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Photo: Epidemiologists prepare to present their research results on homocysteine. Link to photo information
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Read the magazine story to find out more.

Homocysteine Still Incriminated in Heart Disease

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
May 16, 2002

Mounting evidence indicates that the amino acid homocysteine, when found circulating at high levels in the bloodstream, increases risk of heart attack and stroke. Because some studies contradict those findings, researchers funded by the Agricultural Research Service looked for a link among data collected from the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III). The survey is a six-year collection of data on health and diet taken from a sample of the American population.

To get the homocysteine data that underlies the study, researchers with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, Mass., proposed testing blood samples taken from the last three years--or Phase 2--of the NHANES III. Jacob Selhub, chief of the center’s Vitamin Metabolism Laboratory, tested 8,585 samples taken from males and females aged 12 and above.

Men and women aged 40 and older who had blood homocysteine levels of more than 12 micromoles per liter were more than twice as likely to have experienced a heart attack or stroke. According to Tuft’s nutritional epidemiologist Martha Morris, who analyzed the data, the new finding shows blood homocysteine concentrations were not related to heart attack or stroke in women prior to menopause, although the relationship was strong in men of the same age group. Conversely, the relationship faded among older men and surfaced among postmenopausal women.

The implication is that earlier studies found no across-the-board association between mixed groups’ elevated homocysteine levels and heart disease precisely because the association is age- and gender-dependent. According to Morris, the findings support the idea that women may be protected from heart attack and stroke by their high estrogen status.

Read more about effects of elevated homocysteine levels in the May issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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