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Researchers find new target for preventing heart attacks, strokes

Unless IGF-1 was the name of your high school crush, you probably weren’t much aware of it. Today, basic heart research shows that providing a boost with this “growth factor” after it peaks during puberty may lower our risk of heart attack and stroke.

In a recent study published in the journal Circulation, heart researchers suggest that increasing IGF-1 may help immune cells called macrophages prevent plaque from building up in our arteries. When plaque forms in an artery wall (atherosclerosis), it can block blood flow and result in a deadly heart attack or stroke.

“Our findings suggest that increasing IGF-1 in macrophages could be the basis for new approaches to reduce clogged arteries and promote plaque stability in aging populations," said Yusuke Higashi, Ph.D., a cardiovascular researcher at the University of Missouri and lead author of the study.

Of mice and men

IGF-1 is a protein that promotes major cell growth in our bodies. The recent study is among the first to show activity between IGF-1 and macrophages in atherosclerosis. Mice that were genetically altered without this specific activity had more plaque form than normal mice, the researchers found.

The results may support growing evidence that IGF-1 helps prevent atherosclerosis. Previously, the researchers reported that the arteries of mice that were given higher levels of IGF-1 had significantly less plaque than mice that did not receive the protein.

What causes atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is considered to be a chronic inflammatory condition caused by interactions involving plaque and cells in the artery walls. Plaque is made of cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and fibrin (a clotting material in the blood).

Among diseases and conditions that may develop as a result of atherosclerosis are coronary heart disease, chest pain, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease (PAD) and chronic kidney disease.

When plaque forms, a piece may break off or a blood clot may form on the plaque's surface. If either of these events happens and blocks an artery, a heart attack or stroke can occur.

Atherosclerosis is a progressive disease. It may start during childhood, or progress rapidly in some people in their 30s. For most people, it doesn't become dangerous until they have reached their 50s or 60s.

Research and prevention

This research suggests interactions between IGF-1 and other cells in atherosclerosis may be good targets for ways to prevent the progress of the disease. Clinical investigators will continue to study "IGF-1 regulation of macrophage inflammatory responses" in additional animals and eventually may begin clinical trials to test new treatments for people suffering from the disease.

You can read more about the study here.

What you can do

Here are a few steps you can take now to help prevent atherosclerosis:

Diet: Adopt heart-healthy eating habits. Eat different fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, poultry without skin, seafood, and fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products. A heart-healthy diet is low in sodium, added sugar, solid fats and refined grains.

Exercise: Be as physically active as you can. Physical activity can improve your fitness level and your health. Ask your doctor what types and amounts of activity are safe for you.

Quit smoking: If you smoke, quit. Smoking can damage and tighten blood vessels and raise your risk for atherosclerosis. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.

Control your weight: If you’re overweight or obese, work with your doctor to create a reasonable weight-loss plan. Controlling your weight helps you control risk factors for atherosclerosis.

The American Heart Association describes the causes, symptoms and treatment of atherosclerosis here.

If you need a doctor to help you establish heart-healthy habits, you can find a Providence provider here

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