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Early warning signs

23 Oct 2020 • 2 minute read

Bone scans

Bone density scans that are routinely performed to identify the risk of fractures could also give and early warning for heart attacks and strokes, new research has found.

The scans can detect a build-up of calcium in the aorta, which researchers found was closely associated the risk of suffering a heart attack.

Bone scans get to the heart of the matter

Routine bone density scans used to identify the risk of suffering a fracture can now also be used as an early warning for heart attack or stroke.

Researchers from Edith Cowan University's School of Medical and Health Sciences examined bone density scans of more than 1000 Australian women, taken in the late 1990s.

The scans were originally performed to assess the risk of bone fractures. However, they also revealed the presence of calcium in the women's aorta, a major artery in the abdomen, indicating advanced vascular disease.

Risk of death

Lead researcher Dr Joshua Lewis said that the women who showed a build-up of calcium on their aorta were at a higher risk of suffering cardiovascular hospitalisations and death in the 15 years following their scans.

According to Dr Lewis, not only were the women with calcium in their aorta more likely to have suffered a cardiovascular event in the subsequent 15 years, they were also at a higher risk of dying from any cause.

"This study shows that in addition to indicating the risk of fracture, bone density scans have the capacity to determine the long-term likelihood of cardiovascular disease. This makes bone density testing even more useful as a screening tool.

If we can give people early warning that they are at an increased risk of suffering a cardiovascular event, we can help them to make the lifestyle changes that can then lower their future risk," says Dr Lewis.

Next steps

Work is now commencing to identify the features of calcification most strongly related to patients' risk of heart attack or stroke. Researchers hope to develop an algorithm that automatically detects the aortic calcium build-up in bone density scans.

"This will allow bone density scans to become a very powerful tool for preventing future cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death for Australians," says Dr Lewis.

Dr Lewis worked with researchers from the Universities of Sydney, Western Australia, Minnesota and Harvard Medical School on the project.

'Long-term atherosclerotic vascular disease risk and prognosis in elderly women with abdominal aortic calcification on lateral spine images captured during bone density testing: A prospective study' is available on the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research website.