Looks Matter: The Signs Of Aging That Can Signal Heart Disease

January 7, 2014 12:08 AM

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Photo Credit: ThinkStock

Photo Credit: ThinkStock

By Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

As if getting older is not challenging enough, research points to certain signs of aging as a marker for higher risk of heart disease. 

Studies have shown that individuals who have cholesterol deposits around the eyes or male pattern baldness (hair loss on the top or back of the head) can have a higher risk of heart disease.

Photo Credit: ThinkStock

Photo Credit: ThinkStock

The Eyes Have It

A study conducted at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark found that the appearance of raised yellow patches around the eyelids (called xanthelasmata) can be a sign of higher heart disease risk.

The study followed nearly 13,000 adults, ages 20 to 93, in Copenhagen over a 22-year period.

All participants were free of heart disease at the start of the study, and 563 (4.4 percent) of them had xanthelasmata. By the end of the study, 3,699 of the participants developed heart disease, 1,498 had strokes, 1,872 had heart attacks, and 8,507 had died. 

The study’s results found that men and women with xanthelasmata — regardless of age — have a higher risk of having heart disease, heart attacks or dying within the following 10 years. Men ages 70 to 79 with the condition appeared to have the highest risk: 53 percent compared to a 41 percent risk for men without xanthelasmata. The numbers for women were 35 percent versus 27 percent.

This increased risk did not consider other risk factors like obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. 


“Cholesterol patches on the eyes are generally flat, cream- or yellow-tinged in color, and found on the upper or lower eyelids, often near the inner eye. They may appear in women and men as early as their 40s and 50s,” explains Michael C. Gavin, MD, a cardiologist in the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “The study’s results showed that people with xanthelasmata may be more likely to store cholesterol in their vascular or soft tissue, since the patches are made of cells similar to those in the plaque that forms within blood vessels. 

“The fact that people with xanthelasmata experience a higher risk of heart disease warrants attention from physicians,” he adds. “This may include taking a closer look at patients with the cholesterol patches, even when they have blood pressure and cholesterol levels in a normal range.”

A Hair-Raising Issue

Another potential red flag for heart disease involves hair loss, according to a study conducted at the University of Tokyo and published in the British Medical Journal.

After analyzing data from six studies involving more than 36,000 men, the university researchers concluded that men with severe baldness could have a 44 percent higher risk of heart disease during a period of 10 to 15 years compared to men with hair. Men with the most baldness at the top of the head — particularly those younger than 60 — had the highest risk.

While researchers are not yet certain about the connection between baldness and heart disease, the Japanese study discussed testosterone as a potential cause. Bald men tend to have higher levels of testosterone in their blood. These individuals with hair loss also have an enzyme present that converts the testosterone to a different hormone that shrinks and destroys the hair follicles, according to the study’s researchers. They further explained that this same enzyme can react with testosterone in the arteries to cause plaque build-up or atherosclerosis. 

“The association of hair loss with heart disease risk is complex because there is such a strong genetic predisposition to baldness in families,” says Gavin. “But there is a suggestion that the differences in testosterone metabolism that can impact balding may be associated with the metabolic syndrome, which involves heart-disease risk factors like high blood sugar, cholesterol or blood pressure levels, and excess body fat around the waist.”

What if You Have the Signs?

While there is no need to panic for those with balding or cholesterol patches, they are signals for patients and physicians alike to be alert to additional risk factors. 

“It’s important to remember that these appearance issues are not causing a problem; they are markers of other conditions that we can identify and treat,” says Gavin. “But it would benefit patients with these issues to pursue a healthy lifestyle and weight, along with periodic visits to their doctor to check blood pressure and cholesterol levels and other risk factors.”

Above content provided by the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted January 2014

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