Researchers say that heart disease and cancer are “intimately linked.” According to a new study published by the American Heart Association, people who have survived a heart attack or have risk factors for heart disease are more likely to develop cancer compared to people with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease.
“It’s a double whammy. Heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the United States. We now recognize that they are intimately linked. This tells us that we, as physicians, should be aggressive in trying to reduce cardiovascular risk factors not only to prevent heart disease, but also to consider cancer risk at the same time,” said Emily Lau, M.D., cardiology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and lead author of the study.
Researchers evaluated data from the Framingham Heart Study–one of the biggest studies on cardiovascular health conducted to date. They focused on 12,712 participants who, at the start of the study, had neither heart disease nor cancer. Then the scientists measured their risk of developing cardiovascular disease using the ASCVD risk estimator, a tool that helps predict one’s risk of developing heart disease over the span of 10 years.
In the 12,712 participants, 1,670 cases of cancer were diagnosed over a 15-year period. The researchers then found an independent association between cardiovascular risk factors (age, sex, smoking status, and high blood pressure) and cancer. In addition, they found that participants who had a 20% risk for cardiovascular disease were three times more likely to develop cancer when compared to those who only had a 5% risk of cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, participants who developed any form of cardiovascular disease during the study period were seven times more likely to develop cancer than those who didn’t encounter any cardiovascular issues.
“Cancer and cardiovascular disease share many of the same risk factors, such as tobacco use, poor nutrition, and lack of physical activity. The next step is to identify the biological mechanisms driving the link between cardiovascular disease and cancer,” said Lau.
It’s important to note that the study was observational, according to Lau. This means there was no defined cause and effect, but that the connection between heart disease and cancer was there.
Other studies found similar results
Another study came to a similar conclusion. In 2019, researchers from Penn State College of Medicine and Penn State Cancer Institute examined the health information of over three million cancer patients in the U.S. After following up on patient deaths, they found that 38% of patients had died from their cancer, but they also noticed that 11% passed away from cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). Among those that died from CVDs, 76% of deaths were from heart disease rather than from hypertension, cerebrovascular disease, atherosclerosis, or aortic aneurysm/dissection (other forms of CVD).
A different study found that people diagnosed with cancer are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Scientists took 280,000 participants who had been diagnosed with cancer between the years 2002-2011. They found that in the year before the participants’ cancer diagnoses, their risk of having a heart attack or stroke was 70 percent higher. The researchers theorize that the patients’ cancer may have been causing blood clots, which in turn led to cardiovascular complications.
The bottom line
Heart disease and cancer have been determined to be linked to each other, although more research into the subject is needed to find out in what ways and why. Eating a healthy diet, staying physically active and avoiding tobacco products can greatly decrease your chances of developing both heart disease and cancer by keeping you at low risk for these serious diseases.
Written by Natan Rosenfeld