CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Researchers say common food allergies may make people more likely to develop heart disease.

University of Virginia Health System scientists say antibodies produced in the body in response to dairy and other food pose an elevated risk of cardiovascular-related death for people.

According to a release, this increased risk could equal or maybe even exceed the risks posed by smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis, even in people who do not have obvious food allergies.

Researchers looked at information from thousands of people and found the strongest link was for cow’s milk, but it was also present with other allergens such as peanuts and shrimp.

The release says this is the first time that these antibodies, called IgE, have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular mortality.

However, these findings do not show that the antibodies themselves cause the increased risk.

“What we looked at here was the presence of IgE antibodies to food that were detected in blood samples,” said researcher Jeffrey Wilson, MD, PhD, an allergy and immunology expert at the UVA School of Medicine. “We don’t think most of these subjects actually had overt food allergy. Thus, our story is more about an otherwise silent immune response to food. While these responses may not be strong enough to cause acute allergic reactions to food, they might nonetheless cause inflammation and over time lead to problems like heart disease.”

Nationally, about 15 percent of adults produce the IgE antibodies in response to some food, and while these antibodies do cause some people to experience severe allergic symptoms, many have no obvious food allergies.

The researchers say the strongest link with cardiovascular death that they found was in people who produced the antibodies but still regularly ate the food, suggesting they didn’t have a severe reaction to the allergy.

The release says this investigation began when other UVA researchers previously linked an unusual form of food allergy spread by ticks, called alpha-gal syndrome, and its connection to heart disease.

Commonly called the red meat allergy, this condition is spread by the bite of the lone star tick, which is found across much of the United States. It causes people to react to a particular sugar found in mammalian meat, resulting in hives, upset stomachs and breathing problems and in some cases, anaphylaxis.

The researchers looked at data from more than 5,300 people who participated in the National Health and Examination Survey and the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis conducted at Wake Forest. Of those people, 285 had died from cardiovascular causes.

The release says that among the survey participants, IgE antibodies to at least one food were associated with a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular death, particularly milk.

“We previously noted a link between allergic antibodies to the alpha-gal red meat allergen and heart disease,” Wilson explained. “That finding has been supported by a larger study in Australia, but the current paper suggests that a link between allergic antibodies to food allergens and heart disease is not limited to alpha-gal. In some ways, this is a surprising finding. On the other hand, we are not aware that anyone has looked before.”

In the past, other allergic conditions such as asthma or eczema/atopic dermatitis have been identified as risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The release says researchers think allergic antibodies caused by food may be affecting the heart by leading to the activation of specialized cells.

These mast cells occur in the skin and gut and are known to contribute to allergic reactions, but they are also found in cardiac blood vessels and heart tissue.

Scientists say persistent activation of these cells could be a driving force behind inflammation, which contributes to plaque buildup that is associated with heart attacks and other damage to the heart.

They also say there may be other genetic or environmental factors associated with this reaction.

Or heart disease could increase the risk of developing a food allergy, though the scientists think this outcome is unlikely.

Researchers say further study is needed to understand the implications before any recommendations are made regarding treating or managing food allergies.

These findings have been published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.