Scientists have discovered a gene they say plays an important role in heart disease and heart attack.  Researchers say the newly discovered gene causes heart disease even discounting lifestyle factors.  VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, smoking and lack of exercise are all considered risk factors for heart disease.  But experts also know that heart problems tend to run in families. 

 "If your parents or you have an older brother and sister who has heart disease, you are at increased risk of having heart disease yourself," said Eric Boerwinkle, who is with the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Boerwinkle says that motivated investigators to look for a genetic cause of inherited coronary artery disease.

Scientists, led by Canadian researchers, scoured the human genome, including a region previously unknown for heart disease, and found the abnormal heart gene lurking there.

In a study involving Caucasian men and women, investigators discovered that those who inherited  the gene from one parent have a 20 to 25 percent increased risk of developing coronary artery disease.  Participants who inherited the common gene from both parents had a 30 to 40 percent increased risk.

A second team of researchers discovered the gene independently and also found that it increased the risk of heart attack.

Christopher Granger, Director of the Cardiac Care Unit at Duke University in North Carolina, is co-author of that study.

Granger and Icelandic researchers, studying patients in Iceland and the U.S., concluded that 20 percent of the population has the genetic mutation for heart disease, meaning that one in five people is at increased risk for heart attack. 

Granger says those who inherit the abnormal gene from both parents have twice the risk of dying of heart attack early in life, in their 50s for men and 60s for women.

"This is simply a very important discovery for better understanding what factors determine who's at higher risk for having heart attacks," he said.

Granger says the abnormal gene can apparently lead to heart disease without any other risk factors.

"In fact, if we knew  which particular people were at higher risk for developing heart attack when they were young, then we could target our more aggressive prevention measures for those particular people and make a big impact in improving public health," he said.

Granger says he hopes a genetic test will be developed to tell who is at risk for heart disease.  Until then, he says people should not ignore the things they can do to reduce their risk of heart attack, including quitting smoking and improving their diet.