Meet Harry (who is, admittedly, fictional). He was born with a hole in his heart, which skillful surgeons successfully patched.
As an adult, perhaps driven by gratitude over his second lease on life, he does everything he can to protect his ticker: He stays slim, runs on the treadmill an hour each day, doesn’t smoke and downs only an occasional drink.
Yet, Stanford researchers recently discovered, Harry has twice the chance of developing heart disease as his neighbor, lucky enough to be born without a hole in the heart, who’s ensconced in a couch, eating potato chips and smoking away.
Pediatric cardiologist James Priest, MD, and his colleagues conducted a study of adult survivors of congenital heart defects; their article was published in Circulation. For the study, they combed through the UK Biobank, which features health data on half a million people in Britain, and found about 2,000 who were born with heart defects.
They discovered that those born with less serious heart defects were 13 times as likely to develop heart failure or atrial fibrillation, five times as likely to have a stroke, and twice as likely to suffer a heart attack. The news came as a surprise, Priest said.
From our press release:
All of us in cardiology recognize that people with complex disease need follow-up care throughout their lives… But for the simple problems, we’ve been thinking that once you close the hole or fix the valve, these patients are good to go.
Priest and his colleagues don’t know why those born with heart defects — about 1 percent of the population — face much higher risks of heart problems as adults.
“Is it the surgery? Could it be the medications? Or is it something intrinsic to having congenital heart disease? We don’t know,” Priest said, adding, “We don’t know why infants have congenital heart disease to begin with.”
The researchers also discovered that Harry’s conscientious regimen to protect his heart is a rarity: His peers with congenital heart disease are a little more likely than average to smoke, to be obese and to have high blood pressure. In short, they’re more likely to be in the kind of condition that begets heart disease. Why? Researchers can’t say. Priest speculates there’s some sort of existential angst that accompanies congenital heart defects.
Despite the bad news, Harry would be wise to stay on the treadmill. Those born with a heart defect who pursue a heart-unhealthy lifestyle are nearly four times as likely to develop heart disease.
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