Women’s Health: Adult asthma signals heart disease risk

Inflammation may affect blood vessels as well as lungs, researcher speculates

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Women who first develop asthma in adulthood may also be at increased risk for having strokes and heart disease.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta studied more than 15,000 people from the late 1980s to 2001 to track whether asthma that developed in childhood or adulthood was associated with these conditions. More than half the participants were women. A total of 227 men and 214 women had child-onset asthma (diagnosed before age 21) and 146 men and 299 women had adult-onset asthma.

After the researchers accounted for other heart disease risk factors such as smoking and high blood pressure, they found that women with adult-onset asthma had a 70 per cent increased risk of heart disease and a 79 per cent increased risk of stroke compared with men. Child-onset asthma did not increase the risk for heart disease or stroke in either men or women.

Stephen Onufrak, a PhD student who worked on the study, says more research is needed to find out why women with adult-onset asthma are more affected than men and those with child-onset asthma. But he notes asthma that develops in childhood is more likely to be related to allergies, whereas adult asthma tends to be non-allergic. And there is evidence that in non-allergic asthma, inflammation not only affects the lungs, but the rest of the body as well, including the blood vessels.

If confirmed, the findings would “identify a fairly large group of people that would be at increased risk for atherosclerotic disease,” he says.