Research breakthroughs from the world’s leading heart conference

This week over 30,000 doctors, nurses, scientists and policy makers gathered in Rome for the ESC (European Society of Cardiology) Congress, the world’s largest meeting of professionals working in cardiovascular medicine.

Here, we discuss the highlights of the conference, including some of the latest research breakthroughs, a special BHF award, and a visit from the Pope!

Exercise in old age

Moderate exercise in older age can improve cardiovascular health, according a study presented at the ESC Congress by US and Finnish experts. While this doesn’t exactly sound surprising, the scale of the findings were.

The researchers followed 2,500 men and women aged between 65 and 74 for 16 years, and found that those who did just four hours of moderate exercise a week — which equates to 34 minutes a day — saw huge benefits. Their overall risk of cardiovascular death — for instance dying from a heart attack or stroke— dropped by 54 per cent.

Exercise? ✓ Smoke ? ✗ Statins? ✓ — Now try a Mediterranean diet to cut risk of ❤ death even further

Researchers have found that people with heart disease have a reduced risk of death when consuming a ‘Mediterranean’ diet.

A Mediterranean diet typically means one that is rich in fruit and vegetables, oily fish, such as sardines, and wholegrain cereals, with modest amounts of meat and low-fat dairy.

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The study, which hit the headlines all over the UK this week, showed that patients with a history of cardiovascular disease who adhered most strictly to the diet had a 37 per cent lower risk of dying from a heart-related cause.

Although larger studies would be needed to confirm the findings, they certainly indicate that consuming a Mediterranean diet, whilst taking your statins and any other prescribed medication, can be as beneficial in heart patients as it is in the general population.

Heart failure patients aren’t receiving the best care

Researchers from Glasgow have found that some patients with heart failure are not receiving the best available treatments.

Heart failure is a debilitating disease where the heart is unable to pump blood around the body efficiently, leading to symptoms such as breathlessness, reduced ability to exercise, and fatigue. In severe cases, patients might find it difficult to even climb a flight of stairs. The condition deteriorates over time, and according to studies published in the journals JAMA Internal Medicine and the European Journal of Heart Failure, 50 per cent of patients will die within 5 years of diagnosis.

This new study of 14,000 patients with heart failure found that many heart failure patients are not receiving the medication at a dose that is recommended by the ESC guidelines. The researchers found that despite being at a high risk of being admitted to hospital:

  • Only 80 per cent were receiving an ACE inhibitor or angiotensin receptor blocker
  • 57 per cent a beta-blocker and
  • 31 per cent a mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist

All of these are drugs that have been shown to reduce hospital admissions and prolong life for people with heart failure.

“While there are good medical reasons why many patients were not on these medications, the numbers of patients receiving these drugs, and at target doses, was lower than we would like to see and is recommended by guidelines,” commented Dr Pardeep Jhund from the University of Glasgow who carried out the research.

Women are 50 per cent more likely than men to be given incorrect diagnosis following a heart attack

Research we part-funded has shown that women have a 50 per cent greater chance of being given the incorrect diagnosis following a heart attack.

The research, carried out at the University of Leeds, and using the UK national heart attack register MINAP, also found that almost one-third of all patients had an initial diagnosis which differed from their final diagnosis.

Dr Chris Gale, Associate Professor of Cardiovascular Health Sciences and Honorary Consultant Cardiologist at the University of Leeds who worked on the study, and presented at the ESC Congress, said:

“We need to work harder to shift the perception that heart attacks only affect a certain type of person. Typically, when we think of a person with a heart attack, we envisage a middle aged man who is overweight, has diabetes and smokes. This is not always the case; heart attacks affect the wider spectrum of the population — including women.”

Could E-cigarettes be as bad for the arteries as conventional cigarettes?

The answer is no, probably not. However new research presented at the conference has shown that e-cigarettes do have a similar effect, in the short term, on the heart’s arteries (the major blood vessels which provide the heart with its blood supply).

The Greek scientists monitored participants’ hearts while smoking a conventional cigarette for five minutes and using an e-cigarette for half an hour, which they said was the most accurate comparison of typical use.

They found that smoking both types of cigarette led to similar levels of stiffness in the aorta, the main artery, which is a major cause of heart problems. They also both raised blood pressure.

However it is worth stressing that this small study, in only 24 people, focused purely on the short term damage, meaning that more research is needed into long-term effects. We recently announced funding for a study comparing the effect of e-cigarettes with tobacco.

Statins improve erectile dysfunction as well as risk of heart events

Historically, there were questions about the impact of statins on male impotence, with many thinking that the cholesterol-lowering drugs could have a harmful effect.

However, this Greek study adds to the growing body of evidence showing that taking statins could actually be useful in improving erectile dysfunction.

Men who began taking statins saw a 43 per cent improvement in their erectile function.

ESC’s Young Investigator of the Year

Dr Rohan Wijesurendra, from the University of Oxford, won the prestigious Young Investigator Award for Clinical Science at this year’s conference.

He presented his latest research on atrial fibrillation, where an abnormal heart rhythm can lead to a deadly or disabling stroke. Along with BHF Professor Barbara Casadei and her team, Dr Wijesurendra studied a condition known as ‘lone AF’ — where an individual has AF in the absence of any other conditions or ‘comorbidities’.

By testing the heart muscle before and after a procedure called ablation, which works to correct abnormal heart rhythms by removing abnormal tissue, the researchers were able to understand more about what causes lone AF.

They found that lone AF may actually be a result of a heart muscle disorder, or cardiomyopathy, which is not yet diagnosable. If this is the case that disorder could be a new target for medicines to treat the AF.

And finally, a closing speech from Pope Francis

The final day of most conferences is usually the ‘wind-down’ day — relatively quiet and often not particularly well attended. But that wasn’t to be the case with the ESC Congress this year, with the much anticipated arrival of Pope Francis, who was to deliver the closing speech.

“You look after the heart,” Pope Francis told the cardiologists. “In your hands you hold the beating core of the human body, and as such your responsibility is very great!”

And so, another successful five days of ground breaking heart research is wrapped up. Until next year, when the ESC Congress will be in Barcelona.

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