After studying a group of healthy individuals for more than 10 years, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center 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—sense of your heart disease risk than the traditional reliance on blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They can help you change your habits as needed to protect your heart for life.
If you smoke, are overweight, have a family history of heart problems, or have any other risk factors, ask your doctor about these tests.
A standard, 12-lead electrocardiogram, also known as an EKG, is non-invasive, painless, and usually takes only five to 10 minutes. It’s 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 reveals the amount of calcium buildup in your coronary arteries.
“When we see calcium in the coronaries, it means that 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 at National Jewish Health in New York City, 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 Dr. Freeman says is an underlying condition of many health problems, including heart disease.
If possible, get the high-sensitivity CRP test rather than the standard CRP blood test; it’s better able to detect heart-related inflammation.
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 Dr. 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.
High sensitivity blood test for Troponin T
Troponin T is a protein that is released when your heart faces significant stress or gets damaged. A typical troponin test can pick up on only large quantities of the protein, such as those produced during dire events for your heart (such as running a marathon or suffering a heart attack).
However, the new high-sensitivity version can detect much lower levels of troponin T, allowing doctors to begin treating heart damage earlier.