Atherosclerosis is characterized by the accumulation of fatty deposits in the artery walls.
The disease is normally detected at an advanced stage when it has already caused clinical events such as a heart attack or stroke.
Treatment of the disease at this symptomatic stage is of limited effectiveness, and most patients experience a decline in quality of life.
The treatment of these patients, moreover, places a significant burden on health care resources.
In a recent study from the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares (CNIC), researchers found that almost half of healthy people between the ages of 40 and 50 could be accumulating fatty plaques in their arteries at a much faster rate than was previously thought.
They found that atheroma plaques extend rapidly through the arteries of 40% of asymptomatic individuals aged between 40 and 50 years.
In addition, the progression of atherosclerosis is directly related to classical heart disease risk factors: age, sex, high blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking, and diabetes.
The study is published in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The leader of the study is Dr. Valentín Fuster, Director of the CNIC.
In the study, the team monitored 4200 healthy middle-aged men and women with noninvasive imaging technology for more than 10 years.
The use of noninvasive imaging technologies helped them to identify the progression of the disease earlier than is possible with classical markers, such as the presence of coronary calcium detected by computed tomography (CT).
The simpler imaging techniques like 2-D and 3-D ultrasound are accessible and do not involve exposure to radiation.
With these techniques, they can detect and quantify the burden and volume of atherosclerotic disease and precisely monitor its progression, thus identifying people who stand to benefit from earlier and more intensive prevention.
This study is the first to analyze the progression of atherosclerosis at frequent intervals. The previous view was that the disease progressed very slowly throughout life.
However, the new results show that the disease progressed very rapidly in 40% of the individuals analyzed.
Future data from the study will show whether this progression is associated with subsequent cardiovascular events.
Until now, the speed of atherosclerosis progression has not been a factor in assessing individual risk.
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