Some people of African descent more susceptible to heart condition, Science study suggests

This news release is also available in French.

A gene found in some people of African descent may slightly increase the chance that they will experience an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, which can be lethal in rare cases. Most people with this gene will never experience an arrhythmia, but some may benefit from taking certain precautions, say the study authors. The U.S. and U.K. team reports its findings in the journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Approximately 450,000 people die suddenly each year in the United States of arrhythmia, which is a variation in the heartbeat's rate or rhythm. In most cases, this is the outcome of a heart attack or another heart condition, but arrhythmia can also happen spontaneously.

In their Science study, Mark Keating of Children's Hospital, in Boston, Harvard Medical School, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and his colleagues calculated that people with the so-called "Y1102" variation of a certain heart gene have an eight times greater risk of arrhythmia. Keating cautioned, however, that the incidence of arrhythmia is so low for any individual, even an eight-fold increase in risk does not mean he or she is likely to experience one.

"We've identified one variant, which is one piece in a huge puzzle. But, every time we can identify a piece, we can use that information to reduce risk, which is already quite low for an individual at any given moment," Keating said.

The gene variation, or "allele," doesn't cause life-threatening arrhythmia on its own, but it might help to cause one in people lacking enough electrolytes--potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium--in their blood serum. Certain drugs including diuretics, commonly taken to reduce blood pressure, reduce electrolyte levels, as does strenuous exercise.

"It's important to make sure that serum

Contact: Lisa Onaga
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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