Their report, in the May issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, says people with at least one copy of the KL-VS version of the "klotho" gene are almost twice as likely to have undetected atherosclerosis.
That increased to a tenfold greater risk in smokers with the gene variant who had low amounts of "good" cholesterol.
The researchers analyzed information from two previous studies of more than 900 people at high risk for heart disease.
All people have two copies of the klotho gene, but there are several versions of the gene. In previous research, the Johns Hopkins scientists found the KL-VS version was associated with earlier death from all causes.
They also found that about 2.5 percent of people have two copies of this bad version and another 25 percent of people carry one bad copy.
Atherosclerosis is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States. Eating a healthier diet, quitting smoking, getting more exercise and taking certain drugs can reduce cholesterol levels and weight and lower the risk of death.
Here's where you can learn more about atherosclerosis.