Researchers may have found a more reliable approach to detect the risk of heart attack and stroke in astronauts. This technique may eventually help researchers determine the same danger for people on Earth.

NASA astronauts are undergoing a special testing that scans coronary arteries for a build up of calcified plaque. This type of scan is not currently done on a routine basis by doctors, but may be a powerful way to assess heart attack and stroke risk. Researchers are not currently integrating these results from scans with the traditional cardiovascular risk, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or family history for heart disease.

The new outer space research is enabling scientists to develop a new equation that combines the calcium scan results with other risk factors for heart attacks or stroke. The result will be a more accurate measure of a person’s risk for having a stroke or developing heart disease within the next 10 years, according to a study in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation.

Dr. Amit Khera, a cardiologist and NASA’s lead author of the study, said “the application for NASA is incredibly important. You can imagine if someone had a heart attack in space, it would be catastrophic for the person and the mission. But we were kind of serving two masters in this project. Obviously for NASA, it’s a tool they need to help in decision-making for astronauts in their missions. But for terrestrial medicine as well, it has lots of potential applications in terms of helping us predict better who’s at risk for heart attack and stroke, and who might need more intensive treatments.”

The study examined a younger age group than a previous study done on the same subject. The previous study looked at those with an average age of 65 and older, while this new study by NASA examined those individuals with an average age of 51.

Dr. Michael Blaha, lead researcher of the earlier study, said “I like this new risk score. The only thing I’m not certain of is where it will fit in and what the clinical impact will be. I don’t know how unique will it be in the space of risk prediction tools, which is already crowded.” Doctors already rely on certain risk factors to help determine the need for prescriptions such as cholesterol-reducing statins or the recommendation to a patient of a daily intake of a baby aspirin.

“Hopefully we can eventually apply this tool in office-based practices to communicate better (with patients) about the risk and do that with more accuracy, so we can determine what might be the best treatment for them,” Khera said.

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