Gallbladder trouble: A risk factor for premature death?

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A new study published in the journal Gastroenterology contains some unexpected and seemingly highly significant findings: the data indicate that those patients who have gallstones or who have had their gallbladder removed are at an increased risk of death over an 18-year period than people without the disease.

In fact, researchers examining the medical records of more than 14,000 people found that patients with gallbladder disease (either ongoing or among those whose gallbladder had been removed) had a 30 percent higher likelihood of mortality. In particular, the likelihood of a fatal heart attack was 40 percent greater, and the risk of cancer death was 30 percent greater.

The gallbladder functions to store bile produced by the liver. The bile is used to emulsify fats and aids in digestion. Both gallstones and gallbladder removal are common as 25 million Americans have some form of gallbladder disease, and one million patients are diagnosed with it each year.

ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross notes that the study’s findings do not necessarily mean that gallbladder disease causes fatal heart attacks or cancer. “It is much more likely,” he says, “that both reflect an underlying factor or condition. Regardless, these findings indicate that patients with affected gallbladders should get more vigilant screening for other serious conditions. This is a remarkable study, and it needs to be confirmed by further research.”

Dr. Ross says that gallbladder disease is frequently asymptomatic, and it is often only diagnosed coincidentally upon radiological studies for other conditions. The best test for it remains an abdominal ultrasound. Typical symptoms include indigestion after a fatty meal and unexplained but persistent abdominal pain. In cases, where the duct leading from the gallbladder to the intestine is blocked, pain becomes severe. It can be accompanied by jaundice (a yellow color in the eyes and, if severe enough, the skin) and fever. Acute blockage requires emergency surgery to remove the organ.