updated 4/13/2004 4:21:21 PM ET 2004-04-13T20:21:21

Men with high levels of a hormone secreted by fat cells run a lower risk of a heart attack, according to a study that could lead to new ways to prevent or treat heart disease.

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The findings follow animal studies showing that high levels of the hormone adiponectin help diabetic mice make better use of insulin.

Adiponectin, discovered a few years ago, “is a new kid on the block” and pharmaceutical companies already are racing to develop treatments that take advantage of its beneficial properties, said Dr. Robert Eckel, an American Heart Association spokesman.

While the results are too preliminary to warrant routine blood tests to measure adiponectin levels, “ultimately, this could have very practical value,” said Eckel, who is conducting similar research but was not involved in the study.

The study involved 18,225 men ages 40 to 75 who had blood tests and were followed for about six years.

During the follow-up, 266 men had nonfatal heart attacks or died of heart disease. Men with the highest initial blood levels of adiponectin were 40 percent less likely to have heart attacks or die of heart disease than men with the lowest levels.

The study was led by Dr. Tobias Pischon of the Harvard School of Public Health and was published in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Hormone may prevent fat buildup in arteries
Pischon said the hormone is believed to help keep fats from accumulating in arteries, thus reducing the likelihood of clots that can cause a heart attack. There is also evidence that it might help reduce inflammation that can contribute to heart disease.

Although the hormone is produced by fat cells, obese people have reduced levels of it, Pischon said.

Blood tests to detect adiponectin are not widely available, he said. And Eckel said it is unclear whether knowing a patient’s adiponectin levels would help guide treatment decisions.

For example, losing weight helps increase adiponectin levels, but weight loss already is recommended to help prevent heart problems, Eckel said.

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