The risk of heart attack is increased by the virus, spread through bodily fluids
New research suggests that a common infection affecting 60 to 99 per cent of adults could result in high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries – leading causes of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.
By the age of 40, most people carry the virus cytomegalovirus (CMV), which usually lies dormant. A member of the herpes family, it is spread through bodily fluids, only showing symptoms in those with weakened immune systems, such as transplant patients.
Yet, according to researchers at Beth Israel Medical Centre in the US, it may be unknowingly raising blood pressure and hardening arteries in 30 per cent of those infected with it.
You can find out if you have been infected with CMV by requesting a blood test from your GP.
With heart attack, stroke and circulatory disease claiming almost 200,000 lives each year, cardiovascular problems are the biggest killer. A further 2.5million people live with coronary heart disease, where the heart muscle is irreversibly damaged by clogged arteries and years of strain.
But the new findings suggest that something as simple as antiviral medication could prevent cardiovascular disease in thousands of people, saving many lives.
Dr Clyde Crumpacker, who conducted the research, said: ‘CMV infection led to an increase in blood pressure and when combined with a high-cholesterol diet, the infection actually induced stiffening of the arteries. That, in turn, raises the risk of heart disease and stroke.’
The implications, he says, are that some cases of hypertension and cardiovascular disease could be treated with antiviral drugs or a vaccine.
Previous studies have linked CMV infection with restenosis in cardiac transplant patients, a situation in which the heart’s arteries ‘reblock’.
The researchers now believe they know why the virus damages blood vessels. When CMV infects cells lining blood vessel walls, they discovered it can cause low-grade but chronic inflammation.
Over the years, this sort of inflammation can cause arteries to stiffen and become lined with fatty deposits – raising blood pressure and heart-attack risk. CMV, however, doesn’t cause inflammation or stiffen arteries in everyone. In fact, in many cases, those infected with the virus may show no signs of arterial inflammation.
Dr Jane Flemming, a London-based GP, says: ‘It seems that people are more susceptible to inflammation than others, with only those who are predisposed to inflammation developing arterial stiffening. This may be the result of diet, lifestyle or the state of your immune system. Those with chronic inflammatory diseases, such as multiple sclerosis or allergies for example, could be predisposed to inflammation in general.’
It is these people who, if infected with CMV, might be targeted with antiviral therapy.
Dr Flemming says for further cardiovascular protection, they might also want to control their inflammation by eating foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables and oily fish – all of which have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
But Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, warns the conclusions are tentative.
‘We know there is a link between certain viral infections, atherosclerosis and a raised risk of cardiovascular disease,’ he says. ‘Scientists at University College London have already confirmed that viruses can trigger the release of inflammatory molecules, which damage artery walls. But this study has shown that viruses can raise blood pressure too, which is interesting.
‘More investigation would be needed for antiviral medication to be considered as a treatment for heart disease,’ he adds.
Via Daily Mail