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Researchers say the weight-loss drug semaglutide shows promise in helping reduce heart health risks. JOEL SAGET/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that people who were overweight or had obesity lowered their cardiovascular risks after taking the weight-loss drug Wegovy for one year.
  • Experts say they hope these findings will encourage more medical professionals to prescribe the medication to their patients.
  • They also point out that the key to the improved heart health was not the medication itself but rather the loss of weight in study participants.

A weight-loss drug may help prevent heart attacks, stroke, and other forms of cardiovascular disease, researchers say.

In a new study, researchers reported that people treated with the obesity drug semaglutide experienced a decline in their cardiovascular risk after using the medication for a year.

The people who took semaglutide experienced a drop in their 10-year risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease from 7.6% to 6.3% between the start of the study and the one-year mark, according to the study presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Dublin, Ireland.

Semaglutide users experienced declines in blood pressure, total cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar levels.

People using the weight-loss drug also lost an average of almost 11% of their body weight after one year, the researchers reported.

Their findings haven’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.

Semaglutide is sold under the brand names Ozempic, Wegovy, and Rybelsus.

It was initially approved to treat type 2 diabetes in 2017. A high-dose, injectable version (Wegovy) was cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in long-term weight management in 2021.

Researchers led by Dr. Andres Acosta and Dr. Wissam Ghusn of the Precision Medicine for Obesity Program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota based their findings on a study of 93 people who were either overweight or had obesity along with a body-mass index (BMI) of 27 or higher and no prior history of cardiovascular disease.

The mean age of the male and female study participants was 55. Most of the participants were white.

Study subjects were scored used the 10-year ASCVD risk estimator created by the American College of Cardiology.

“Use of semaglutide in patients with overweight or obesity is associated with a decrease in the 10-year ASCVD risk,” the researchers concluded. “Although modest after just one year of use, this decrease may translate into decreased cardiovascular morbidity and mortality risk over time with continuing weight loss. More studies, with larger sample sizes and longer follow-up periods, are needed to assess the cardiovascular outcomes of semaglutide.”

Obesity is a major risk factor for the development of abnormal blood fat levels, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea.

All of these conditions are co-morbidities that increase the risk of cardiovascular illnesses such as heart attack, stroke, and atherosclerosis.

“The main takeaway that weight loss using semaglutide can reduce cardiovascular disease risk.These findings may allow access to these drugs for patients that may not otherwise qualify,” Dr. Mir Ali, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of the MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Medical News Today.

Ali added that it is the reduction in weight that is important here.

“In my opinion, it is not the medication itself that is lowering heart disease risk, but the weight loss as a result of taking it,” he said. “A study comparing individuals who have similar weight loss, with and without the medication may elucidate if the risk reduction is from weight loss or the medication.”

Semaglutide is part of a class of drugs called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists, which help control glucose levels by increasing the release of insulin into the bloodstream.

“This new research provides physicians who had doubts about the health implications of GLP-1s beyond weight loss with more evidence of their health benefits,” said Dr. Rekha Kumar, the chief medical officer at the medically-supported weight care program Found as well as a former medical director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine who was not involved in the study.

“Cardiovascular outcomes studies can play a role in understanding the long term impacts on co-morbidities when weight is lost with using medicine,” Kumar told Medical News Today. “The goal of using these medicines to facilitate loss of body weight is to reduce cardiovascular morbidity and mortality directly and indirectly by preventing or treating diabetes.”

Dr. John Higgins, a professor of cardiovascular medicine with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, said similar results could probably be expected among people who used other weight-loss drugs or dropped pounds through diet and exercise changes.

He noted, however, that “non-pharmacological methods like diet and exercise have the advantage of less side effects than a medication.”

“What we don’t know and what is not measured by the [ASCVD] risk calculator is what happens to other important risk factors, e.g. does inflammation level in the body fall (lowers risk) or go up (increases cardiovascular risk),” Higgins told Medical News Today.

“What about other effects of the medication that potentially could somewhat counteract the positive effects? This is why a prospective study measuring more detailed [lab and imaging data] and following the patients over a longer period of time and tracking their cardiovascular events is needed to see what the full effect of the medication is,” he added.