Scientists believe they have pinpointed a gene that is associated with an increased risk of heart attack or stroke in women, but not in men, according to findings published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics.

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The BCAR1 gene may put women at higher risk for heart disease.

Heart disease is the primary cause of death in the US, where someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds, and one person dies from a heart disease-related event every minute.

Understanding what puts people at risk of heart attacks is an important part of finding ways to prevent them.

The gene that the researchers have identified is called BCAR1; it is involved in many processes in the body that are affected by the female sex hormone estrogen.

The team, from University College London (UCL) in the UK and led by Prof. Steve Humphries of the British Heart Foundation (BHF), studied a group of genes that have previously been linked to an increased risk of disease in the arteries.

They examined data from nearly 4,000 men and women from across Europe, comparing their genes, artery thickness and artery health.

Two versions of the BCAR1 gene were investigated: the “GG” version, considered high risk for heart disease when combined with a woman’s naturally occurring high estrogen levels, and a low-risk “AA” version.

Around 33% of the women studied had the high-risk GG version of the BCAR1 gene.

Over the 5-year study period, these women were found to have a 6.1% higher risk of having a heart attack, stroke or diseased blood vessels, compared with those with the low-risk version of the gene, who had a 2.5% risk of such an event.

Men with the GG version of the BCAR1 gene do not seem to be affected.

Dr. Shannon Amoils, senior research adviser at the BHF, which funded the study, says:

Heart disease is often seen as a disease which predominantly affects men, but this is simply not the case. We know that women have a lower overall risk of coronary heart disease compared with men, but as this study shows, women do get coronary heart disease, and it is important to find out more about the factors that increase their risk. […] It is imperative that heart disease is seen as a disease which can affect anyone regardless of their gender and that everyone takes steps to help prevent it.”

Dr. Amoils also reminds women of the need to avoid smoking, to get regular physical exercise and to eat healthily in order to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Freya Boardman-Pretty, a PhD student at UCL who carried out the research, explains that although there are other risk factors, if further research confirms that this gene plays a role and can establish what that role is, it could become a new target for drugs.

Medical News Today recently reported on research showing that hearts age differently in men and women.