Scientists have identified a gene that puts women at higher risk of heart disease, an early study suggests.The work showed that women who had a particular version of the BCAR1 gene were more likely than other women to have heart attacks and strokes.
In contrast, men who had the gene were not at increased risk.
Researchers say this adds to mounting evidence that there are differences in how men and women experience heart disease.
In the study, published in the journal, Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics, researchers from University College London pooled data from five European research projects, involving nearly 4,000 men and women.
Comparing their genes, the health of their blood vessels and the thickness of key arteries, scientists pinpointed a version of a gene that was linked to a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes and diseased blood vessels in women.
Though they still have work to do to fully understand the link, researchers believe the gene – when combined with a woman’s naturally occurring oestrogen – could lead to an increased risk of heart disease.
And building on previous work, they suggest the gene may encourage the mass migration of cells into the walls of key blood vessels – making them thicker.
As blood vessel walls thicken, this could, in turn, increase the chance of blockages that lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Lead author of the research, Freya Boardman-Pretty, said: “We’ve known for a long time that risk factors for heart disease are different for men and women.
“This gene effect seen only in women, could be contributing to this difference, although we expect there are a lot of other factors at play.
“If we can confirm that this gene is involved, and work out exactly how it leads to an increased risk of heart disease in women, it could become a new target for drugs in the future.”
She added that more research is needed and that individuals need to look beyond their genetic make-up and focus on healthy lifestyles to help protect themselves from heart disease.
Dr Shannon Amoils, from the British Heart Foundation, which helped fund the research, added: “Heart disease is often seen as a disease which predominantly affects men, but this is simply not the case.
“It is imperative that everyone takes steps to prevent it. Women can reduce their risk by not smoking, getting regular physical exercise and eating healthily.”