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HEALTH REPORT – December 4, 2002: Test Warns of Heart Attack Risk - 2002-12-03

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

Since the nineteen-fifties, American doctors have tested their patients’ blood for cholesterol. High levels of this fatty substance help warn of a possible heart attack or stroke. Now a new study says a rarely performed test for a protein in the blood might do this better. The study showed that women with high levels of C-reactive protein were two times as likely to have a heart attack or stroke as women with high cholesterol levels.

The study appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers studied almost twenty-eight-thousand healthy women for eight years. The women were forty-five years old or older. Paul Ridker of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts led the research.

One group of women in the study had higher than normal levels of C-reactive protein. These same women had below average levels of low density lipoprotein or L-D-L. This is often called “bad” cholesterol. These women were considered at low risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Another group had the opposite conditions. They had low levels of C-reactive protein and high levels of L-D-L. Over time, the women with high C-reactive protein and low L-D-L suffered more heart attacks and strokes. This led researchers to believe that people with good cholesterol levels may have a false feeling of security about their health. About half of the people with heart disease have normal cholesterol levels.

Doctors test for cholesterol because it sticks to blood passages called arteries. In time, the substance can block arteries and reduce the flow of blood to the heart or brain. This can kill brain or heart cells.

The rarely used test measures the levels of C-reactive protein made by the body when arteries are inflamed. Inflammation is a reaction to infection, injury or other causes. Many doctors suspect that continued inflammation helps cause artery disease, heart attacks and strokes.

Millions of Americans who have normal cholesterol levels also have high C-reactive protein. Doctor Ridker said the C-reactive protein test could warn these people of possible trouble. They could then exercise, lose weight or take drugs called statins. Doctors advise these same measures to treat high cholesterol levels.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Jerilyn Watson.