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posted: 10/18/2010 1:00 AM

Magnesium levels overlooked

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Magnesium is a mineral that is important for health, but can it prevent sudden cardiac death? According to a recent medical study, the answer is yes.

Sudden cardiac death is a leading cause of heart-related deaths, especially in people 40 and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, SCD accounts for more than 250,000 deaths annually. That is more than colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and AIDS combined.

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The most common cause of SCD is believed to be a heart rhythm disorder or arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation. Unfortunately, most people do not know if they are at risk. When the heart stops, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and immediate emergency medical care may be successful, but time is of the essence. The key is in prevention, and magnesium may be an answer.

Magnesium is one of the most common elements in the human body and, indeed, the known universe. It is essential for life and therefore must be important. Hundreds of enzymes require magnesium, and it plays an important role in the production of energy and DNA function.

While magnesium may be commonly used for constipation and as a soak for sore muscles, it is also a true muscle relaxant with anti-inflammatory properties. Interestingly, it can also stabilize abnormal nerve function and, given intravenously, can "break a migraine headache. Magnesium may also prevent heart arrhythmias associated with SCD.

A recent medical study done at the University of Minnesota revealed that robust blood levels of magnesium significantly reduces the risk of SCD. This research, part of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, looked at blood levels of magnesium and the risk of SCD over a 12-year period. They found that people who had the highest levels of magnesium in their blood had a 40 percent reduction in the risk of SCD compared to those whose blood magnesium levels where at the low end of the reference range.

Risk factors for SCD include atherosclerotic heart disease, cardiomyopathies, abnormalities in the electrical pathways of the heart, toxins and low magnesium levels. Adequate levels are determined by a laboratory reference range. However, the range for magnesium is not necessarily the optimal range or even normal range. It is a mathematical average and may be too low for those at risk.

Determining the level of magnesium is a simple blood test. However, magnesium levels can quickly change based on food and supplement use. A more accurate test is to look at magnesium levels in red blood cells. For my patients, most are at the low end of the reference range and need additional magnesium.

Magnesium can be taken as a supplement, but also can be found in nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. Although the most common side effect of magnesium is diarrhea, those with kidney or heart disease should be monitored by a physician if using magnesium supplements.

Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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