High Insulin in Blood Ups Heart Risk

By Sternberg, Steve | Science News, May 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

High Insulin in Blood Ups Heart Risk


Sternberg, Steve, Science News


The first extensive study of the role of insulin in heart disease in a diverse population suggests that insulin resistance, a condition in which cells lack sensitivity to the hormone, may be nearly as potent a risk factor for obstructive artery diseases as smoking or high blood pressure. "The effect we saw for insulin resistance was smaller but in the same neighborhood," says George Howard of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

This means that insulin resistance may predict heart disease risk in tens of thousands of people and compel authorities to rewrite their dietary prescriptions for a healthy heart.

Doctors had linked insulin to heart disease almost a decade ago in two remarkably different groups, South Asian immigrants and Italian pasta makers (SN: 9/16/89, p. 184). At the time, cholesterol and high blood pressure were regarded as the key risk factors. Those studies, however, indicated that high concentrations of insulin in the blood, combined with excess circulating fats known as triglycerides and low concentrations of high-density lipoproteins, increase the risk of heart disease.

Some estimate that as many as one-fourth of the people in the United States inherit a lax response to insulin, the hormone that signals cells to take up sugar from the blood. In these people, the pancreas must pour out more insulin to hold blood sugar to normal. As a result, they may be prone to type II, or non-insulin-dependent diabetes, in which the overworked pancreas can't supply enough insulin to satisfy the body's demand. Ten million people nationwide suffer from this form of the disease.

"The study suggests that coronary heart disease and type II diabetes may have a common root," says Richard Bergman of the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles. "Insulin resistance could cause diabetes in one set of individuals, heart disease in a second set, and possibly both in a third."

The new study, published in the May 15 Circulation, involved 1,397 volunteers. …

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