A Mendelian randomization analysis conducted by Børge G. Nordestgaard and colleagues using data from observational studies supports a causal relationship between body mass index and risk for ischemic heart disease.
Adiposity, assessed as elevated body mass index (BMI), is associated with increased risk of ischemic heart disease (IHD); however, whether this is causal is unknown. We tested the hypothesis that positive observational associations between BMI and IHD are causal.
Methods and Findings
In 75,627 individuals taken from two population-based and one case-control study in Copenhagen, we measured BMI, ascertained 11,056 IHD events, and genotyped FTO(rs9939609), MC4R(rs17782313), and TMEM18(rs6548238). Using genotypes as a combined allele score in instrumental variable analyses, the causal odds ratio (OR) between BMI and IHD was estimated and compared with observational estimates. The allele score-BMI and the allele score-IHD associations used to estimate the causal OR were also calculated individually. In observational analyses the OR for IHD was 1.26 (95% CI 1.19–1.34) for every 4 kg/m2 increase in BMI. A one-unit allele score increase associated with a 0.28 kg/m2 (95 CI% 0.20–0.36) increase in BMI and an OR for IHD of 1.03 (95% CI 1.01–1.05) (corresponding to an average 1.68 kg/m2 BMI increase and 18% increase in the odds of IHD for those carrying all six BMI increasing alleles). In instrumental variable analysis using the same allele score the causal IHD OR for a 4 kg/m2 increase in BMI was 1.52 (95% CI 1.12–2.05).
For every 4 kg/m2 increase in BMI, observational estimates suggested a 26% increase in odds for IHD while causal estimates suggested a 52% increase. These data add evidence to support a causal link between increased BMI and IHD risk, though the mechanism may ultimately be through intermediate factors like hypertension, dyslipidemia, and type 2 diabetes. This work has important policy implications for public health, given the continuous nature of the BMI-IHD association and the modifiable nature of BMI. This analysis demonstrates the value of observational studies and their ability to provide unbiased results through inclusion of genetic data avoiding confounding, reverse causation, and bias.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Ischemic heart disease (IHD; also known as coronary heart disease) is the leading cause of death among adults in developed countries. In the US alone, IHD kills nearly half a million people every year. With age, fatty deposits (atherosclerotic plaques) build up in the walls of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients. The resultant reduction in the heart's blood supply causes shortness of breath, angina (chest pains that are usually relieved by rest), and potentially fatal heart attacks (myocardial infarctions). Risk factors for IHD include smoking, high blood pressure (hypertension), abnormal amounts of cholesterol and other fat in the blood (dyslipidemia), type 2 diabetes, and being overweight or obese (having excess body fat). Treatments for IHD include lifestyle changes (for example, losing weight) and medications that lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. The narrowed arteries can also be widened using a device called a stent or surgically bypassed.
Why Was This Study Done?
Prospective observational studies have shown an association between a high body mass index (BMI, a measure of body fat that is calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared; a BMI greater than 30 kg/m2 indicates obesity) and an increased risk of IHD. Observational studies, which ask whether people who are exposed to a suspected risk factor develop a specific disease more often than people who are not exposed to the risk factor, cannot prove, however, that changes in BMI/adiposity cause IHD. Obese individuals may share other characteristics that cause both IHD and obesity (confounding) or, rather than obesity causing IHD, IHD may cause obesity (reverse causation). Here, the researchers use “Mendelian randomization” to examine whether elevations in BMI across the lifecourse have a causal impact on IHD risk. Three common genetic variants—FTO(rs9939609), MC4R(rs17782313), and TMEM18(rs6548238)—which have the largest single genetic variant associations with BMI were used in this study. Given that gene variants are inherited essentially randomly with respect to conventional confounding factors and are not subject reverse causation, use of these as instruments (or proxy measures) for variation in BMI as a risk factor (as opposed to measuring BMI directly) allows researchers to comment on whether obesity is causally involved in IHD.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed data from two population-based studies in which adults were physically examined and answered a lifestyle questionnaire before being followed to see how many developed IDH. They also analyzed data from a case-control study on IDH (in a case-control study, people with a disease are matched with similar people without the disease and the occurrence of risk factors in the patients and controls is compared). Overall, the researchers measured the BMI of 75,627 white individuals, among whom 11,056 already had IDH or developed it, and determined which of the BMI-increasing genetic variants each participant carried. On the basis of the observational data, every 4 kg/m2 increase in BMI increased the odds of IDH by 26% (an odds ratio of 1.26). Using a score derived from the combination of the three genetic variants, the researchers confirmed an association between each BMI increasing allele and both BMI (as expected) and IHD (0.28 kg/m2 and an odds ratio for IHD of 1.03, respectively). On average, compared to people carrying no BMI-increasing gene variants, people carrying six BMI-increasing gene variants had a 1.68 kg/m2 increase in BMI and an 18% increase in IHD risk. To extend this and to essentially reassess the original, observational, relationship between BMI and IHD risk, an “instrumental variable analysis” was used to examine the causal effect of a lifetime change in BMI on the risk of IDH. In this, it was found that for every 4 kg/m2 increase in BMI increased the odds of IDH by 52%.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings support a causal link between increased BMI and IDH risk, although it may be that BMI affects IDH through intermediate factors such as hypertension, dyslipidemia, and diabetes. The findings also show that observational studies into the impact of elevated BMI on IHD risk were consistent with this, but also that the inclusion of genetic data increases the value of observational studies by making it possible to avoid issues such as confounding and reverse causation. Finally, these findings and those of recent, observational studies have important implications for public-health policy because they show that the association between BMI (which is modifiable by lifestyle changes) and IHD is continuous. That is, any increase in BMI increases the risk of IHD; there is no threshold below which a BMI increase has no effect on IDH risk. Thus, public-health policies that aim to reduce BMI by even moderate levels could substantially reduce the occurrence of IDH in populations.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001212.
The American Heart Association provides information about IHD and tips on keeping the heart healthy, including weight management; it also provides personal stories about IHD
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information about IHD, including information on prevention and personal stories about IHD
Information is available from the British Heart Foundation on heart disease and keeping the heart healthy
The US National Heart Lung and Blood Institute also provides information on IHD (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides links to many other sources of information on IHD (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has a page on Mendelian randomization (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)