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The Making of Medicine

An Unexpected Cause of Heart Disease

Interesting new research from our allergy folks suggests that common food allergens such as peanuts and dairy could be an important and previously unappreciated cause of heart disease. The increased risk posed by these allergens could equal or exceed that posed by smoking.

Further, the researchers found, this might not just be limited to people with obvious food allergies. The strongest link with cardiovascular death was in people who produced particular antibodies to a food allergen but continued to consume the food regularly – suggesting they weren't slowed by a severe reaction. 

The researchers say this is the first time the antibody, called IgE, has been linked to heart disease and increased risk of cardiovascular death. They caution that the findings do not conclusively prove that food antibodies are causing the increased risk, but they say it makes sense, as prior studies have connected allergic inflammation and heart disease.

“What we looked at here was the presence of IgE antibodies to food that were detected in blood samples,” researcher Jeffrey Wilson, MD, PhD, told me. “We don’t think most of these subjects actually had overt food allergy. Thus, our story is more about an otherwise silent immune response to food. While these responses may not be strong enough to cause acute allergic reactions to food, they might nonetheless cause inflammation and over time lead to problems like heart disease.”

Dr. Wilson says it's too soon for doctors to change how they treat or manage food allergies. More research is needed. But the work could lead to simple tests to detect people at risk and help them manage their diets to avoid future heart issues.

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