Take Heart! Here's a New Clue on Ticker Trouble

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Medical researchers believe they may have found a powerful predictor of heart disease, the health problem with the highest mortality rate in the nation. A study of 5,621 men and women over 65 published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine reveals that the presence of a benign condition known as aortic valve sclerosis may be associated with a 50 percent higher risk of death from heart disease. The finding is significant because the condition, a hardening or thickening of a tiny heart valve, “is incredibly common among the elderly,” says TIME medical columnist Christine Gorman. About a quarter of persons over 65 have aortic valve sclerosis.

Doctors have known for a while that a more severe condition, aortic valve stenosis, can cause problems because it prevents the valve from closing properly. “But sclerosis was thought to be benign because it does not impede the closing of the valve,” says Gorman. The new findings will now prompt further study to determine more precisely why there appears to be an association between sclerosis and heart disease fatalities. It will also prompt doctors to monitor patients with the condition more closely. The new findings, if borne out by further research, could add a potent new tool in the battle against heart disease.