These Heart Tests Can Save Your Life
A handful of these less standard check-ups can provide early clues about your cardiovascular health.
After studying a group of healthy individuals for over 10 years, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, USA, discovered that those who scored poorly on five simple medical tests were 20 times more likely to develop heart disease than those with good results. The tests are not all standard but the results will give you a much better—and earlier—indication of your risk for heart disease than the traditional reliance on blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These tests can also help you introduce lifestyle changes to protect your heart. If you smoke, are overweight, have a family history of heart problems or any other health risks, ask your doctor about these tests.
A standard, 12-lead electrocardiogram, also known as an ECG, is non-invasive, painless and usually takes only five to 10 minutes. It is considered one of the best ways to assess heart disease risk. Your doctor will place 10 small electrodes on your limbs and chest that measure your heart’s electrical activity and will detect any abnormal rhythms and patterns that are commonly associated with heart attack, arrhythmia and other dangerous cardiovascular conditions.
Coronary Calcium Scan
This low-radiation CT scan, also commonly known as heart scan, reveals the amount of calcium build-up in your coronary arteries. “When we see calcium in the coronaries, it means there’s some degree of atherosclerosis—sludge in the pipes—which can disrupt blood flow and lead to heart attack or stroke,” says Andrew M. Freeman, MD, director of clinical cardiology and operations at National Jewish Health and co-chair of the American College of Cardiology’s nutrition and lifestyle work group.
Blood Test for C-Reactive Protein
The amount of C-reactive protein (CRP) in your bloodstream rises with increased inflammation in the body, which Freeman says is an underlying condition of many health problems, including heart disease. However,Dr J. P. S. Sawhney, a senior consultant in the cardiology department of Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, does not consider CRP tests too reliable for Indians. “Studies show that the basal value of CRP is higher for Indians due to the prevalence of viral infections, diabetes, joint pain and so on, and maybe exposure to pollutants. Hence, CRP is, generally, elevated and it becomes hard to pinpoint if the elevated levels are because of a lifestyle condition, an infection or heart disease,” he says. According to him, the Western world, however, considers CRP a good marker for heart health.
High-Sensitivity Blood Test for Troponin T or Troponin I
Troponin T and troponin I are proteins released when your heart faces significant stress or is damaged. A typical troponin test can pick up on only large quantities of the protein, such as those produced during stressful events for your heart, such as running a marathon or suffering a heart attack. However, the new high-sensitivity version, approved in January 2017, can detect much lower levels of troponin T or I, allowing doctors to start treatment at an earlier stage.
Blood Test for NT-proBNP or BNP
Brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) is a hormone released by your heart in response to cardiovascular stress. N-terminal pro-brain natriuretic peptide (NT-proBNP) is a precursor to BNP. As Freeman explains, a high level of NT-proBNP or BNP in the bloodstream is a red flag that either your heart muscle has stiffened and may not relax well or that it has weakened and can no longer pump efficiently. (Often this is the result of a lack of regular physical activity.) Officially known as diastolic dysfunction, this condition can be an early predictor of heart failure. Sawhney considers NT-proBNP an effective test for accurately diagnosing patients who complain about breathlessness. “It is important to assess whether breathlessness is being caused by a weak heart or by a lung condition, as both require very different sets of treatments,” he explains.
In India, computed tomography angiography (CTA) is a popular test to screen patients with multiple risk factors. An iodine-rich dye is injected into a vein of the patient’s arm, which helps produce detailed images of the arteries. “Unlike the stress ECHO test which picks up coronary blocks only if it is above 70 per cent, a CTA will pick up minor blocks too,” says Sawhney. This helps diagnose heart disease early on—even when you are not exhibiting any symptoms. It is, however, not performed on people who react adversely to dyes and on those with advanced kidney disease or severe diabetes.