C-Reactive Protein: Is it the Most Important Heart Health Indicator, and How do You Learn Yours?
C-reactive protein (CRP) is a special type of protein produced by the liver. When your body experiences systemic inflammation, levels of this protein go up. During inflammation, a natural response, your body’s white blood cells protect you from foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses.
However, over time inflammation can lodge in your muscles, joints and tissues and is a leading cause of many diseases, including atherosclerosis (fatty build-up in the arteries’ lining), heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
If you have several risk factors for heart disease, such as being a smoker, overweight or inactive, the American Heart Association says a CRP test can help predict your heart attack or stroke risk.
Many researchers and doctors now believe that CRP may be as important as — or more important than — cholesterol levels in determining risk of heart disease.
CRP May be Best Predictor Yet
Research into the link between CRP and heart disease seems to favor CRP over any other heart disease indicator. Highlights include:
- The Physician’s Health Study, which involved 18,000 healthy physicians, found that those with elevated CRP levels had three times the risk of heart attack than those with non-elevated levels.
- People with CRP levels in the upper third had double the risk of heart attack than those with levels in the lower third, according to the American Heart Association.
- The Harvard Women’s Health Study found that a CRP test was more accurate than cholesterol in predicting heart problems. In fact, CRP was the strongest risk predictor of 12 different markers of inflammation, after three years.
It was found that women with the highest CRP levels were over four times as likely to have died from coronary disease or had a non-fatal heart attack or stroke. They were also more likely to have needed a heart procedure such as angioplasty or bypass surgery than women with the lowest levels.
- Other studies have found that people with higher CRP levels who are undergoing angioplasty have an increased risk that the artery will close after it is opened.
The C-Reactive Protein Blood Test: Should You Check Yours?
The American Heart Association says that if your risk of heart disease is low, a CRP test isn’t immediately warranted. However, if you have several risk factors for heart disease, the CRP test can help to predict a heart attack or stroke, as well as help you determine whether further treatment is needed.
Risk factors that may increase your risk of heart disease include:
- Having had a heart attack or stroke in the past
- A family history of heart disease
- Smoking cigarettes
- Elevated total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
- Low HDL cholesterol level
- Being overweight or obese
- High blood pressure or uncontrolled diabetes
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle
- Being male or a post-menopausal woman
If you fall into this category, a CRP blood test can be done. Some insurance companies do cover it, and it can even be done right along with a cholesterol test. Generally, the CRP test results are as follows:
If your CRP level is high, eating healthy, exercising and not smoking can help bring it to a normal level.
- A CRP level under 1.0 milligrams per liter of blood means you have a low risk for cardiovascular disease.
- A level of 1.0 to 2.9 milligrams means your risk is intermediate.
- A level of more than 3.0 milligrams means you are at a high risk.
If Your CRP is Elevated …
In the event that you take the test and find your levels are intermediate or high, the steps to remedying it are the same as those you would use to ward off heart disease. In short, making healthy lifestyle changes is essential and include:
- Quitting smoking and drinking less alcohol
- Eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Controlling diabetes and/or high blood pressure