Arteries ageing early

Cathy Shanahan

Researchers have revealed how an unhealthy lifestyle can prematurely age our arteries causing heart disease.

The project is also giving an insight into how we could reduce the impact normal ageing has on our heart health.

How arteries work

Healthy arteries are vital for a healthy heart. The heart is a hard working muscle and it needs a constant, regular supply of oxygen from your blood. Without this oxygen the heart can’t keep pumping blood around your body.

As you get older, your arteries age too and gradually harden making them not as good at carrying blood to the heart and rest of the body. But scientists have discovered that this ageing process can happen prematurely partly through the effects of smoking and an unhealthy diet.

Clues from studying a rare condition

Blood test

Professor Cathy Shanahan led the research at King’s College London that made this discovery. Cathy and her colleagues were studying a rare genetic disease called Progeria that causes premature ageing. People with Progeria are particularly susceptible to heart and circulatory diseases at a young age.

This is because the disease affects the smooth muscle cells that form the walls of blood vessels – they become hard like bone and accumulate fat that can cause blockages. “This led us to wonder whether this rapid degeneration of smooth muscle cells might be the same process that occurs in normal ageing but in fast-forward” explains Professor Shanahan.

The researchers found that a protein called prelamin A, albeit in slightly different forms, is present in people with Progeria and older people who have aged normally. They also found that prelamin A was present in people with coronary heart disease, no matter their age. Professor Shanahan found:

“When prelamin A is present, it shows the blood vessels have aged but its presence in diseased vessels indicates that it speeds up this ageing process.” Prelamin A builds up naturally with age, causing harm to blood vessels but it seems to happen quicker in response to the damaging effects of smoking and an unhealthy diet.

Taking the research forward

Cathy and her colleagues at King’s College’s BHF Centre of Research Excellence are continuing this work by looking at the effects of prelamin A on the blood vessels in the laboratory. They also want to see what’s happening at the detailed molecular level. Professor Shanahan is excited about the findings so far: “People used to think age was an unmodifiable risk factor in heart disease but now we’re starting to understand what happens when we age. Hopefully we’ll be able to reduce the effects of ageing in the future.”

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