The Amish Are Better at Avoiding Heart Attacks Thanks to Gene Mutation, New Study Says

A new study released Wednesday by the Broad Institute suggests the Amish are better at avoiding heart attacks thanks to lower triglycerides in their blood, likely caused by a gene mutation. The researchers showed that triglycerides, a form of fat that shows up in your blood, are likely a cause of heart disease, and that four gene mutations actually lower the level of triglycerides. Those lower levels are correlated to a much lower incidence of heart disease.

That may sound pretty basic — less fat means a healthier heart, right? — but it's actually a huge deal. Heart-healthy science has usually focused on having less "bad" or LDL cholesterol and more "good" or HDL cholesterol in the blood. But it turns out that lowering triglycerides may be the real key to avoiding heart attacks, something scientists have recently begun to suspect but not been able to prove.

One of the study's senior authors, Sekar Kathiresan, said in a statement that the study's results could mean major changes to science about heart disease and prevention. It could also lead to drugs that lower triglycerides and better protect against heart attacks.

The combination of our genetic results, together with recent clinical trials of drugs that raised HDL levels but failed to prevent heart disease, are turning decades of conventional wisdom on its head. HDL and triglycerides are both correlated with heart attack, and have an inverse relationship with one another — the lower the HDL, the higher the triglycerides. It has long been presumed that low HDL is the causal factor in heart disease, and triglycerides are along for the ride. But our genetic data indicate that the true causal factor may not be HDL after all, but triglycerides.
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Translation: Heart disease might be caused by something we weren't even paying much attention to until right now. That's especially important since heart disease is the leading killer of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency says heart disease accounts for 1 in 4 deaths in the U.S. every year.

The study also may have found the key to fixing the problem, which is an equally big discovery. The study zeroed in on four rare gene mutations affecting a gene called APOC3, one of which is found in about 1 in 20 Amish people and 1 in 150 Americans in general, The New York Times reported. People who had the mutations had a 40 percent lesser risk of getting coronary heart disease, according to the Broad Institute's news release.

Now that scientists know that affecting the APOC3 gene is the key to lowering triglycerides, they may be able to develop medicine that works the same way the gene mutations do. As many as 20 percent of Americans could be eligible for a drug like that, according to the Times. And if it works, we could be soon be dealing with heart disease in a much more effective way.