Studies Identify Surprising Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Lower blood sugar, avoiding traffic jams, finishing high school all linked to reduced risk.

You might help protect your heart by controlling your blood sugar, changing your commute and maybe even by getting more education. Those are among the surprising findings of a bevy of new studies seeking to better understand the risk of heart attacks.

Two studies published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that elevated blood sugar-not only in diabetics but also in those with high-normal readings-increases the risk of heart attack. It was already known that diabetes doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease, which kills up to 80 percent of diabetics. But the new research seems to point a finger at high blood sugar itself, rather than diabetes' associated risk factors.

The next step in the research will be to test whether the cardiovascular risk can be reduced by lowering blood-sugar levels. In the meantime, though, the researchers urge people with diabetes to step up their efforts to control blood sugar through diet, weight loss, exercise and medication. Non-diabetics whose blood-sugar readings are elevated should consult with their physicians about exercise, diet and weight loss approaches to bring those numbers down.

Another way to reduce your risk of heart attack might be to avoid traffic jams, according to a German study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It's not only the aggravation of traffic gridlock that researchers linked to heart attacks, though--it may also be the air pollution. Sitting in traffic for as little as an hour almost triples your risk of suffering a heart attack within the following few days.

Using public transportation or riding your bike to work won't help. The short-term risk was just as great for public-transit riders and even higher for bicyclists.

That's one reason the researchers believe there may be more to the traffic effect than just the stress of fighting gridlock. In an editorial accompanying the report, Peter H. Stone, MD, co-director of the cardiac unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and an associate professor at Harvard University, supported linking air pollution and cardiovascular risk. Particulates in the air can trigger arterial clots, constrict the arteries, cause inflammation and disrupt heart rhythms.

You can battle high blood sugar and rethink your commute, but it might be too late to change another newly discovered heart risk factor: the lack of a high-school diploma. A study in The Annals of Family Medicine reported that people who hadn't graduated from high school were two-and-a-half times more likely to die from heart disease as those with more education. That's roughly the same increased risk as having high cholesterol.

But don't let your diploma status be an excuse. After all, you can do something about high cholesterol-and that's just being smart.

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