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Children with a parental history of premature heart attack tend to show signs of blood vessel disease at a very young age, a cardiovascular expert at the University at Buffalo and other researchers report in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

"We have known for many years that, if you have a parent who has a premature coronary, you have a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease," said Dr. Maurizio Trevisan, chairman of the department of social and preventive medicine at UB and senior author on the study.

"The novelty of this study is that this is the first time we have shown that there are already structural and functional changes present in the vessels of children of these parents at a very young age."

Trevisan and researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center as well as two hospitals and a university in Naples, Italy, set out to determine, by ultrasound images, if early signs of atherosclerosis are present in very young people with a parental history of premature heart attack.

Using 40 healthy offspring of premature heart attack victims and 40 control subjects matched by age and gender, they found that participants with parents who had experienced premature myocardial infarction had blood vessels 11 percent thicker than those of their counterparts.

The function or "reactivity" of their blood vessels was also 55 percent less.

"Participants were aged 6 to 30," Trevisan said. "We took children whose parents were 60 or younger when they had heart attacks. Sixty was our cutoff point."

All of the "actual day-to-day work was completely done in Naples," noted Trevisan.

Colleagues of Trevisan at A. Cardarelli and S. Maria di Loreto hospitals, and at Federico II University, all in Naples, as well as M. Gene Bond, director of the division of vascular ultrasound research at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., also participated in the study.

Wake Forest's Bond was the study's expert in ultrasound technology.

"With ultrasonography, we've 'sounded out' the early signs of atherosclerosis," Bond said of the study. "This technology allows us to detect vessel changes decades before the buildup of plaque results in signs or symptoms such as heart attack or stroke."

According to Bond, "This could be an important tool for evaluating patients at high risk for cardiovascular disease."


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