Sunshine may cut heart disease


David Grimes, a consultant physician in Blackburn, Lancashire, has begun meteorological investigation of links between heart disease and variable levels of cholesterol in the blood.

Winter months in Blackburn produce high levels of cholesterol, a proven cause of heart disease. Levels decrease in sunnier weather, when ultra-violet rays catalyse a reaction which makes vitamin D from one kind of cholesterol.

‘We know high cholesterol is bad for you, but our understanding and treatment lack credibility,’ Dr Grimes said.

‘We know that sunshine and vitamin D protect against TB. This is a further level of speculation which I think is plausible and worth researching.’

The hypothesis hatched on an emergency call. ‘I went one weekend from my middle-class neighbourhood where everyone was busy in their gardens to a terraced house in Darwen where there was nothing for the family to do but sit inside and watch TV.’

Subsequent trawls by Dr Grimes through the research literature has synthesised a possible link between climate and cholesterol, with vitamin D a possible guard against heart attacks.

Research in Ipswich, Stoke-on-Trent and Wakefield failed to discover dietary causes of heart disease. But Dr Grimes discovered that the meteorological records collated. Sunniest Ipswich had the lowest, and darkest Wakefield the highest rates of cardiac-related deaths.

In sunny New Mexico, heart disease decreases with altitude – and greater exposure to ultra-violet light. The cardiac arrest graph for the United States closely resembles topography, with risks of heart attack apparently greater in low-lying areas.

Within the Mediterranean region, thought to enjoy low levels of heart disease because of diet, variations also follow sunshine and altitude. The only British research into comparative effects of low-fat, high-fibre and fish (high vitamin D) diets suggested that only vitamin D significantly reduced chances of a male suffering a second heart attack.

Although the link is established between cholesterol and heart disease, there is a political reluctance shared by some medical interest groups to acknowledge the failure of attempts to treat patients by lowering their cholesterol with diet and drugs.

‘The most recent research, a Swedish overview of 22 research papers, shows that diet and drugs don’t achieve anything,’ Dr Grimes said.

Blackburn, one of the cloudiest areas of Britain, has ‘an unbelievale contrast’ between the heart disease rates of its middle-class and working-class areas. Asians living in the town’s poorest districts have an exceptionally high incidence of heart disease.

‘It is difficult to bring them into a dietary theory, and difficult to ignore their social geography. The closer you live to the equator, the lower the rate of heart attacks. In northern England and Scotland, Asians have among the highest heart attack rates in the world.

‘They are not enthusiastic gardeners, they do not or cannot afford to take holidays in the sun, and they do not lie on beaches.’

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