’t know why or how this association exists, and why there was a difference reported in diabetic and overweight groups.

“Our findings should be viewed as being significant but tentative, as future studies are needed to examine these questions in a much larger and more diverse population,” Rizzo said. “This is information we did not have before and it should be included in discussions between patients and their doctors, especially if patients have other known optic nerve problems like glaucoma or if there is preexisting significant visual loss from other causes.”

Authorship: In addition to Rizzo and Zekavat, other Mass General Brigham co-authors include Jimena Tatiana Hathaway, MD, MPH (MEE); Madhura P. Shah, BS (MEE); David B. Hathaway, MD (BWH); Drenushe Krasniqi, BA (MEE); John W. Gittinger Jr, MD (MEE); Dean Cestari, MD (MEE); Robert Mallery, MD (MEE); Bardia Abbasi, MD (MEE); Marc Bouffard, MD (MEE); Bart K. Chwalisz, MD (MEE) and Tais Estrela, MD (MEE).

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New study confirms forever chemicals are absorbed through human skin

New research, published in Environment International proves for the first time that a wide range of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances) – chemicals which do not break down in nature – can permeate the skin barrier and reach the body’s bloodstream.

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A study of 17 commonly used synthetic ‘forever chemicals’ has shown that these toxic substances can readily be absorbed through human skin. 

New research, published in Environment International proves for the first time that a wide range of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances) – chemicals which do not break down in nature – can permeate the skin barrier and reach the body’s bloodstream.  

PFAS are used widely in industries and consumer products from school uniforms to personal care products because of their water and stain repellent properties. While some substances have been banned by government regulation, others are still widely used and their toxic effects have not yet been fully investigated. 

PFAS are already known to enter the body through other routes, for example being breathed in or ingested via food or drinking water, and they are known to cause adverse health effects such as a lowered immune response to vaccination, impaired liver function and decreased birth weight.  

It has commonly been thought that PFAS are unable to breach the skin barrier, although recent studies have shown links between the use of personal care products and PFAS concentrations in human blood and breast milk.  The new study is the most comprehensive assessment yet undertaken of the absorption of PFAS into human skin and confirms that most of them can enter the body via this route. 

Lead author of the study, Dr Oddný Ragnarsdóttir carried out the research while studying for her PhD at the University of Birmingham. She explained: “The ability of these chemicals to be absorbed through skin has previously been dismissed because the molecules are ionised. The electrical charge that gives them the ability to repel water and stains was thought to also make them incapable of crossing the skin membrane. 

“Our research shows that this theory does not always hold true and that, in fact, uptake through the skin could be a significant source of exposure to these harmful chemicals.” 

The researchers investigated 17 different PFAS. The compounds selected were among those most widely used, and most widely studied for their toxic effects and other ways through which humans might be exposed to them. Most significantly, they correspond to chemicals regulated by the EU’s Drinking Water Directive.   

In their experiments the team used 3D human skin equivalent models – multilayered laboratory grown tissues that mimic the properties of normal human skin, meaning the study could be carried out without using any animals. They applied samples of each chemical to measure what proportions were absorbed, unabsorbed, or retained within the models. 

Of the 17 PFAS tested, the team found 15 substances showed substantial dermal absorption – at least 5% of the exposure dose. At the exposure doses examined, absorption into the bloodstream of the most regulated PFAS (perfluoro octanoic acid (PFOA)) was 13.5% with a further 38% of the applied dose retained within the skin for potential longer-term uptake into the circulation.  

The amount absorbed seemed to correlate with the length of the carbon chain within the molecule. Substances with longer carbon chains showed lower levels of absorption, while compounds with shorter chains that were introduced to replace longer carbon chain PFAS like PFOA, were more easily absorbed. Absorption of perfluoro pentanoic acid for example was four times that of PFOA at 59%. 

Study co-author, Dr Mohamed Abdallah, said “our study provides first insight into significance of the dermal route as pathway of exposure to a wide range of forever chemicals.  Given the large number of existing PFAS, it is important that future studies aim to assess the risk of broad ranges of these toxic chemicals, rather than focusing on one chemical at a time.”  

