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HPV may raise women's heart disease risk: study

New research suggests women who are infected with the human papillomavirus virus -- or HPV -- may have a higher risk for heart disease.

This sexually transmitted disease, which is also linked to cervical cancer, affects 80 percent of women by the time they reach the age of 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The large study, conducted on nearly 2,500 women and published recently in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that those who had been exposed to HPV were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who hadn't.

Prevention magazine Contributing Editor Dr. Holly Phillips said on "The Early Show," "What makes it particularly powerful is that these women were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, even if they didn't have traditional risk factors for the illnesses, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol or obesity. The virus itself seemed to raise their risk."

However, Phillips stressed that the study doesn't make a direct connection between HPV and heart disease.

"We can't say directly that the virus causes heart attacks. But we can see a link," Phillips said. "It may have to do with actually a gene called p53. This gene helps to protect our bodies against cancer and heart disease, and the virus seems to inactivate it, and that seems to raise our risk for both."

So how can you lower your risk for HPV?

The only way to ensure you won't get HPV is to abstain from sex completely, Phillips said.

"Condoms can help, but they're not 100 percent effective," she explained. "The vaccine can help. ... Whatever we can do to prevent heart disease matters. It's the number one killer of both men and women. One in four of us will actually die of heart disease. So whatever steps we can take to keep our hearts healthy really matters."