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Earlobe creases linked to heart attacks, and other questionable study findings

Can you assess your heart disease risk by looking in the mirror and checking for a receding hairline, earlobe creases, and yellow lumps of fat around your eye? Will sprinkling flaxseed on your cereal reverse hypertension? What about popping a probiotic to lower cholesterol?

These are just some of the quirkier findings coming out of the American Heart Association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles this week along with high-tech advances in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease.

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Keep in mind that while scientific meetings of large medical societies allow for researchers and doctors to gather in one place to discuss hundreds, if not thousands, of new findings, what’s often presented may not pass muster for publication in prestigious medical journals, where they first undergo rigorous peer review.

A Danish study drawing a lot of attention, but which has not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, suggested that common signs of aging can predict a person’s heart disease risk. The researchers analyzed data from nearly 11,000 participants over age 40 in the Copenhagen Heart Study and found that those who had three to four aging signs at the beginning of the study -- such as a receding hairline, baldness at the top of the head, creases in the earlobes, and fatty deposits around the eye -- had a 57 percent increased risk of having a heart attack and a 39 percent increased risk of being diagnosed with heart disease during the 35-year study compared with those who had none of them.

“The visible signs of aging reflect physiologic or biological age, not chronological age,” the study’s senior author, Dr. Anne Tybjaerg-Hansen at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement on the Heart Association’s website. She went on to recommend that doctors check for these aging signs as a “routine part” of their physical exam.

I’m not sure what doctors should do if they find that their patient is balding or has an earlobe crease. Should they order an exercise stress test or heart imaging, which are already considered by many public health experts to be overused screening tests?

And the correlation may not even be real given that both heart disease and the four aging signs defined in the study are very common. More than half of the study participants had a receding hairline at the begining of the study, more than a quarter had the earlobe crease, and a similar percentage had balding at the top of their head. About 1 in 12 had fatty deposits around their eye, which is a sign of elevated cholesterol that probably does warrant a blood test to check levels.

With all these caveats, I’m guessing this study will wind up in the dustbin of forgotten, faulty findings.

Other researchers discussed their findings pinpointing particular foods or supplements to lower heart disease risks. One study found that patients with clogged arteries in their legs, or peripheral artery disease, were able to achieve better control of their high blood pressure by eating 30 grams of milled flaxseed every day compared with people who were given a different grain to eat. Another finding indicated that taking a twice-daily probiotic supplement, containing the beneficial bacteria L. reuteri NCIMB 30242, reduced total cholesterol levels by about 9 percent and “bad” LDL levels by nearly 12 percent after nine weeks compared with those who took placebos.

Both studies, however, were small -- involving fewer than 130 patients -- so they would need to be confirmed in larger studies and, again, go through the process of peer review for journal publication before doctors start recommending that their patients use flaxseed to reduce hypertension or take probiotics to lower cholesterol.

Interestingly, two other trials presented at the meeting that were published concurrently in the highly respected Journal of the American Medical Association found that supplements were useless against heart disease. One found that taking a daily multivitamin didn’t help protect against heart disease, and another found that fish oil capsules didn’t work better than placebos to prevent a heart-rhythm complication called atrial fibrillation after heart surgery.

The American Heart Association did, however, reiterate its position at the onset of its meeting on the need to limit sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams a day, citing new research that underscores the dangers of uncontrolled hypertension. High blood pressure, even in young adults, can cause damaging brain injury that leads to memory loss earlier in life, according to a study published online in the journal Lancet Neurology that came out just before the heart meeting. Anyone with hypertension, according to the heart association, should be cutting back on their salt intake.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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