A Gut Check Could Predict Heart Attack

Atherosclerosis in the abdominal aorta may foretell future heart attack

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Your abdominal aorta supplies blood to all major abdominal organs and the legs. If it becomes blocked, not only may organs and legs suffer, it can be a harbinger of a future heart attack. Spotting such blockage can warn doctors of this risk in their patients.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect plaque buildup in this aorta, which delivers blood to the liver, kidneys, spleen, intestines and stomach.

The abdominal aorta is often imaged when a patient is undergoing exams of the spine or abdomen.

Although this imaging is not of the heart, it may provide clues that a patient is developing heart disease and at risk of a future heart attack or stroke, according to a recent study.

"Ask your doctor about cardiovascular risks."

Christopher Maroules, MD, a radiology resident at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and his colleagues analyzed abdominal MRIs of 2,122 participants.

MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the organs and tissues within your body. All the MR images in this study provided measurements of the abdominal aorta’s wall thickness and the amount of plaque buildup.

Subjects were all enrolled in the Dallas Heart Study, a multiethnic population-based study of healthy adults from Dallas County, Texas. The average age of the study subjects was 44.

After imaging, participants were followed for an average of 7.8 years. During that time, 143 participants had an adverse cardiovascular event in which arterial blood flow was blocked. These events included heart attack and stroke.

Reviewing the MRI measurements, the investigators noted that increased abdominal aortic wall thickness corresponded with a greater risk for all types of cardiovascular events. An increase in both wall thickness and aortic plaque burden was associated with an increased risk for non-fatal extra-cardiac vascular events, such as stroke.

"This is an important study because it demonstrates that atherosclerosis in an artery outside the heart is an independent predictor of adverse cardiovascular events," said Dr. Maroules. "MRI is a promising tool for quantifying atherosclerosis through plaque and arterial wall thickness measurements."

Compared with other vascular imaging exams, MRI of the abdominal aorta has its advantages. According to the authors, it is less technically challenging because of the large size of the vessel (it is the largest artery in the body) and because it is not near a moving organ, such as the heart or the lungs.

An abdomen MRI can cost upwards of $2,500 to $4,000.

Further MRI research will contribute to a better understanding of the progression of atherosclerosis, which scientists believe begins with a remodeling or thickening of the vessel wall prior to the buildup of plaque, according to Dr. Maroules.

The study was published online on June 18 in the journal Radiology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 16, 2013
Last Updated:
August 2, 2013