Heart disease risk could be affected by one surprising factor, new study finds
The shape of a person's heart could be a predictor of future cardiac disease, a new study from Stanford University in California found.
Specifically, a heart that has a more spherical (round) shape could have a 47% higher likelihood of developing cardiomyopathy, which is a "disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body," according to the Mayo Clinic.
Using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze more than 38,897 MRIs of healthy hearts from the UK Biobank, researchers examined a large biomedical database that includes information from 500,000 U.K. participants.
In the study, published in the journal Med on Wednesday, the researchers measured the roundness of the left ventricle, a typically cone-shaped chamber of the heart that pumps oxygen-rich blood to the body.
Patient has cardiology exam. (Credit: Getty Images)
Next, the researchers analyzed the participants’ health records to identify which ones had certain genetic markers for heart conditions.
They found an overlap between the rounder-shaped hearts and a predisposition for heart disease.
"Most people who practice cardiology are well aware that after someone develops heart disease, the heart will look more spherical," said Dr. Shoa Clarke, a preventive cardiologist and an instructor in the Stanford School of Medicine’s departments of medicine and pediatrics, in a press release announcing the findings.
Clarke was one of the study’s senior researchers, along with Dr. David Ouyang of the Smidt Heart Institute of Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
The lead author was Milos Vukadinovic, a bioengineering student at UCLA.
The research team was surprised by the strong link between heart roundness and the risk for future cardiomyopathy, Clarke told Fox News Digital.
"It was possible that heart shape may not have told us anything different than measurements of heart size or strength," he said.
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"But it turned out that heart shape provides additional information about risk and genetics that is not picked up by other measurements."
Rounder shape could indicate stress on the heart
Dr. Marc Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and a Fox News medical contributor, said that when used properly, AI can be "a clinician’s friend" when evaluating heart health.
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"In this instance, AI appeared to show a correlation between roundness of the heart and development of cardiomyopathy, where the heart balloons out and is a less effective pump," Dr. Siegel told Fox News Digital.
"This makes some sense, because the heart is typically more oblong," he explained.
"A rounder shape could conceivably put more stress or pressure on the valves and walls, potentially leading to this outcome." He was not involved in the new study.
If the new study is confirmed, it would add another element to how cardiologists examine patients' echocardiograms (ultrasound of the heart), said Dr. Siegel.
Medical imaging could hold more insights, researchers say
The researchers believe this is just the tipping point for much more data-rich information from MRI imagery.
"A key takeaway of our work is that current strategies for assessing the heart are good, but they were established decades ago, before the era of big data," Clarke told Fox News Digital.
"We now have the opportunity to think more broadly and ask what other features of the heart can tell us about the risk and the biology of disease."
Co-author Ouyang told the journal Med that there is an extensive amount of untapped information that physicians aren’t currently using.
The study authors indicated that more research is needed into how heart shape can or should be considered when making medical decisions.
This particular study was limited to a single cohort within the U.K.
While it looked at a large number of participants, Clarke said the group lacked diversity.
"We expect that our results will generalize broadly, but it will be important to show that these findings replicate in other populations," he said.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S. — with someone dying from the condition every 34 seconds, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).