Osteoarthritis in a finger may be an early warning sign of heart disease in men, a study suggests.
Doctors also believe that low levels of testosterone - the so-called “male menopause” - may point to men at risk.
According to researchers, women are only at increased risk if they have osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease in at least two fingers on both hands.
The doctors said further study is needed to find out why osteoarthritis increases the risk of having heart disease.
The findings are based on a study carried out by doctors at the University of Kuopio in Finland who looked at more than 7,000 people over a 30-year period.
Half of these people had their hands X-rayed at the beginning of the study in the 1970s.
Of these, four out of 10 had evidence of osteoarthritis in at least one finger. One in eight had evidence of the disease in at least two of the same fingers on both hands.
People who were obese were twice as likely to have the condition. Older people were also at increased risk.
By 1994, a total of 894 people had died. The study, published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, found that men who had osteoarthritis in at least one finger were over 40% more likely to die of heart disease.
Women were 23% more likely to die of the condition if they had osteoarthritis in at least two of the same fingers on both hands.
The doctors said they were unable to explain the differences between the sexes or why osteoarthritis may increase the risk of heart disease. They suggested further study is needed.
Meanwhile, in an article in the journal Heart, doctors from Sheffield suggested that testing testosterone levels in men could also identify those at risk of heart disease.
They highlighted recent studies which have found that men with heart disease are twice as likely to have low levels of the hormone compared to those who are healthy.
They also point to figures which show that men are three times more likely to develop the condition compared to women. They suggested that testosterone could explain this sharp difference.
The doctors suggested that providing hormone replacement therapy for men could help to reduce deaths from heart disease.
They said long-term studies would help “to determine whether or not testosterone replacement has beneficial effects on treating coronary heart disease”.
Revision date: July 4, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD