Heart attacks might chemically modify our DNA, leaving a memory of the event in our genes, new research suggests.
Scientists in Sweden have discovered a particular set of “epigenetic changes” in people who had suffered the attacks.
The alterations are caused by chemical modifications of DNA which turn off or on certain genes linked to cardiovascular disease.
Asa Johansson, the study’s lead researcher, explains: “During a heart attack the body signals by activating certain genes. This mechanism protects the tissue during the acute phase of the disease, and restores the body after the heart attack.
“It is therefore likely that it also occurs epigenetic changes associated with a heart attack.”
But the study, conducted at Uppsala Universitet, did not rule out the possibility that the changes had led to, rather than been caused by, heart attacks.
Johansson adds: “We hope that our new results should contribute to increasing the knowledge of the importance of epigenetic in the clinical picture of a heart attack, which in the long run could lead to better drugs and treatments.”
Geneticists are at odds over whether mammals inherit any epigenetic changes, but even those who think they can say the phenomenon only occurs in 1% of genes.
Heart attacks are caused by the supply of blood running to the heart being blocked, normally by a clot.
Symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling weak and/or lightheaded and an overwhelming sense of anxiety.
The NHS cautions: “Not everyone experiences severe chest pain; the pain can often be mild and mistaken for indigestion.”
Coronary heart disease, the primary cause of heart attacks, is the most common cause of death in the UK and globally.
Heredity and environmental factors both influence risk of cardiovascular disease.