Prof’s test finds heart disease early

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

A University professor is trying to change the way society looks at cardiovascular disease issues.

Cardiovascular disease includes not only diseases of the heart but also the blood vessels that nourish the heart, said Dr. Jay Cohn, a professor of medicine.

Through the University’s Rasmussen Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, Cohn has developed a screening process that can detect the earliest signs of cardiovascular disease in patients who have no symptoms and might not be aware of potential risks. The screening involves a series of 10 tests that can be completed in approximately one hour.

“The strength of our screening is that we identify the individuals with early disease who need to be treated,” he said.

Heart and cardiovascular-related diseases are expensive and expansive.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, cardiovascular disease cost patients more than $1.4 billion in 2001. Of the 37,505 people who died in Minnesota in 2001, 34 percent died of cardiovascular disease, making it the most common cause of death in the state.

Cohn said if a patient is found to be at risk, he or she is put on the same medications used to treat existing cardiovascular disease.

Cohn’s and the other researchers’ findings were published in the American Heart Journal’s October issue.

“We are finding early disease of the arteries that places people at risk, even if they don’t have it at the time,” Cohn said. He said doctors still have to follow those screened to ensure the cardiovascular drugs are working.

Such an attempt at preventing future cardiovascular problems is a new notion, he said. The health community in general is geared toward treating diseases that have already developed.

“There is no one in the health-care system that is taking care of people like that,” Cohn said. Primary care physicians, often the first level of treatment for patients, are so burdened with treating existing problems that preventive medicine does not get much attention, he said.

Such an emphasis on preventing disease would require rethinking the current health-care system, he said.

“From a practical standpoint, this would require a rethinking of health-care systems,” he said. “The health-care professionals have organized themselves to deal with advanced disease.”

Albert Tsai, an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health, said that while preventive medicine as a whole is a good practice, Cohn’s method of giving heart medication to people with no existing symptoms is questionable.

“It appears a little aggressive,” he said. Tsai said the standard prevention measures such as exercise, not smoking and sound nutrition should still take precedence.

“I’m definitely a big proponent of primary prevention,” he said. “But until we have evidence that this screening is effective, we proceed with caution.”

Dr. Stephen Glasser, an epidemiology professor at the University’s School of Public Health, participated in developing the new screening process.

He said there is still more data to study, and people should not discount the benefits of the new screening just because it involves giving heart drugs to people with no symptoms.