For middle-aged men struggling to lose weight or get enough exercise to reduce their risk of heart disease, here could be a far easier alternative:
Just donate an occasional pint of blood to get rid of iron in the body.
That possibility is being held out in a new study led by a researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
He found that nonsmoking men who had donated blood in the previous three years were 30 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke, undergo heart surgery or require heart medications.
Those results, cautioned physician David Meyers, do not prove that donating blood reduces the risk of heart disease. But they support the hypothesis that iron stored in the body contributes to hardening of the arteries.
And if further research bears out the findings, blood donation could become a regular part of the prescription for a healthier heart.
“If true, this would be the perfect preventive of heart disease,” said Meyers, a professor of internal medicine at KU Medical Center.
“I can’t think of anything simpler than donating blood. There is no downside risk to it - except to those who pass out.”
Meyers’ study was published Wednesday in the British journal Heart.
Women who donated blood did not show lower rates of heart disease, Meyers found. They would not be expected to show reduced risk because they already may gain similar health advantages by menstruating, he said.
In theory, post-menopausal women also should be able to reduce their risk of heart disease by donating blood, Meyers said. However, his study did not show that benefit, perhaps because it included too few older women.
Meyers’ study is at least the second this year to show a beneficial link between blood donation and heart disease.
Finnish researchers reported in March in the British Medical Journal that among 2,682 middle-aged men followed for about 5 years, the risk of heart attack was 86 percent lower among blood donors.
Meyers, along with researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of British Columbia, studied 3,855 Nebraska men and women age 40 and over. The subjects originally were recruited a decade ago for a study on diet and heart disease. Among the subjects were 655 people who reported donating at least one pint of whole blood - a typical donation - in the preceding 10 years.
The study was financed by the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
According to what scientists call the “iron hypothesis,” iron plays an important role in the chemical processes that lead to hardening of the arteries.
The regular loss of iron-rich blood leaves menstruating women with half the bodily iron stores of men. This may account for the lower incidence of heart disease among younger women - and for the rise in heart disease in women after menopause.
“What this means for men is, if you donate blood, in a sense you can become a virtual premenopausal woman,” Meyers said.
After a man donates blood, his body slowly re-accumulates iron. According to data Meyer hasn’t published, a man should give blood yearly to maintain the optimal iron level.
Taking vitamin and mineral supplements with iron did not raise the risk of heart disease, Meyers found. This may be because excess iron from the supplements is eliminated by the body, he said.