Study co-author, Professor Stuart Harrad, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, added: “This study helps us to understand how important exposure to these chemicals via the skin might be and also which chemical structures might be most easily absorbed. This is important because we see a shift in industry towards chemicals with shorter chain lengths because these are believed to be less toxic – however the trade-off might be that we absorb more of them, so we need to know more about the risks involved.” 

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Chronic loneliness may increase stroke risk among older adults

When loneliness was assessed at baseline only, the participants considered lonely had a 25% higher risk of stroke than those not considered lonely. Among the participants who reported loneliness at two time points, those in the “consistently high” group had a 56% higher risk of stroke than those in the “consistently low” group, even after accounting for a broad range of other known risk factors.

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Chronic loneliness may significantly raise older adults’ risk of stroke, according to a new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

“Loneliness is increasingly considered a major public health issue. Our findings further highlight why that is,” said lead author Yenee Soh, research associate in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Especially when experienced chronically, our study suggests loneliness may play an important role in stroke incidence, which is already one of the leading causes of long-term disability and mortality worldwide.”

While previous research has linked loneliness to higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, few have examined the impact on stroke risk specifically. This study is one of the first to examine the association between loneliness changes and stroke risk over time.

Using 2006-2018 data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the researchers assessed the association between changes in loneliness and stroke incidence over time. During 2006-2008, 12,161 participants—all adults ages 50 and above who never had a stroke—responded to questions on the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale, from which the researchers created summary loneliness scores. Four years later (2010-2012), 8,936 participants who remained in the study responded to the same questions again. The researchers then placed the participants into one of four groups according to their loneliness scores across the two time points: “consistently low” (those who scored low on the loneliness scale at both baseline and follow-up); “remitting” (those who scored high at baseline and low at follow-up); “recent onset” (those who scored low at baseline and high at follow-up); and “consistently high” (those who scored high at both baseline and follow-up).

Among the participants whose loneliness was measured at baseline only, 1,237 strokes occurred during the follow-up period (2006-2018). Among the participants who provided two assessments of loneliness over time, 601 strokes occurred during the follow-up period (2010-2018). The researchers analyzed each group’s risk of stroke over the follow-up period in the context of their experiences with loneliness, controlling for other health and behavioral risk factors. These included social isolation and depressive symptoms, which are closely related but distinct from loneliness.

The findings showed a link between loneliness and higher risk of stroke and found that chronic loneliness heightened risk the most. When loneliness was assessed at baseline only, the participants considered lonely had a 25% higher risk of stroke than those not considered lonely. Among the participants who reported loneliness at two time points, those in the “consistently high” group had a 56% higher risk of stroke than those in the “consistently low” group, even after accounting for a broad range of other known risk factors. While the baseline analyses suggest loneliness at one time point was associated with higher risk, those who experienced remitting or recent onset loneliness did not show a clear pattern of increased risk of stroke—suggesting that loneliness’ impact on stroke risk occurs over the longer term.

“Repeat assessments of loneliness may help identify those who are chronically lonely and are therefore at a higher risk for stroke. If we fail to address their feelings of loneliness, on a micro and macro scale, there could be profound health consequences,” said Soh. “Importantly, these interventions must specifically target loneliness, which is a subjective perception and should not be conflated with social isolation.”

The authors noted that further research examining both nuanced changes in loneliness over the short-term, as well as loneliness patterns over a longer period of time, may help shed additional light on the loneliness-stroke association. They also noted that more research is needed to understand the potential underlying mechanisms, and that the study findings were limited to middle-aged and older adults and may not be generalizable to younger individuals.

Other Harvard Chan authors included Ichiro Kawachi, Laura Kubzansky, Lisa Berkman, and Henning Tiemeier.

Chronic Loneliness and the Risk of Incident Stroke in Middle and Late Adulthood: A Longitudinal Cohort Study of U.S. Older Adults” was written by Yenee Soh, Ichiro Kawachi, Laura D. Kubzansky, Lisa F. Berkman, Henning Tiemeier, and appeared in eClinicalMedicine.

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