The procedure is simple. It is a quick ultrasound snapshot of the main arteries that feed blood to the brain.
"Our focus is on ...the wall of the artery," says Dr. Daniel O'Leary at the New England Medical Center.
Dr. O'Leary found, in older patients with no evidence of cardiovascular disease, ultrasound measurements of artery walls gave an early warning of trouble ahead.
"In people with thick walls, the probability of them having a heart attack or stroke in the not too distant future is high whereas, if they have a thin wall... then the likelihood is very low," says Dr. O'Leary.
Most patients don't discover they have cardiovascular disease until they end up in the hospital being treated for a heart attack or stroke. Doctors hope that by using the inexpensive ultrasound test, patients most at risk can be identified and treated aggressively with drugs or lifestyle changes.
The study found that the subtle changes in artery wall thickness, measurable only by computer, were even better at predicting risk than traditional factors.
"It was the strongest single measure of future heart attack or stroke," says Dr. O'Leary. "More so than cholesterol, more so than blood pressure."
Since cardiovascular disease develops over a lifetime, O'Leary aims to start testing people in their 40s for the very earliest signs hoping ultrasound will go a long way toward beating the silent killer.
Reported By John Roberts