Be aware, though, a high white blood cell count isn’t always cause for panic. High levels may also be caused by some medications, emotional stress or an infection. Be sure to discuss any concerns with a doctor.
"We’re in a very early stage of figuring out how this works, but [our study] is one important step to understanding that inflammation is a key factor leading up to cardiovascular events," Margolis said. "It’s possible that it’s just the abundance of white blood cells that cause the inflammation, or they could just be a marker for disease; it’s hard to know what came first, the chicken or the egg."
Interestingly, other studies have connected poor oral health, diabetes, high cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease to high levels of white blood cells in the body.
It has also been shown that high blood levels of another marker inflammation, C-reactive protein (CRP), are tied to cardiovascular risk. However, white blood cell count tests are cheaper, more widely available and more automated than C-reactive protein tests, so one can compare results from different labs more easily. While white blood cell and CRP levels do not always correlate, the study showed that people with high levels of both white blood cells and CRP are at the highest risk; they were seven times more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease than the average person.
Margolis suggests that women with a moderate risk of heart disease monitor their white blood cell count. If results show high levels of white blood cells, one should start taking steps to reduce other risk factors. Those at low risk have no need for this extra test and those at high-risk already know that they’re at risk for cardiovascular disease, so this test doesn’t provide any additional information. As always, exercise, healthy diet, eliminating smoking and coping with other risk factors are the best ways for these people to lower their risk.
"Inflammation is obviously a very important factor in the causation of cardiovascular events," Margolis said. "It has not been a factor in most risk equations until now and we need to understand how to use this information about white blood cells."