Men who report eating lots of sausages and cold cuts are more likely to wind up in the hospital for heart failure, according to a large study from Sweden.
Eating large amounts of red meat has been linked to a greater risk of heart disease and stroke, but there is less research on heart failure, the authors write.
"Processed meat besides having quite a lot of salt may include also nitrites and phosphate-containing additives," said Alicja Wolk, who worked on the study at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.
Read: Red meat hurts the heart
"Moreover, smoked processed meat products and grilled meat are sources of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons," Wolk told Reuters Health in an email. "Each one of these chemicals has been shown to have some adverse health effects."
Heart failure affects more than 5 million people in the United States, half of whom die within five years of diagnosis, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to all areas of the body but does not stop beating altogether.
People with heart failure often experience shortness of breath and general tiredness. Heart failure is usually progressive and long term, but can be managed with medications, exercise and a reduced-sodium diet.
Conducting the study
For the new study, the researchers used data from roughly 37 000 Swedish men who had no known heart problems when they were first assessed in 1997, between age 45 and 79. That year, they filled out a questionnaire about their diet.
The men noted how often they ate unprocessed meats, including pork, beef and minced meat and how often they ate processed meats like sausages, cold cuts, blood pudding or pate.
Read: Red meat ups death risk
Over the next 12 years, almost 3000 of the men experienced heart failure and 266 died from the condition.
Men who ate at least 75 grams per day of processed red meat, according to the 1997 questionnaire, had a 28% greater risk of heart failure and were more than twice as likely to die from heart failure compared to men who ate less than 25 grams per day, the researchers reported in Circulation: Heart Failure.
"It seems that even at a low level of consumption the risk starts to increase," Wolk said.
A single serving of deli ham is usually two ounces, or 57 grams. Each 50-gram increase in daily processed meat intake was associated with an eight percent higher risk of heart failure and a 38% higher risk of death from heart failure.
Did the study prove that processed meat causes heart failure?
The study can't prove eating processed meat caused heart failure. But heart failure is common already, and it leads to death so often that these increases in risk are very troubling, Wolk said.
Processed meat, and salt consumption in general, is a significant public health problem in Sweden, she said. Ham sandwiches are very popular there, she added.
Americans are among the top per capita meat consumers in the world, and nearly a quarter of that meat is processed, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Another study was conducted, but was it linked to heart failure?
In the Swedish study, unprocessed red meat was not linked to heart failure.
"However, one has to be cautious about these results, which focus on the risk of heart failure associated with processed meat and not extrapolate and assume that unprocessed red meat in safe regardless of how much it is consumed," said Dr Javed Butler, from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Butler, who studies heart failure, was not part of the new research.
Other data have tied unprocessed red meat to heart diseases and cancer, he told Reuters Health by email.
Read: Red meat increases diabetes risk
Men with high blood pressure or diabetes as well as smokers are at particularly high risk of heart failure, Butler said.
"However, even if you do not have these or other risk factors, that does not mean the dietary behaviors are not of health consequence," he said.
The findings should be applicable to women as well, Wolk said.
"In our previous studies of processed meat and stroke we have observed similar associations both in men and women," she said.
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