For people with blood pressure, cholesterol, and age associated with a low to intermediate level of risk for heart disease, scientists wouldn’t expect the rate of atherosclerosis to be so high. In a new study, researchers show how a particular diagnostic method reveals atherosclerosis in seemingly low-risk individuals.
Whole-body magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), not to be confused with its diagnostic cousin, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), provides a non-invasive, radiation free tool for evaluating atherosclerosis in blood vessels all over the human body. As opposed to standard tests, MRA takes a wider look at the vascular system to detect systemic disease.
"The results offer a validated quantitative score of atherosclerotic burden, and the technique does not use ionizing radiation, which is an advantage over CT angiography,” explained co-author Graeme Houston, MD.
What is atherosclerosis? It’s a disease characterized by the buildup of plaque in narrowing arteries, and it’s often the precursor to heart disease. Early intervention is important to entertain the possibility of reversing or at least slowing the progression of the disease. To do so, improvements need to be made in the diagnostic arena.
In the new study, researchers applied whole-body MRA in 1,513 participants considered to be in a low to intermediate risk group for heart disease. This means that their risk of developing heart disease within the next ten years is less than 20 percent. With an average participant age of 53.5, researchers used the results from the MRA to evaluate the amount of blood vessels affected by plaque buildup in participants with atherosclerosis, looking at 31 arterial segments per person.
They found that the prevalence of atherosclerosis was surprisingly high. The overarching atherosclerotic plaque levels in the participants were associated with three known risk factors for heart disease: age, blood pressure, and cholesterol. 50 percent of the patients had a least one narrowed vessel, and 25 percent had multiple narrowed vessels.
"This is surprising, given that the study group was made up of asymptomatic individuals without diabetes who had low to intermediate risk of future cardiovascular events by standard risk factor assessment," Houston said.
"The results confirm the feasibility for MRA as an imaging method for detecting early atherosclerotic disease in individuals at low to intermediate risk of cardiovascular events," Prof. Houston concluded. "This approach could stratify individuals for the presence of disease burden, which could inform further preventative therapy in the future."
The present study was published in the journal Radiology.