Paula Wolfson, wtop.com
WASHINGTON - New heart screening technology is giving doctors and their patients a glimpse into the future.
The technology is like a "crystal ball" -- a way to determine the risk of heart disease years, even decades, down the road.
Dr. Allen Taylor, chief of cardiology at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, says this new technology is a way to "look inside of a patient and say 'Are you at risk? Are you developing heart disease?'"
Taylor says the latest and greatest advance in screening involves an ultrasound of the carotid artery. Located in the neck, it carries blood from the heart to the brain. Ultrasounds have been used for years to check blood flow in the carotid, but now they're being used to actually measure the artery wall.
"It is a key artery in the body," says Taylor. "When that artery becomes thickened or develops buildups, it tells us about future risk for heart disease."
The test is simple and takes about 10 minutes. An ultrasound wand passes over the neck and an image of the artery shows on a computer screen, and a doctor or technician uses the computer to automatically measure the thickness.
"The big change has been that the ultrasound technology has improved to where we can detect these very small changes in the arteries because the imaging technology is so good," says Taylor.
The improvement means the ultrasound can be used as a diagnostic tool years before the first symptoms appear. Like a mammogram, it gives doctors a chance to detect problems early when they're more treatable.
"It takes decades to develop artery buildups. And the earlier we can detect them, the earlier we can treat them," says Taylor.
He notes the test can be performed on patients of all ages, and can detect even the most minor changes.
"Even in teenagers with bad diets who are overweight, you can detect abnormalities," Taylor says, adding that prevention best begins early in life.
He says this new technology, along with other high tech innovations such as the heart CT scan, is revolutionizing screening for future heart problems. Taylor says recent decades have produced one breakthrough after another in the treatment of heart disease.
"We have got great treatments," says Taylor. "But unless we get them in the right patients, they are useless."
The Carotid Intima-Media Thickness test, as it's formally known, has been endorsed by the American College of Cardiology. The biggest obstacle is that few insurance companies are willing to pay for it, even though it's relatively inexpensive. Taylor thinks it's important enough to be added to the list of mandatory covered screenings, like colonoscopies and mammograms.
Taylor emphasizes that heart disease kills more Americans than all cancers combined.
"It is about time we have better support for screening recommendations," Taylor says. "This is about getting the right treatment to the right patient at the right time."
Follow WTOP on Twitter.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)