(Updates with comment from U.S. heart attack prevention group in 11th paragraph.)
Nov. 25 (Bloomberg) -- About half the middle-aged staff tested at Banco Santander SA show signs of early-stage disease of the arteries that could cause heart attacks or strokes, according to a cardiovascular study at Spain’s biggest bank.
“Everyone talks about who has had a heart attack and who hasn’t, but people don’t talk about who might be developing the disease,” said Valentin Fuster, director of the Madrid-based National Center for Cardiovascular Research, commenting on the preliminary findings of the study. “We are finding signs of early disease in about half of the people.”
Santander Chairman Emilio Botin, 77, offered Fuster the opportunity to seek at least 3,000 volunteers aged 40 to 54 to participate in the testing program, designed to determine links between cardiovascular risks and the progression of the disease before symptoms appear, according to the research center, known as CNIC. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in the world with 1.9 million fatalities a year in the European Union alone, according to CNIC, adding that risk factors include smoking, high cholesterol, sedentary lifestyle and obesity.
The preliminary results don’t surprise Fuster. “We are facing an epidemic that is affecting all countries,” he said.
The health of Santander’s staff is representative of Spanish society as a whole, said Agustin Mocoroa, the lender’s director of corporate health and labor risks.
There is evidence that the overall health of Santander employees is better than other banks with an absenteeism rate of 2.3 per 100 compared with an industry average of 2.7 percent, he said. The bank works with staff with cardiovascular-disease risks to correct life habits that are prejudicial to their health, Mocoroa said.
So far, about 1,300 staff at Santander, mostly from the Madrid region, have signed up for the three-year study due to end in 2012, said Fuster, who is also physician-in-chief of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. Of the first 250 for which detailed results are available, about half have been found to have signs of early-stage disease, Fuster said.
Santander and the Botin family foundation are contributing 11 million euros ($14.7 million) to the project, the chairman said in a speech in 2010. The collaboration with CNIC started after Fuster gave a speech to 500 officials at the bank.
Santander already carries out campaigns to combat obesity and smoking and has 1,000 staff trained to use the 32 heart defibrillators sited at the bank’s operating headquarters outside Madrid where 7,000 staff work.
The study allows Fuster’s team to monitor the cardiovascular health of a group of people in an age range in which disease has not normally appeared over a period of time. Tests are repeated on participants three and six years after they join the study, CNIC said.
As a rough guide for the 40 to 55-year-old age group, about one or two per 1,000 suffer a heart attack in any given year, said Morteza Naghavi, founder of the Society for Heart Attack Prevention and Eradication in the U.S.
“This is the population we need to screen and detect the high-risk individuals,” he said in a phone interview. “With the asymptomatic disease it is possible to reverse the process through lifestyle adjustments and other methods.”
The most common cardiovascular disease, and the one responsible for most deaths, is atherosclerosis, which involves the deposit of lipids or fats on arterial walls, crimping blood flow to vital organs such as the heart and brain, CNIC said.
“Early detection of this insidious process, which begins early in life and progresses without symptoms for decades, is the goal” of Fuster’s study, CNIC said on its website.
There’s no suggestion that staff working in banks such as Santander are at any more risk of cardiovascular disease than other population groups, said Fuster.
The issue of banker stress has hit the headlines this month with news that Antonio Horta-Osorio, 47, a former head of Santander’s U.K. business, had taken leave from his post as chief executive officer of Lloyds Banking Group Plc because of fatigue.
“Tell me what part of the society is not under stress?” said Fuster. The fact that the survey is solely of staff at Santander “is not to me an issue,” he said.
--Editors: Dylan Griffiths, Kristen Hallam.
To contact the reporters on this story: Charles Penty in Madrid at firstname.lastname@example.org;
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Frank Connelly at email@example.com