Researchers may have developed a more reliable way to predict the risk of heart attack and stroke in astronauts and the technique may eventually help gauge the same danger for regular folks on Earth, too.

NASA astronauts currently undergo a special screening method that scans coronary arteries for a buildup of calcified plaque. This calcium scan, which is not routinely done in clinical practice, is a powerful tool in assessing cardiovascular risk.

Astronauts Heart Attack

Yet scientists have had trouble integrating the results from these scans with traditional risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and family history of heart attack.

Risk Factors

But researchers have developed a new equation that combines the calcium scan scores with those well-established risk factors. The result is a more accurate way to predict a person's risk for having a stroke or developing heart disease within the next 10 years.

Treatments

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.

Risk Scoring System

The new risk scoring system is the first to help predict both heart disease and stroke. It also looked at a younger age group than a similar heart disease risk calculator developed several years ago that also incorporated calcium scan results. That calculator, which Blaha helped develop, was based on patients at an average age of 65. In the new study, the average age was 51.

For astronauts and other professions that come with a high level of danger, better cardiovascular risk calculators can be crucial. But having such tools available for the general population could help improve medical efficiency.

Doctors already rely on certain risk factors to help gauge the need for prescriptions such as cholesterol-reducing statins or whether they should suggest a daily aspirin regimen for patients, he said. A new risk calculator could help medical professionals refine those assessments.

Hopefully, they can eventually apply this tool in office-based practices to communicate better [with patients] about their risk and do that with more accuracy, so we can determine what might be the best treatment for them.