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Tracing Heart Disease Through the Fingers

Noninvasive Finger Test Could Catch Early Signs of Heart Disease
WebMD Health News

Dec. 6, 2004 -- A simple fingertip probe could reveal heart disease risk without even drawing a drop of blood. The screening test could help cut the number of people devastated by heart disease, America's leading cause of death.

Heart disease killed more than 700,000 people in the U.S. in 2001. For both men and women, no condition is deadlier. This year, heart disease is expected to cost the country nearly $239 billion in health care services, medications, and lost productivity, says the CDC.

The noninvasive test is called reactive hyperemia peripheral arterial tonometry (RH-PAT). One day, it could be standard equipment in doctors' offices.

The test gauges blood flow at the fingertip before and after a blood pressure cuff is inflated at the arm. It is an indirect measure of the health of the lining of blood vessels. According to researchers, accessing the healthy function of blood vessels has been shown to predict cardiovascular disease.

The fingertip probe was recently tested on almost 94 people. None had heart disease, but a little more than half had an early warning sign of looming heart trouble.

After the blood pressure cuff is deflated, the probe measures how well blood flow changes in the finger as blood pulses through it.

The average RH-PAT index was higher in people with healthy blood vessels than in those with abnormal blood vessels. That suggests that RH-PAT could flag blood vessel problems, a heart disease risk factor. If the finger's blood vessels are abnormal, those around the heart could be troubled, too.

However, the test needs wider testing, say researchers Piero Bonetti, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and colleagues. Their study appears in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology's Dec. 7 edition.

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