Previous research has shown that people who have chronic in-flammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are likelier to have a heart attack.
But this research suggests that just the presence of rheumatoid factor in men, irrespective of whether they have RA, could serve as a warning sign.
The discovery also raises the possibility that the body's own immune system might play a role in the development of heart disease through rheumatoid factor. Rheumatoid factor, a product of the immune system, is present in up to 15 per cent of adults in the United Kingdom.
For the study, the researchers searched for the presence of rheumatoid factor and heart disease among a population of 1,156 men and women aged between 59 and 71.
Each participant completed a lifestyle questionnaire and attended a clinic where a history of heart disease and traditional cardiovascular risk factors, such as smoking and diet, were taken.
Blood serum samples were taken from each participant and enzyme-linked assays were then used to measure the presence of rheumatoid factor.
The presence of rheumatoid factor was found to increase the likelihood of heart disease by three times in men. But no significant association was found between rheumatoid factor and heart disease in women.
Further research on a larger scale would be required to confirm that rheumatoid factor is a cause of heart disease.
Dr Christopher Edwards, lead researcher at the department of rheumatology at Southampton General Hospital, said: 'Only a small number of men who have rheumatoid factor in their blood actually get RA. It appears that the danger of rheumatoid factor for many more people could be in causing heart disease.'
Rheumatoid factor could be as strong a warning signal for future heart disease as diabetes and high BP, he said.
'Many people who have rheu-matoid arthritis die early after having a heart attack or suffering heart disease. But it's not only people who have arthritis who carry rheumatoid factor, lots of healthy people have it too, this research makes a strong case for a link between the two.'
Heart Online 2007; Live links at http://www.healthcarerepublic.com
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