The popular weight loss drug Wegovy may also do wonders for your heart. Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceutical company that produces the medications Wegovy and Ozempic, recently found a 20 percent decrease in heart attack and stroke in people with obesity taking weekly Wegovy injections.
Doctors previously thought Wegovy helped the heart because it controlled a person’s diabetes, says Dr. Joyce Oen-Hsiao, a cardiologist at Yale School of Medicine. “We’re now seeing obese patients who are not diabetic still benefit from the cardiovascular benefits of taking Wegovy.”
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the US—affecting one in five women. The risk of developing some form of heart disease increases after age 40, with about 80 percent of women between the ages of 40 to 60 having at least one risk factor, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excess weight, or obesity.
The best way right now to lower your risk of heart disease is to take steps to prevent it. The findings could help to expand Wegovy’s usage beyond a weight loss drug. If it were to one day be approved for use as a preventative heart medication, experts say insurers might be more likely to cover the cost of the drug. Here’s what we know so far.
Since 2018, the SELECT clinical trial has been monitoring the heart health of people taking once-weekly injections of Wegovy. Over 17,000 people 45 years or older are enrolled in the trial and are considered overweight or obese. All have some form of heart disease with no history of diabetes.
While the trial is still ongoing, the current evidence suggests a 2.4 mg dose of Wegovy is safe and well-tolerated. Those taking Wegovy cut their risk of heart attack and stroke by 20 percent compared to those following the standard preventative guidelines.
“The SELECT trial findings are sure to usher in a new age of heart disease prevention. For decades, we have had excellent, reliable treatments for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Now, we have proof that treating obesity with the same seriousness further benefits our health,” says Dr. Beverly Tchang, an endocrinologist at Ro.
Wegovy reduced the chances for major cardiovascular events, but there is not much information on how it’s doing this. There is no official explanation yet, but cardiologists do have some theories on what could be going on in the body when taking Wegovy.
One possible explanation is that Wegovy indirectly helps by controlling risk factors for heart disease. One example is blood sugar. Wegovy is part of a class of drugs called glucagon-like-peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists. It mimics a gut hormone in charge of producing insulin, which reduces blood glucose levels. Recent research has also found people’s cholesterol and blood pressure improving after a year of taking Ozempic or Wegovy.
Most likely it is a combination of factors, says Dr. Tchang. “Weight loss in of itself reduces the risk of heart disease, and there are rodent studies showing that GLP1 has a direct beneficial effect on the function of blood vessels.” Dr. Oen-Hsiao adds that Wegovy helps people lose weight because of a loss of appetite. Smaller portion control and loss of appetite for processed or fatty foods could spur people to be active and choose healthier heart-healthy options.
Medical experts find the results promising, but there are still some questions that need to be answered before using Wegovy for managing cardiovascular health.
One concern is the affordability of Wegovy. Dr. Oen-Hsiao says there is currently no data on how long people need to take this drug. It’s possible people will need to take it for life to maintain its effects, and without insurance, the prices may not be affordable for many Americans. Another worry is the side effects. The data said the 2.4 mg dosage was safe but since the trial tested Wegovy on a specific group of people — older adults with obesity — it’s unclear whether the drug would work as well for people who do not fit into this criteria. It’s also unknown what side effects Wegovy will have on cardiovascular health once they stop taking the injections.
Wegovy could potentially transform how people take care of their heart, but it’s not meant to replace the changes you need for creating a heart-healthy life.
To reduce your risk of heart disease, Dr. Oen-Hsiao recommends people try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like swimming, cycling, or running) each week, eat more plant-based foods and lean proteins, and stop smoking. “It’s these lifestyle changes that are going to keep people moving forward with their cardio-protective health.”
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