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Rheumatoid factor is a risk factor for heart disease in men

Wednesday, 20-Jun-2007

Scientists have found that a product of white blood cells linked to rheumatoid arthritis could cause heart disease in men.

Rheumatoid factor is present in up to 15% of adults in the UK. Although it's produced by the immune system, it may be responsible for damage to the body's own cells.

The results came from a study of more than 1000 people, born between 1931 and 1937 in Hertfordshire. Dr Christopher Edwards of the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre who led the analysis of results from the Hertfordshire Cohort Study explained:

"The findings reveal that men who have the naturally-occurring factor in their blood are three times more likely to experience heart disease than men who don't. Women don't appear to suffer the same risk." He went on "Past studies have shown that of people who have rheumatoid arthritis, those who also have rheumatoid factor in their blood are more likely to have a heart attack. This clue encouraged us to consider whether it's a risk factor for heart disease in healthy people. We found that it probably is." ''Only a small number of men who have rheumatoid factor in their blood actually get rheumatoid arthritis. It appears the danger of rheumatoid factor for many more people could be in causing heart disease.''

Dr Edwards added : "Rheumatoid factor could be as strong a warning signal for future heart disease as diabetes and blood pressure levels. Many people who have rheumatoid arthritis die early after having a heart attack or suffering heart disease. But it's not only people who have arthritis who carry rheumatoid factor, lots of healthy people have it too, this research makes a strong case for a link between the two.''

Rheumatoid factor is an autoantibody. Antibodies are usually made by the immune system to help protect the body. An autoantibody is one that matches to a target within the body itself, this self-destruction is known as autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases generate inflammation that in turn cause diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. In total 567 men and 589 women participated in the research. All provided blood samples to test for the presence of the rheumatoid factor autoantibody. Each individual's health history and traditional risk factors for heart disease were assessed.

The study results, published in the journal Heart, clearly suggest that rheumatoid factor is a risk factor for heart disease in men, independent of other known risk factors like smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure. The discovery also raises the possibility that the body's own immune system might play a role in development of heart disease through rheumatoid factor. Future research on a larger scale will aim to confirm that rheumatoid factor is a cause of heart disease.

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