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Heart Disease Health Center

Diagnosing Atherosclerosis

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Tests to Evaluate Your Risk of Atherosclerosis

Your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, age, family history, and medical history will help your doctor determine your general level of risk for atherosclerosis.

Once your doctor has identified your risk group, more testing may or may not be needed.

Stress test : Using medicines or walking on an exercise treadmill, your heart is stimulated to pump at near-maximum capacity. Atherosclerosis blockages may become symptomatic when the heart is working harder. Images of the heart or ECGs show the blockages.

Electron beam computed tomography (EBCT): A special CT scanner ("CAT scan") snaps pictures of the heart. A computer calculates the amount of calcium in the heart's arteries. More calcium suggests more atherosclerosis.

Carotid artery ultrasound: The carotid arteries in the neck can be easily viewed with a risk-free ultrasound test. Atherosclerosis in these arteries suggests a higher risk for heart attacks and strokes. This is because atherosclerosis occurs throughout the body.

Angiography: As mentioned above, this test can show a picture of blockages caused by atherosclerosis. Angiography can be done on arteries in the heart, brain, or legs. Because it has some risk, angiography is usually only done on people with symptoms from their atherosclerosis. Typically, this means people with symptoms of blockages, such as chest pain.

Even low-risk testing might not be a good idea if you're at low risk with no symptoms. The risk isn't the test itself -- it's what it might lead to.

Consider this example. If you're already low-risk, a positive result on a stress test is probably a false positive, not real atherosclerosis. (Remember, the test isn't perfect.) You and your doctor may feel compelled to get more tests -- maybe even angiography -- exposing you to needless anxiety and risk of complications.

Lowering Your Atherosclerosis Risk

It doesn't make sense to wait for symptoms of atherosclerosis before taking action. Diseases caused by atherosclerosis are the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. The good news is that over 80% of this risk may be avoidable. Lower your risk today:

  • Eat a diet low in trans fats and high in fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Exercise on most days of the week.
  • Get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked.

The longer atherosclerosis stays silent, the better. Do what you can now to reduce your risk for this common and deadly disease.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on May 26, 2014
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