A heart attack is surely one of the more frightening symptoms that the body can suffer. But the good news is that a heart attack rarely happens on its own for no reason. There is usually a long series of health problems that lead up to a heart attack.
The main disease process that leads to a heart attack is atherosclerosis, or a hardening and clogging of your arteries. Atherosclerosis causes blood vessels to thicken and narrow. This process tends to happen in everyone as they age—but only to a certain degree. Add on a few risk factors like high blood pressure, obesity, and a poor diet and the rate of atherosclerosis can increase exponentially. Suddenly, someone in their 40s finds themselves having a heart attack because they have all the risk factors for atherosclerosis.
Heart attacks are a common cause of death in North America, where the risk for atherosclerosis remains high. Unfortunately, there are often no clear symptoms that atherosclerosis is developing, and so the condition often goes undetected until it causes serious problems. One of the biggest symptoms—hypertension—doesn’t give any warning signs that a serious problem might exist with the heart and circulatory system.
To help better identify who is most at risk for a heart attack, in recent exciting news, scientists have developed a scanning device that could help to detect dangerous plaques in the heart.
The scientists, from the University of Edinburgh, said the new scanner could be an effective tool for predicting a heart attack, making a life-saving difference to patients. The scanner was designed to help detect plaques in arteries whose function is to carry oxygen-laden blood to the heart. If some of the fatty plaque dislodges from the side of an artery, it can clot which blocks the flow of blood to the heart.
The scanner works as a radioactive tracer which looks for the dangerous plaques. These images are then combined with detailed images of the blood vessels and heart. When the two sets of images are put together, doctors have not only a detailed picture of the heart, but also a map of the places where plaque has accumulated. The clogged areas of the arteries are highlighted for easier identification.
The Edinburgh scientists tried out the scanner on 40 patients who had recently had a heart attack. The scanner was able to accurately pinpoint the plaque responsible for triggering the heart attack in 37 of the 40 patients—a remarkable feat!
Now, the researchers need to determine whether or not the scanner can be a preventative tool. The scanner needs to be able to detect heart attack causing plaques before they put the heart in danger. One glitch associated with the device is that it will likely detect plaques that won’t necessarily lead to a heart attack.
Still, if the scanner can save lives for those who are at high risk, it is without a doubt a very useful device. Stay tuned for more developments on the scanner. The hope is, with a few refinements, this device could eventually make it into the hands of your own doctor to be used as a diagnostic tool.
Gallgher, J., “Heart attack risk identified by new scan,” BBC News web site, Nov. 10, 2013; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-24852984, last accessed Nov. 14, 2013.
Joshi, N.V., et al., “18F-fluoride positron emission tomography for identification of ruptured and high-risk coronary atherosclerotic plaques: a prospective clinical trial,” The Lancet. November 11, 2013.