02/01/2012 - Deck: Today's medical technology is helping doctors diagnose heart disease earlier. Here's how—and why it should matter to you
A No. 2 pencil won't get you far on these tests. Neither will conjugating verbs or solving mathematical equations. To make the grade on heart health, leading a healthy lifestyle and taking tests to identify and monitor heart disease are part of the curriculum.
Performed in your physician's office or local hospital, heart tests run the gamut, from measuring stress levels to spotting leaky valves. Here's the lowdown on some of these tests, as well as a glimpse into what the future holds when it comes to heading off potential heart problems before they start.
Use Your Ears
During an echocardiogram, or echo test, physicians listen to what the heart has to say. The patient lies on his side for the duration of the 30-minute test as a microphone is moved over his heart. An echo probe sends out high-frequency sound waves and receives the feedback. As the echo bounces off blood cells, the physician is able to determine the direction of the blood flow as well as the size of the heart chambers and if they are working efficiently.
"[The echo] increases as it moves toward us and is shown as red on the screen," says Richard A. Stein, M.D., spokesman for the American Heart Association. "As it decreases, it is moving away from us and is blue. If a valve is leaking, you'll see a different color and see blood flow where it shouldn't be."
An electrocardiogram, better known as an EKG, is another test used to determine heart health. Patients lie on a table and metal-coated sensors, or electrodes, are placed on the chest, arms and legs.
"This five-minute test will tell us if the conduction of impulses is normal and if the heart chambers are grossly abnormal, which helps us determine if the patient needs a pacemaker or defibrillator," Stein says.
For long-term cardiac monitoring, patients are often given either a Holter monitor or a King of Hearts monitor test. "This involves a recorder that a patient wears, which can give information on underlying cardiac rhythm abnormalities and provide clues as to whether symptoms correlate with abnormal rhythms, fast or slow heart rates or ischemia [inadequate blood flow to the heart muscle]," says Stephen Saltz, M.D., FACC, a fellow of the American College of Cardiology.
This recorder is a battery pack worn over the shoulder for approximately 48 hours. According to Stein, it is ideal for revealing problems in patients who might feel fine in the doctor's office but complain of fatigue or dizziness throughout the day.
Healthier Hearts Ahead
When it comes to what the future holds for detecting and monitoring heart disease, patients can expect to see new twists on current tests, as well as entirely new testing equipment. "The cardiac MRI is an exciting new tool," Saltz says. "It holds the promise of someday allowing doctors to view the coronary arteries without invading the body."
Saltz also mentions the 3-D echo, which provides physicians with a new way of viewing a cardio echo test. "It allows visualization of the heart muscle in three dimensions to provide a clearer picture of the heart muscle and valves," he says.
So what's the best method for identifying potential problems early? Making—and keeping—your annual checkup, Stein says. "I recommend that people older than age 40 schedule an EKG every year," he says. "As we get older, our risks begin to increase. We're creatures of habit—good and bad—so I recommend getting in the habit of scheduling an appointment."
For more information about the Heart Center of Wyoming, contact Wyoming Medical Center at 577-2388.
Learn Your Letters
Here are some common acronyms and abbreviations for the most popular heart tests available today. Study up—you'll be a better patient for it.
* Echo—An echocardiogram shows whether the heart has a hole or if its walls are thickened. This test also helps determine the size of the heart chambers and whether they are working sufficiently.
* EKG—An electrocardiogram, perhaps the most familiar of all heart tests, determines whether the heart rate and rhythm are normal.
* IMT—An intima-media thickness test measures the thickness of the walls of the arteries found in the neck, known as carotid arteries. If these walls have become thicker, there is a strong possibility that they're covered with atherosclerotic plaque, which increases the chance of heart attack.
* Lp(a)—The lipoprotein(a) test is a blood test that measures the amount of lp(a)—a molecule of LDL, or "bad," cholesterol.