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How Stem Cells Can Cause Heart Attacks

A breakthrough study from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that the first stage of events leading to a heart attack is the growth of a particular type of stem cell in arteries (Nature, June 6, 2012). Stem cells can form muscle, nerve, cartilage, bone or fat cells. Stem cells' ability to become cartilage or bone explains why plaques make arteries hard and brittle, like bone. Doctors used to think that smooth muscle cells lining blood vessels were the first stage of arteriosclerosis. Now we know that the smooth muscle cells come from these stem cells.

A few of these rare stem cells are always in arteries. For some unknown reason (possibly inflammation), they start to grow and form cracks and ulcers in the artery. Then a plaque forms on the inner lining of the artery.

A heart attack occurs when a piece of plaque breaks off from the inner lining of an artery leading toward the heart and travels down the ever-narrowing artery until it can go no further. Then a clot forms to completely block the flow of blood to the part of the heart muscle it supplies. The part of the heart muscle unable to get the oxygen it needs from the blood flow suffers from lack of oxygen and dies.

Today's treatments for heart attack victims are not very successful because they do not treat the cause. Statins lower cholesterol that causes plaque buildup, and stents widen blood vessels, but neither treats the earlier stages when stem cells damage arteries to form plaques. Researchers need to find drugs that stop the growth of these stem cells or to prevent the stem cells from turning into smooth muscle cells.

STEM CELLS ALSO CAUSE CANCERS: Tumor stem cells are damaged stem cells and are the only cells that can give rise to new tumors and keep tumors growing. Current treatments using large doses of chemotherapy or radiation can kill all tumor cells. The problem is that they kill the whole tumor and destroy normal cells as well. If a treatment for cancer would kill only the rare tumor stem cells, it could cure the cancer and spare the cells (Cancer Cell, May 20008).

The stem cells that cause cancer and other diseases appear to be defective and are really only a very small percentage of stem cells in your body. Normally, they lie dormant and comprise less than five percent of the stem cells. However, it appears that anything that stimulates these defective stem cells to multiply rapidly can cause disease.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU? Since we do not yet have any treatments aimed specifically at these rare stem cells, at this time we can only recommend that you change lifestyle factors that are associated with increased risk for heart attacks and cancers. The same lifestyle factors that are associated with increased risk for heart attacks and strokes are also associated with increased risk for cancers:
• being overweight
• not exercising
• smoking
• taking more than two alcoholic drinks per day
• not eating lots of different fruits and vegetables
• eating red meat
• eating fried foods (burnt fats)
• having blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D below 75 nmol/L (30 ng/ml)

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Statins Can Cause Fatigue and Muscle Pain

Statins, drugs used to lower high cholesterol, are associated with increased tiredness, particularly during exercise. (Annals of Internal Medicine, published online June 11, 2012). More than 1000 male and female subjects were prescribed either:
• 40 milligrams of Pravachol (pravastatin), the most water-soluble statin;
• 20 mg of Zocor (simvastatin), the most fat-soluble statin; or
• a sugar-pill placebo.

The women were slowed down by statins far more than the men. The authors state that "the only group for whom the benefits of taking statins has clearly been shown to outweigh the risks has been men under the age of 70 who have heart disease."

STATINS ARE MORE LIKELY TO CAUSE MUSCLE PAIN IN INTENSE EXERCISERS. Statins are known to cause muscle pain during exercise (Pharmacotherapy. 2010;30(6):541-553), and they are far more likely to harm serious athletes (Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2004;57(4):525-528).

Most people who take statins do not suffer muscle pain unless they exercise. Hard exercise damages muscles, causing soreness on the next day. Most exercisers work out intensely enough to cause muscle soreness for one or two days and then, exercise at a reduced intensity until the soreness goes away, usually in a day or two. Statin drugs delay recovery so it can take several days for the soreness to go away before the person can exercise intensely again (Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift, 2002;114(21-22):943-944).

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Recipe of the Week:

Algerian Vegetable Casserole

You'll find lots of recipes and helpful tips in The Good Food Book
- it's FREE

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June 24th, 2012
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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