Low Heart Disease Risk? Test May Show Otherwise

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Updated: 6/19 1:43 am

Nov. 11, 2008 -- Some people who think they're at low risk for heart disease might be surprised about what a neck ultrasound could tell them about their hearts.

Today in New Orleans, researchers presented new data showing that people at the upper end of the "low risk" range for heart disease might actually be at higher risk than expected, and that a neck ultrasound would show that risk.

The finding comes from a study of more than 13,000 adults with no history of heart disease or stroke.

Each patient got an ultrasound scan of their carotid arteries, which bring blood from the heart up through the neck to the brain. The point was to gauge the thickness of the carotid artery walls; thicker walls could mean plaque buildup, a cardiovascular risk factor.

The patients were followed for nearly 14 years, on average. During that time, 1,601 patients -- 12% of the group --- had their first heart attack or other cardiovascular "event."

Roughly 31% of those heart events occurred in patients who were at the upper half of the low-risk range, based on age, gender, cholesterol levels, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and smoking.

Heart events were much rarer among patients at the lower end of the low-risk range; only 16% of them had their first heart event during the study.

The researchers -- who included Vijay Nambi, MD, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston -- suggest that ultrasound tests could help determine who's truly at low risk and who might need preventive therapies.

In August, other researchers suggested that repeat carotid artery ultrasounds might be useful for monitoring high-risk patients.

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