Congenital heart defects dramatically increase the risk of heart disease in adults

Meet Harry (who is, admittedly, fictional). He was born with a hole in his heart, which skillful surgeons managed to repair.

As an adult, perhaps driven by gratitude for his second life, he does everything he can to protect his ticker: he stays slim, runs on the treadmill an hour a day, doesn’t smoke and doesn’t only drink a glass once in a while.

Yet Stanford researchers recently found that Harry is twice as likely to develop heart disease as his neighbor, lucky enough to be born without a hole in his heart, who sits on a sofa, eats crisps and smokes .

Pediatric cardiologist James Priest, MD, and colleagues conducted a study on adult survivors of congenital heart defects; their article was published in Traffic. For the study, they combed through the UK Biobank, which shows health data for half a million people in Britain, and found around 2,000 people born with heart defects.

They found that people born with less severe heart defects were 13 times more likely to develop heart failure or atrial fibrillation, five times more likely to have a stroke, and twice as likely to have a heart attack. The news came as a surprise, Priest said.

Excerpt from our press release:

All of us in cardiology recognize that people with complex disease need lifelong follow-up care… But for simple problems, we believe that once you close the hole or fix the valve, those patients are ready to go.

Priest and his colleagues don’t know why people born with heart defects — about 1% of the population — face much higher risks of heart problems as adults.

“Is it surgery? Could it be the drugs? Or is it something intrinsic to congenital heart disease? We don’t know,” Priest said, adding, “We don’t know why infants have congenital heart disease to begin with.

The researchers also found that Harry’s conscientious diet to protect his heart is a rarity: his peers with congenital heart disease are slightly more likely than average to smoke, be obese and have high blood pressure. In short, they are more likely to have the kind of condition that causes heart disease. Why? Researchers can’t say. Priest speculates that there is a kind of existential angst that accompanies congenital heart defects.

Despite the bad news, Harry would be wise to stay on the treadmill. People born with a heart defect who pursue a heart-unhealthy lifestyle are nearly four times more likely to develop heart disease.

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