Heart attacks could be predicted years in advance with simple X-ray, study concludes

JOONDALUP, Australia — On the surface, a heart attack can seem like a sudden and unpredictable event. Despite that perception, the underlying causes of heart failure can present for a very long time. Now, a new study finds there may be a way to predicted who will have a heart attack years in advance using a simple X-ray.

Researchers from Edith Cowan University say people with high levels of calcium in the aorta — the major artery carrying blood from the heart to the body — are up to four times more likely to suffer an attack. The discovery offers hope of more accurate screening for cardiovascular disease, the world’s number one killer.

“Heart disease is often a silent killer as many people don’t know they are at risk or that they have the early warning signs, such as abdominal or coronary artery calcification,” study lead author Professor Josh Lewis says in a university release.

“The abdominal aorta is one of the first sites where the build-up of calcium in the arteries can occur – even before the heart. If we pick this up early, we can intervene and implement lifestyle and medication changes to help stop the condition progressing.”

Scanning for calcium buildups

Non-invasive imaging tools like CT (computed tomography) scans can produce detailed, cross-sectional images of organs and tissues, including the aortic artery. The aorta can harden when calcium gathers in its walls, triggering cardiac arrest. Scientists call the condition abdominal aortic calcification (AAC) and it can also cause strokes.

An analysis of data from 52 studies around the world reveals AAC raises the risk of either cardiac event by two to four times. The study also discovered the more extensive the calcium buildup is, the greater the danger becomes. This risk particularly applies to those dealing with chronic kidney disease.

Factors that fuel artery calcification include poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and genetics. Prof. Lewis hopes the discovery will lead to more people understanding their own risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

“Abdominal aortic calcification is often picked up incidentally in many routine tests, such as lateral spine scans from bone density machines or x-rays, and now we have a much better idea of the prognosis in these people when it is seen,” Lewis adds.

“This can signal an early warning for doctors that they need to investigate and assess their patient’s risk of heart attack or stroke. Ultimately, if we can identify this condition sooner, people can make lifestyle changes and start preventative treatments earlier, which could potentially save many lives in the future.”

A promising start to predicting heart attacks

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, builds on his recent research on AAC, using bone density scans and artificial intelligence.

“The researchers found that evidence of abdominal aortic calcification in patients with no known cardiovascular disease may indicate that a more comprehensive cardiovascular risk assessment is required, including blood pressure and cholesterol testing or a Heart Health Check,” Dr. Amanda Buttery from the National Heart Foundation of Australia concludes. “The findings are promising, and the Heart Foundation would like to see more research in this area.”

According to the American Heart Association, someone in the United States has a heart attack every 40 seconds. Coronary heart disease contributed to approximately 13 percent of the deaths in the U.S. in 2017.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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