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Lycopene May Contribute to Women's Heart Health
Atlanta GA, 3 April 2002

Antioxidant found in tomatoes may offer clues for prevention of heart disease

Women may want to start adding more tomato products to their diets -- based on a study presented today by Harvard Medical School researchers at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting. The study -- compiled from data from the Women's Health Study -- suggests that lycopene, an antioxidant in tomatoes, may reduce the risk of heart disease in middle-aged and older women by as much as 33 percent. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women.

According to the American Heart Association, nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease and stroke as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer. In 1999, more than 500,000 women died of coronary heart disease and 53 percent of the deaths from cardiovascular disease were in women versus 47 percent in men.

Study results

The study, conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, analyzed blood samples of nearly 500 women from the Women's Health Study who developed cardiovascular disease and an equal number of women from the study who did not develop the disease. After the researchers took into account coronary risk factors, such as history of high cholesterol and physical inactivity, they found that those women with the highest levels of plasma lycopene had a 33 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease than those with the lowest levels. Plasma lycopene refers to the level of lycopene found in the blood. Researchers believe that the level of lycopene in the blood is related to the amount of lycopene consumed in the diet.

"This is the first large-scale study to examine the role that lycopene may play in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease exclusively in women," said lead researcher Howard D. Sesso, ScD, instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "The body of research on lycopene in other conditions such as prostate cancer is more advanced but the 33 percent risk reduction in our study has compelled us to further investigate lycopene's power in combating heart disease."

Other studies have identified a correlation between lycopene and a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Several epidemiological studies have found a potential benefit of lycopene in cardiovascular disease risk reduction in men or in both men and women. The multi-center European Study of Antioxidants, Myocardial Infarction and Cancer of the Breast (EURAMIC) examined the association between antioxidant concentration in fat tissue and the incidence of myocardial infraction (MI) in 10 countries. The study found that men with the highest concentrations of lycopene in their fat tissue had a 48 percent reduction in risk for developing cardiovascular disease when compared with men with the lowest lycopene levels in their fat tissue. The Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor study found that low serum lycopene concentrations were associated with a three-fold increased risk of acute coronary events such as heart attack and stroke.

Lycopene for a heart-healthy diet

Scientists and health professionals have long recommended increasing fruit and vegetable intake as part of a heart healthy diet in part because of their high antioxidant content.

"There are no dietary recommendations for lycopene. Yet the research suggests that women should aim to consume more lycopene-rich foods as a prudent measure in the prevention of chronic diseases," commented Michael Gaziano, MD, director of cardiovascular epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and one of the study's authors. Dietary sources of lycopene include tomato-based products such as tomato soup, pizza sauce and fruits such as watermelon and pink grapefruit.

Misconceptions of heart disease

According to an American Heart Association survey titled "Women, Heart Disease and Stroke Survey Highlights and Comparison", men are more likely than women to recognize heart disease as a leading cause of death. Women, on the other hand, mistakenly believe that cancer is their biggest health threat. Yet statistics show us that nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease and stroke as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.

"The findings from our study will add to the body of scientific literature on lycopene and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, " said Dr. Sesso. "Later this year, we'll continue to add to that body of research by examining blood levels of lycopene in men. In addition, we'll look at dietary intakes of lycopene and its impact on the risk of cardiovascular disease."


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