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Diabetes and heart disease risk are linked by the same genes, scientists say

A major study is warning that your genes may be at play linking the two chronic diseases.

Global health officials are grappling with epidemics of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease and now a major study is warning that a genetic connection may be at play linking the two chronic diseases.

Scientists out of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine say that they’ve uncovered 16 new genetic risk factors for diabetes along with one new genetic risk factor for heart disease, shedding light on the onset of the two ailments.

The medical community is already saying that diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease but they’ve never really understood the biological pathways tying the two together.

READ MORE: What Alzheimer’s disease, heart health and diabetes have in common

Now, they’re suggesting that genes known to be tied to a higher diabetes risk are also linked to a higher risk of heart disease.

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In eight of the 16 genes they zeroed in on, they found a specific gene variant that tampers with risk for both conditions.

What could these findings mean? The scientists say it could pave the way to treating both of the chronic diseases at the same time.

“Identifying gene variants linked to both Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease risk, in principle, opens up opportunities to lower the risk of both outcomes with a single drug,” study co-author, Dr. Danish Saleheen, said in a university statement.

“Using evidence from human genetics, it should be possible to design drugs for Type 2 diabetes that have either beneficial or neutral effects on coronary heart disease risk,” Saleheen said.

READ MORE: Stroke more than doubles risk of dementia, Heart and Stroke Foundation warns

Saleheen’s team pored over the genetic data for more than 250,000 people from South Asian, East Asian and European descent. With the data in tow, they found the 16 new genes tied to diabetes, while they confirmed most of the already-established sites in the DNA that are tied to diabetes risk, too.

In their study, they found eight specific gene variants that ended up being “strongly linked” to risk of developing both diseases.

Turns out, there’s even a pattern: genes tied to Type 2 diabetes risk are much more likely to be associated with heart disease risk, but not the other way around.

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At least 68 per cent of people 65 and older with diabetes die from some sort of heart disease and 16 per cent die from stroke, the American Heart Association says.

READ MORE: Here’s how women’s heart attack symptoms differ from men’s

Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease than adults without diabetes, the AHA says.

There are a handful of conditions that contribute to a heightened risk of heart disease: hypertension is common in those with diabetes and it’s also a risk factor for heart disease. And then there’s abnormal cholesterol levels, excess weight, and a lack of physical activity.

Doctors have been putting an emphasis on telling the public that many chronic diseases are intertwined.

READ MORE: Here’s what you need to know about prediabetes and your risk of Type 2 diabetes

In 2014, for example, Alzheimer’s Disease International focused its annual report on the common risk factors tied to dementia, heart disease and diabetes.

Diabetes can increase the risk of dementia by 50 per cent. Obesity and lack of physical exercise are also important risk factors for diabetes and high blood pressure. In turn, they’re also risk factors for dementia.

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There’s an “increasingly powerful” relationship between stroke and dementia too, according to a 2016 report released out of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

READ MORE: Are long daytime naps a sign for Type 2 diabetes?

Stroke happens when blood stops flowing to parts of the brain, causing cells to die. Having a stroke more than doubles your risk of developing dementia later on in life, the report warns.

Out of every 100 stroke patients without a past history of dementia, 16 are likely to develop dementia after their first or subsequent stroke.

Read the full UPenn study published in the journal Nature Genetics.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca