Physicians prescribe semaglutide injections to treat type 2 diabetes. Used together with diet and exercise, they can help those with type 2 diabetes control blood sugar. More recently it has become known as the key ingredient in Wegovy and Ozempic, drugs increasingly popular among people trying to lose weight.

And now it also appears to have another benefit — reducing the risk of heart disease.

Semaglutide lowered the chance of cardiovascular issues by an impressive 20 percent in people who have pre-existing cardiovascular disease and who are overweight or obese, but do not have type 2 diabetes, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has found.

The research is the first to document that an obesity medication can not only reduce weight, but also prevent a heart attack, stroke or a heart-related death.

More than 17,500 people in 41 countries were involved in the study. Participants were age 45 and older, had a body mass index (BMI) of 27 or higher and were tracked for more than three years on average. They took drugs typical for their heart conditions. They were also randomly assigned to receive weekly injections of either Wegovy or a dummy shot.

The data showed that 569, or 6.5 percent, of those who got the drug versus 701 or 8 percent, of those who received the dummy shot had a heart attack or stroke or died from a heart-related cause. That's an overall reduction of 20 percent in the risk of those outcomes.

This research is the first to document that an obesity medication can not only reduce weight, but also prevent a heart attack, stroke or a cardiac-related death. “It moves from a kind of therapy that reduces body weight to a therapy that reduces cardiovascular events,” Michael Lincoff, the study's lead author and a heart expert at the Cleveland Clinic, said in a press release.

The patients who took Wegovy also saw reductions in key markers of heart disease, including inflammation, cholesterol, blood sugars, blood pressure and waist circumference. These changes took place early in the study, before the participants lost much weight.

Still, it remains unclear how much of the results were a benefit of losing weight or the drug itself. It's also important to note that the study was paid for by Novo Nordisk, the maker of Wegovy and Ozempic.

If you have heart disease, the American Heart Association offers these lifestyle tips that go beyond taking medications:

  • Make healthy food choices, focus on fresh foods and a plant-based diet with fewer processed foods.
  • Move more with a starting goal of 150 minutes of exercise a week.
  • Quit nicotine including smoking, vaping and tobacco use.
  • Develop good sleep habits and aim for at least 7 hours nightly.
  • Get your cholesterol level tested. If your LDL is high, speak with your healthcare provider about ways to lower it.
  • If you have diabetes, work with your doctor to control it. Untreated diabetes can lead to serious cardiovascular issues.
  • Keep your blood pressure under control.