In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds, and someone dies from a heart disease-related event every 60 seconds. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing nearly 787,000 people alone in 2011.

Direct and indirect costs of heart disease total more than $320.1 billion. That includes health expenditures and lost productivity. But now there is new hope in the fight against heart disease, because recent research has identified a pigment in our bile that could protect us.

In this study, Dr. Andrew Bulmer from Griffith University's Menzies Health Institute Queensland (MHIQ) found that mildly elevated levels of a bile pigment called bilirubin may provide natural protection from heart attacks and help to stave off cardiovascular disease.

The study, which appears in the January 2016 issue of the International Journal of Cardiology, showed that when hearts are infused with bilirubin following a heart attack, the pigment reduces damage and improves heart function during recovery. According to Bulmer, this finding is important because few drugs are able to be administered following a heart attack to improve heart function.

Bile, produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, aids in the digestion process. Generally, bilirubin was just associated with people having jaundice, but this study revealed that mildly elevated bilirubin is actually beneficial, naturally protecting an individual against cardiovascular disease.

Bulmer disclosed that additional research has shown higher levels of bilirubin can protect the circulation from oxidative damage that causes blood vessel disease. He believes this protection could be related to the recently identified antioxidative property of the bilirubin molecule.

Inflammation is the main culprit of damage to the body and is caused by overactive white blood cells that release free radicals. It appears our natural bilirubin can protect from these free radicals during chronic inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and diabetes.

According to Bulmer, 5-10 percent of the population is believed to have mildly elevated levels of bilirubin in their blood — a condition with no negative side effects called Gilbert syndrome. People with this syndrome have a 30-60 percent reduced chance of having cardiovascular disease and a 50 percent reduced risk from dying of any cause.

Gilbert syndrome is listed as a "rare disease" by the Office of Rare Diseases (ORD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This means that Gilbert syndrome, or a subtype of Gilbert syndrome, affects less than 200,000 people in the U.S. population.

Certainly the findings of Bulmer's study could have positive implications for reducing health risks and improving life expectancy as a result of increasing the bilirubin concentration in people who have low levels of the pigment in blood. Not only is there a benefit in being able to use bilirubin as a biomarker for measuring people's future risk of various chronic diseases, but there is also a real possibility it could be used as a treatment after a heart attack to reduce damage to the heart and possibly improve survival.