Predicting the “silent killer”
Calcium accumulation in a major artery outside the heart could predict a heart attack or stroke in the future, a new study led by Edith Cowan University has shown. Published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the research could help doctors identify people at risk for cardiovascular disease years before symptoms appear. Analyzing 52 previous studies, the international team of researchers found that people with abdominal aortic calcification (AAC) have a two to four times higher risk of having a future cardiovascular event.
The study also found that the higher the calcium in the blood vessel wall, the greater the risk of future cardiovascular events, and people with AAC and chronic kidney disease have an even higher risk than those in the general population with AAC.
Calcium can build up in the wall of blood vessels and strengthen the arteries, blocking the blood supply or causing plaque to rupture, which is a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes.
Factors that contribute to the calcification of the arteries include a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and genetics.
The lead researcher, Associate Professor Josh Lewis of the School of Medical and Health Sciences at ECU and the future founder of the Heart Foundation, said the results provide important clues to cardiovascular health.
“Heart disease is often a silent killer because many people do not know they are at risk or have early warning signs, such as calcification of the abdominal or coronary arteries,” he said.
“The abdominal aorta is one of the first places where calcium can build up in the arteries – just before the heart. If we take this early, we can intervene and implement lifestyle and medication changes to help slow the disease.”
Associate Professor Lewis hopes that this discovery will increase the number of people who understand the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
“Aortic abdominal calcification is often picked up incidentally in many routine tests, such as lateral spine scans from bone density or X-ray machines, and we now have a much better idea of the prognosis in these people when it is seen,” he said.
“This may be an early warning to physicians that they need to investigate and assess the patient’s risk of heart attack or stroke.”
“Finally, if we can identify this condition sooner, people can make lifestyle changes and start preventative treatments earlier, which could save many lives in the future.”
Heart Foundation clinical trial manager Amanda Buttery welcomed the study.
“Researchers have found that evidence of abdominal aortic calcification in patients without known cardiovascular disease may indicate a need for a more comprehensive cardiovascular risk assessment, including blood pressure and cholesterol testing or a heart health check,” said Buttery.