Cow’s milk linked to increased risk of cardiovascular death, study finds

Researchers have unveiled a potential link between sensitivity to common food allergens and an increased risk of heart disease.

[Nov. 10, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers have unveiled a potential link between sensitivity to common food allergens and an increased risk of heart disease, even among individuals without apparent food allergies. The study, led by Dr. Corinne Keet, a professor of pediatric allergy and immunology at the University of North Carolina's Department of Pediatrics, sheds light on a previously unappreciated risk factor for cardiovascular mortality.

Published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the research draws on data from two longitudinal studies, revealing a significant association between the presence of IgE antibodies to certain foods, such as cow's milk, peanuts, and shrimp, and an elevated risk of cardiovascular death. Remarkably, this association persisted even when accounting for conventional heart disease risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Dr. Keet, the corresponding author of the paper, expressed astonishment at the findings, stating, "People who had an antibody called IgE to foods that they regularly eat seemed to be at increased risk for dying from heart disease." She continued, "We were surprised by these findings because it is very common to have IgE to foods (about 15% of American adults have IgE to common food allergens), and most people don't have any symptoms when they eat the food.

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As allergists, our thinking has been that it is not important if people have IgE to foods, as long as they don't have symptoms when they eat the food."

The study, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and an AAAAI Faculty Development Award to Dr. Jeff Wilson at the University of Virginia, employed two different datasets for analysis.

The first dataset comprised 4,414 adults participating in The National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES), while the second dataset included 960 participants from the Wake Forest site of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) cohort. Participants in MESA were followed for up to 19 years, while NHANES participants were tracked for up to 14 years.

Graphic abstract. In NHANES, sensitization to at least 1 food was associated with higher CV mortality (hazard ratio [HR], 1.7 [95% confidence interval (CI), 1.2-2.4], P = .005). (CREDIT: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology)

The researchers measured total and specific IgE levels for various allergens, including cow's milk, egg, peanut, shrimp, and aeroallergens, in the NHANES group. In the MESA group, they focused on IgE to cow's milk, alpha-gal, peanut, dust mite, and timothy grass. Notably, both datasets showed a strong association between milk sensitization and cardiovascular mortality, with food sensitization to shrimp and peanuts also emerging as additional risk factors for heart disease.

It's important to clarify that the study's findings revolve around food sensitization rather than clinical food allergies. Since the researchers lacked access to information regarding clinical food allergies in either cohort, they assumed that individuals reporting regular consumption of food allergens on food frequency questionnaires were not experiencing allergy symptoms. Consequently, the results suggest that these associations are most pertinent to individuals who have not been formally diagnosed with food allergies, raising questions about potential long-term consequences for this group.

Corinne Keet, MD, PhD, pediatric allergy and immunology professor in the UNC Department of Pediatrics. (CREDIT: UNC School of Medicine)

The study's significance is further underscored by its novelty, as cardiovascular disease had not previously been linked to food sensitization, except for recent reports associating IgE to the carbohydrate allergen alpha-gal with coronary artery disease. Nevertheless, the emerging body of evidence points to the involvement of allergic-type immune pathways in cardiac physiology and heart disease.

Dr. Keet emphasizes the need for further research in exploring the relationship between sensitization to common food allergens and cardiovascular disease. While this study provides compelling evidence of an association, it does not definitively establish causation. Dr. Keet stated, "More research needs to be done about how sensitization to common food allergens is related to cardiovascular disease.

Timothy Grass. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

While this study provides good evidence of an association between sensitization to these allergens and death from cardiovascular disease, there is much work to be done to understand if this is a causal relationship."

This groundbreaking research underscores the complexity of our immune system's interactions with food and their potential consequences for our long-term health. As scientists delve deeper into these connections, it becomes increasingly clear that our dietary choices may have far-reaching implications beyond immediate allergic reactions, reaching all the way to the heart.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.