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updated 10/24/2011 6:32:09 PM ET 2011-10-24T22:32:09

Women who carry the human papillomavirus (HPV) have an increased risk of heart disease, a new study finds.

Women who tested positive for any of the 37 strains of the virus the researchers tested for were 2.3 times more likely to also have had either a heart attack or stroke than women who tested negative, the study found. And women who tested positive for either of the two strains associated with cervical cancer had 2.86 times the risk of heart attack or stroke, according to the study.

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As such, the study suggests that "the HPV vaccine may also help prevent heart disease," said lead author Dr. Ken Fujise, director of cardiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

Nearly 20 percent of people who develop heart disease do not have any known risk factors, such as smoking or high blood pressure, which indicates that other "nontraditional" causes may be involved. "HPV appears to be one such factor among women," Fujise said.

Still, women with HPV should not worry because "this is very first study to link HPV with [heart disease],” Fujise said. Longitudinal studies, which follow patients over time, are needed to confirm the link between HPV and heart disease. "However, our data suggests those patients should be followed more closely by their doctors — if [they] have chest pain, take it very seriously," he said.

The study will be published on Nov. 1 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

HPV and heart disease
The study included nearly 2,500 women between the ages of 20 and 59; the researchers gathered data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2003 and 2006.

Among the study participants, 44.6 percent tested positive for HPV, including 23.2 percent who had the cancer-causing strains of the virus. Other studies have found that the virus is found in between 20 percent and 45 percent of people in the general population, Fujise said.

Of the 60 women in the study who reported they'd had either a heart attack or stroke, 39 tested positive for any HPV strain, and 21 tested negative.

"I thought there would be a weak link between HPV and cardiovascular disease, but I didn't expect [the risk] to be 2.3 times as high," Fujise said.

The study showed that for every 55 women with HPV, one woman is likely to have a heart attack or stroke because of the virus, rather than because of other risk factors, Fujise said.

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Every year, 510,000 U.S. women have heart attacks, according to the American Heart Association. If the study's findings hold up in larger studies, Fujise calculated that would mean that 4,321 of these women are having heart attacks due to HPV, rather than other risk factors; and 1,618 women die yearly from these HPV-related heart attacks.

How a virus might cause a heart attack
The researchers said the link might be due to the virus's ability to silence two genes known to play roles in the health of blood vessels. The two genes, called p53 and retinoblastoma protein, both work to suppress the growth of tumors. Atherosclerosis, which is the thickening of artery walls, is also regulated by p53, while the retinoblastoma gene regulates the growth of smooth muscle cells that line blood vessels, and so could impact blood flow.

"We didn't study males, but men can be infected with HPV. Our next hypothesis is that maybe male HPV vaccinations would protect men from heart attacks and stroke," Fujise said.

If researchers find the exact mechanism by which HPV causes heart attacks and stroke, they could look for a drug that could treat people infected with the virus to lower their risk, he said.

Pass it on: Women with HPV may have a higher risk of heart disease.

Video: HPV linked to heart disease?

  1. Transcript of: HPV linked to heart disease?

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We have heard a lot lately about the link between HPV and cancer. And tonight a new study sheds some light on another really more widespread risk that may be linked to HPV . Our chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman is here with us with more. Nancy , good evening.

    Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: Hi, Brian. Good evening. This study comes to us from the University of Texas Galveston and it suggests that there could be a link between HPV , the com -- this -- the commonly sexually transmitted virus that we talk about a lot, and it may be linked to more than cancer. In this case, heart disease in women. You've seen the commercials about HPV .

    SNYDERMAN: And families are listening. Millions of girls have received the vaccine to prevent HPV and cervical cancer . In a report out today, surprising

    new research links HPV to the number one killer of women: cardiovascular disease .

    Dr. HSU-KO KUO (University of Texas Medical Branch Galveston): The risk of cardiovascular disease for women with HPV infection is almost two times higher.

    SNYDERMAN: Dr. Kuo and his fellow researchers studied nearly 2500 women in the United States . For women infected with HPV , one in 55 are at risk for heart attack or stroke. And for those infected with specific cancer causing strains of HPV , their risk is even higher. The theory is that HPV infection causes inflammation of major arteries in the body, contributing to cardiovascular disease . This seems to be true for women without known risk factors of smoking, obesity, diabetes and family history. According to Dr. Lori Mosca , a cardiac scientist not involved in this study, HPV could be a potential missing link. Dr. LORI MOSCA ( New York Presbyterian Hospital / Columbia University Medical Center ): There's been an alarming increase in the rate of heart disease in young women aged 35 to 44 over the last decade that we can't explain. And so HPV infection may potentially be something that we need to be looking into further.

    SNYDERMAN: So imagine if the vaccine that's on the market right now for HPV could prevent not only cancer but in the future heart disease . That could be a game-changer. So right now researchers are talking about, Brian , really following people long term, people who are vaccinated, people who are not vaccinated, and looking at the rates of cancer and heart disease . And tomorrow the Centers for Disease Control is going to get together and I predict that they are going now suggest this vaccine for boys in addition to girls.

    WILLIAMS: Now another story on your beat.

    SNYDERMAN: Yeah.

    WILLIAMS: And we have some visual aids about BPA , the plastics that are liners of cans, soda cans, and make up so many plastic bottles.

    SNYDERMAN: Yeah. Bisphenol A , it has been in the news for years now with the concern that it may be linked to certain cancer. You can't get away from it. It's everywhere. And a lot of them have now been off the market. We could not find a container that has a seven on it.

    WILLIAMS: The number seven you look for.

    SNYDERMAN: You look for a three or a seven. We couldn't find anything around here with seven. But the reason why this is important is because of a new study that just came out today. It's in the journal Pediatrics , and it has shown that women who are exposed to BPA have, in fact, increased behavioral

    problems in girls at the age of three: hyperactivity, aggression and anxiety. That's important because especially in girls BPA is known to act like a synthetic estrogen. So it's not a perfect study. None of them ever has been, but it's important to look at the bottom of these containers, and then you have to decide as a parent is it worth it to put any of your containers up and use these containers, and certainly don't heat them because that's when things leech out.

    WILLIAMS: All right. A lot of health news tonight. Nancy Snyderman , thanks for all of it.

    SNYDERMAN: A bunch. You're welcome.

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