What is Keshan Disease?

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  • Written By: Laura M. Sands
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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Keshan disease (KD) is a life-threatening condition that affects the heart muscle. It is caused by a selenium deficiency and is characterized by pulmonary edema and heart failure. As one of several types of nutritional diseases, Keshan disease is unique in that it primarily affects young women and children.

Selenium is an essential element found in soil and water, and it is important for optimal health in human beings and in animals. As an antioxidant, selenium works to protect tissue oxidation throughout the body. Nutrition experts recommend that women and men consume an average of 55 micrograms of selenium each day and that women consume 60 micrograms per day during pregnancy and an average of 70 micrograms per day while lactating. It is important to pay attention to selenium intake, however, as too much of it in the diet can result in serious health issues, just as too little of it may lead to the development of Keshan disease.


Due to poor selenium content in the soil, Keshan disease was originally discovered when it widely affected women and children in China’s Keshan province. Cases of KD have also been discovered in Finland and New Zealand, which are also areas known to have low selenium soil content. While it is rarely reported elsewhere, instances of Keshan disease can occur in hospital patients who are fed intravenously for lengthy intervals or in individuals with gastrointestinal issues that prevent optimal selenium absorption. Such a dietary deficiency is easily avoided by supplementation, which is also how KD is reversed after a proper diagnosis.

One of the primary symptoms of Keshan disease is an enlarged or inflamed heart muscle, known as congestive cardiomyopathy, which becomes visible via a cardiology examination. Symptoms may also include chest pain, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting and a decrease in the function of the pancreas. People with KD also have a greater risk of developing cancer, experiencing a stroke, or developing hypertension. Without proper treatment, KD can and often does result in congestive heart failure.

Aside from its development from a dietary deficiency or its prevalence in people suffering from gastrointestinal illnesses, it may be possible to contract Keshan disease in another way. Research indicates that individuals suffering from KD tend to display higher than normal amounts of the Coxsackie B virus antibodies. While both conditions present different symptoms, at a certain point in its development, the Coxsackie B virus may actually mutate into Keshan disease.


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