Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
April 7, 2024 ·  4 min read

Healthy father, just 47, suddenly drops dead while out for a morning jog

In 2017, Ben Beale was a healthy 47-year-old father of four when he went out for a jog in preparation for a charity boxing match. The Perth resident had been given a clean bill of health the week before, and his wife, Sarah Beale, explained that the medical tests showed he had a low chance of experiencing a heart attack. So everyone was stunned when Beale suffered from a fatal heart attack during his jog.

The Little-Known Protein That Can Kill Young and Healthy Adults

Professor Jason Kovacic, executive director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney, explained that an autopsy revealed that Beale had a heightened amount of lipoprotein(a) — also known as Lp(a) — in the walls of his arteries. High levels of Lp(a) increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, even in young people. 

“We have long wondered why healthy people with low cholesterol levels and seemingly no other major risk factors like smoking or diabetes can suffer heart attacks,” Kovacic said. “But we now understand that high levels of Lp(a) could be responsible for many of these events.[1]

Lp(a) is a protein that transports cholesterol, a fatty substance, in the blood, and large amounts of it can lead to plaques or blood clots in the arteries. There are two main kinds of lipoprotein. They are high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also called good cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol. Despite its association with heart disease, cholesterol isn’t inherently bad; the body needs it to function. It helps maintain cell structure and produce steroid hormones. Plus, high levels of HDL cholesterol can help reduce the risk of heart disease. 

But high levels of LDL cholesterol could cause buildups of fatty deposits in the blood vessels, which heightens the risk of heart disease. Meanwhile, Lp(a) can cause LDL cholesterol to form plaques on blood vessels, which can narrow or block blood vessels and harden arteries. This increases the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.

The Ben Beale Laboratory

Sarah Beale feels the medical system had failed her husband who had gone to the doctor five times before his death. His concerns were dismissed, but the autopsy showed he had already had two or three previous heart attacks. Part of his heart was already dead. “He consistently got told to lose weight, to get fitter. But he was extremely fit. He had a calcium score of zero. In reality, they should have had more blood tests done. If we’d known, he could have been tested for Lp(a). It would have completely changed our entire life,” she said.

Since then, her family got tested for elevated Lp(a). “It’s high time that this test becomes mainstream, so we can protect other families from losing their loved ones,” Sarah Beale said. 

So she and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute launched the Group of Hearts foundation to fund a center dedicated to researching heart disease and atherosclerosis, a disease where plaques form on arteries’ inner walls. The center is called the Ben Beale Laboratory, and Sarah calls it “an extension of his life” for the family. 

“So my hope is that having a dedicated lab will expand the footprint of what this disease is, as well as research into other diseases also,” she said. “It will be phenomenal for everyone in Perth. The fact is Ben shouldn’t have died — it was completely preventable, so for us this research will help generate support for futures to come. We can’t change the situation for us, but we can for other people.[2]

More About Lp(a)

People could have high levels of Lp(a) due to genetic factors. There is also research indicating diet and lifestyle may affect Lp(a) levels although it’s not yet known how. However, testing for Lp(a) is not routine. Doctors may test for it for a few reasons, including:

  • Peripheral arterial disease (poor circulation in the legs)
  • Family history of high Lp(a) levels
  • Family history where males had a stroke or heart attack before age 55.
  • Family history where females had a stroke or heart attack before age 65
  • A stroke, heart attack, or coronary artery disease without known risk factors, like high levels of LDL cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, etc.
  • Familial hypercholesterolemia [3]

Aside from genetics, some health conditions may cause increased Lp(a) levels, including uncontrolled diabetes, kidney disease, and hypothyroidism. There are currently no specific methods to lower these levels, aside from lipoprotein apheresis, which involves a machine removing Lp(a) and LDL cholesterol from the blood. 

Until more is known about Lp(a), doctors recommend people focus on reducing other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, like lowering levels of LDL cholesterol. This can be done through a healthy diet, regular exercise, getting quality sleep, minimizing stress, managing body weight, quitting smoking, restricting alcohol intake, and managing conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. [4]

Sources

  1. “Wider testing urged for ‘bad cholesterol’ linked to heart attacks in younger people.” The Sydney Morning Herald. Aisha Dow. January 27, 2023
  2. “Heart disease research laboratory launches in memory of Perth businessman Ben Beale.Perth Now. Pip Waller. August 24, 2022
  3. “Lipoprotein (a).CDC. June 27, 2022
  4. “What to know about lipoprotein(a).Medical News Today. Beth Sissons. March 25, 2021