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DNA Length Could Predict How Long Heart Attack or Stroke Patients Have to Live

Update Date: Mar 11, 2013 11:06 AM EDT

The length of DNA strands could be used to predict how long heart disease patients have to live, according to a new study.

Heart disease claims around 600,000 lives a year and is the leading cause of death in the United Sates, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After studying the DNA of more than 3,500 heart attack and stroke patients, scientists from the Intermountain Heart Institute at Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City found that life expectancy of patients with heart disease could be predicted by measuring telomere length.  They found that the longer the patient's telomeres, the greater the chance of living a longer life, according to the new study presented Saturday, March 9, at the American College of Cardiology's Annual Scientific Session in San Francisco.

Telomeres are caps located on the ends of chromosomes.  They protect chromosomes from becoming damaged or from fusing with neighboring chromosomes. Each time a cell replicates, the telomeres become shorter.  Consequently, as people age, their telomeres get shorter and shorter until the cell is no longer able to divide.  Previous studies have linked shortened telomeres to age-related diseases like heart disease and cancer as well as exposure to oxidative damage caused by stress, smoking, air pollution and other conditions associated with faster biologic aging.

"Chromosomes by their nature get shorter as we get older," researcher Dr. John Carlquist, director of the Intermountain Heart Institute Genetics Lab, said in a statement.

"Once they become too short, they no longer function properly, signaling the end of life for the cell. And when cells reach this stage, the patient's risk for age-associated diseases increases dramatically," he explained.

After adjusting for age, Carlquist and his team found that patients with longer telomeres liver longer, suggesting that telomere length is more than just a measure of age and may also indicate the probability of survival.

"Longer telomere length directly correlate with the likelihood for a longer life -- even for patients with heart disease," Carlquist added.

Based on the latest findings, researchers believe telomere length could potentially be used to measure the effectiveness of heart care treatment.

"We can already test cholesterol and blood pressure of a patient to see how treatment is working, but this could give us a deeper view into how the treatment is affecting the body and whether or not the treatment is working," Carlquist explained.

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