How Your Blood Type Affects Your Disease Risk

Your blood type may influence your chances of developing certain conditions. Here’s what you need to know.

blood type, blood draw, lab tests, labs, medical tests

Updated on June 3, 2022.

Most people know their blood type—and you’ll definitely find out if you ever need a blood transfusion, or have an organ transplant. Your doctors will take special care to use the blood type that matches, or is compatible with, yours.

A mismatch may cause an immune system reaction that could result in complications such as kidney damage or failure, blood clotting leading to organ damage or stroke, and, in more extreme cases, death. Fortunately, today’s sophisticated testing techniques greatly reduce the chance of a mismatch.

Understand blood basics

All blood has a number of shared building blocks:

  • Red blood cells carry oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the lungs
  • White blood cells are immune cells that attack invaders
  • Platelets clot together to prevent bleeding
  • Plasma holds it all together

But there are differences as well. There are possible two antigens—A and B—on the surface of your red blood cells. Their presence or absence determines your blood type.

Blood type is inherited, based on the blood types of both of your parents.

What’s your type?

There are four main blood types: A, B, AB, and O. Type A has the A antigen; type B has the B antigen; Type AB has both; type O has neither. You’re probably aware that your blood type is either positive or negative, but what does that mean?

There is a third antigen, a protein called the Rh factor, which may also be present on the red blood cells. If you have this protein, your blood type is positive; if not, your blood type is negative. Most people have a positive blood type.

Type O positive is the most common type in the United States, while AB negative is the least common. There are some ethnic variations, as well. For example, more African Americans and people of Asian descent are type B positive than are Caucasians and people of Hispanic descent.

How blood type affects your health

Research suggests that certain blood types can raise your risk of potentially serious conditions, says Carla Bell, a genetic counselor at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas. Obviously, it’s not possible to change your blood type, but awareness can help you proactively take steps to curtail these risks.

On the other hand, certain blood types may be associated with a lower risk of certain diseases. While that’s not a get-of-jail-free card, it’s good to know that your blood type may give you an extra health boost. You’ll still need to make smart lifestyle choices, like eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise.

Risk of hemorrhage

Losing a large quantity of blood is common after severe trauma such as after a car accident or other injury. In many causes, hemorrhaging can be stopped and lost blood replaced by a transfusion, but people with type O blood may be at a higher risk of uncontrolled bleeding, according to research.

For example, an observational study published in May 2018 in Critical Care looked at the medical records of 900 Japanese people admitted to emergency care medical centers for severe trauma between 2013 and 2016.

Trauma-related death rates for those with type O blood were 28 percent, compared to 11 percent among those with other blood types.

While more research is needed to understand the link between blood type and post-trauma outcomes, the study authors suggest that type O blood contains lower levels of blood clotting agents, which may contribute to more bleeding.

Risk of heart disease and blood clotting conditions

Some researchers believe that people with types A, B, and AB blood have an increased risk of coronary heart disease, due to increased levels of inflammatory markers and certain proteins in the blood that lead to blood clotting. That translates into an increased risk of venous thromboembolisms, which are blood clots that start in veins (as opposed to arteries). Estimates vary, but the most recent and rigorous studies put the risk at about double.

Heart attacks and stroke are also clotting problems. If a clot blocks blood flow to the heart, that’s a heart attack; if it blocks blood flow to the brain, it’s a stroke. People with blood type A have a 24 percent higher risk of heart attack than people than people with AB or O blood types. For stroke, people with type AB blood have an 83 percent higher risk.

Risk of memory problems

A 2014 study published in Neurology of more than 1,000 people suggests that people with blood type AB have an 82 percent greater risk of cognitive impairment than people with other blood types.

On the other hand, type O may protect against memory problems, including Alzheimer’s disease. A 2015 study published in Brain Research Bulletin found that out of 189 people who had undergone brain MRIs, the brains of those with blood type O had the greatest amount of grey matter in their brains, providing possible protection against dementia.

Risk of stomach conditions

The link between blood type, stomach cancers, and peptic ulcers was first discovered in the 1950s. Since then, additional research has provided further evidence of that link. In a 2010 study published in American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers looked at data from more than 1 million people. They found that people with blood type A had the highest risk for gastric cancers, while people with blood type O were at greater risk for developing peptic ulcers.

Risk of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.; this aggressive form of cancer also has one of the lowest survival rates. Since the 1940s researchers have been aware of a link between blood type and pancreatic cancer. But over the years, study results as to which type poses the greater risk have been mixed.

In some cases, type A was believed to be the culprit; other studies of pancreatic cancer patients found a prevalence of blood type B. More recent studies have found that, in general, people with non-O blood type carry a greater risk.

But a more definitive answer has been uncovered by a major 2010 study from the Pancreatic Cancer Cohort Consortium (PanScan), which included 1,533 people with pancreatic cancer. The researchers found that those with blood type A with one specific gene mutation were at the highest risk. Another finding that most researchers agree on is that people with type O blood have the lowest incidence rate of pancreatic cancer.

Risks in pregnancy

So far, the A and B antigens have played a role in disease risk. But what about the Rh factor? Rh factor comes into play during pregnancy, if the mother has Rh-negative blood and her fetus’s blood is Rh-positive.

It’s known as Rh incompatibility. Usually, the mother’s blood is separate from the baby’s blood, but during childbirth and in other cases, such as amniocentesis, the blood can mix. Then, the mother’s immune system attacks the baby’s red blood cells.

“The body doesn’t usually react much during a first pregnancy,” notes Bell. “But in subsequent pregnancies it can be a problem.” That’s because the first baby is born before the antibodies have a chance to develop against the baby’s Rh-positive blood. Once formed, the antibodies stay in the body.

Symptoms of Rh incompatibility may be mild, causing jaundice or low muscle tone. For more serious cases, complications to the baby can include:

  • Lethargy
  • Fluid buildup
  • Brain damage
  • Problems with movement, speech, and mental function
  • Seizures
  • Heart failure
  • Death

“In the past, babies did not generally make it to term when there was Rh incompatibility,” says Bell. “The mothers miscarried pretty early on.” Today, expecting mothers can get a RhoGAM shot to head off any Rh incompatibility. “It’s basically Rh factors injected into the mom so her body recognizes any Rh antibodies the baby has,” Bell explains.

Risk of malaria

Of particular concern to travelers and people who spend time in the tropics, the blood type O protects somewhat against—but does not provide immunity to—malaria, a fever-causing parasite spread by mosquitos that kills about half a million people worldwide each year.

Researchers believe that the parasite that causes malaria secretes proteins that stick to the surface of red blood cells, making them hard and causing them to adhere to blood vessel walls. This can lead to wide range of malaria symptoms, from fever and anemia, to coma and death. The proteins tend to stick more strongly to type A red blood cells, but more weakly to type O blood cells. “You don’t accumulate as much of the parasite in your body if you have type O blood,” says Bell.

The bottom line

For many of these conditions, like heart disease and cancer, lifestyle and other factors will increase or decrease your risk much more than blood type.

“It’s important to remember that the effects of these are pretty small,” says Bell. “No one will be doomed to have a heart attack because of their blood type. For all people, the way to reduce their risk of disease is common-sense steps like no smoking. While it’s measurable, the net effect of blood type on disease risk is relatively small.”

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American Red Cross. Facts About Blood and Blood Types. 2022. Accessed June 2, 2022.
Liumbruno GM, & Franchini M. Beyond immunohaematology: the role of the ABO blood group in human diseases. Blood Transfusion. October 2013. 11(4), 491–499.
American Heart Association. What is Venous Thromboembolism (VTE)? March 1, 2017. 
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