A physiologist has developed a new method of detecting heart disease by measuring the pulse in a finger, according to a study published in the American Journal of Physiology Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

The new technique, created by Gary Pierce, assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Physiology at the University of Iowa, is able to measure the stiffness of the aorta – a factor linked to the risk of heart disease.

The aorta is the largest artery in body and is responsible for delivering blood to the body’s tissues. When the artery is hardened, usually due to aging or an inactive lifestyle, the heart has to work harder to maintain the blood flow. This can lead to high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack.

At present, physicians measure the stiffness of a patient’s aorta by recording a pulse from the carotid artery in the neck or the femoral artery located in the groin.

Prof. Pierce says using the finger to record a pulse is easier and almost as accurate as current methods. He adds that the method works better with obese patients, as their femoral pulse can be harder to obtain, potentially impairing results.

The finger pulse technique works by placing an instrument called a transducer over the finger or brachial artery – an artery located in the arm just under the elbow.

The instrument measures the speed at which the pulse moves between two points, known as the aortic pulse wave velocity. The pulse measurement, combined with a patient’s BMI (body mass index) and age, indicates whether the aorta is hardened.

For the study, the research team at the University of Iowa validated the instrument’s performance against the carotid-femoral-artery pulse wave velocity tests – a test considered the “gold standard” for determining stiffness of the aorta.

Prof. Pierce says:

The technique is more effective in that it is easy to obtain just one pulse waveform in the finger or the brachial artery, and it’s less intrusive than obtaining a femoral waveform in patients.

It also can be easily obtained in the clinic during routine exams similar to blood pressure tests.”

The researchers say that people can live for years without any knowledge that they have cardiovascular problems. Therefore, they add that this new method is particularly important and can prove useful in diagnosing patients who are at highest risk of heart disease.

“Finding simple noninvasive methods to measure aortic pulse wave velocity in the clinic may help physicians to better inform middle-aged and older adults about their level of cardiovascular risk,” adds Prof. Pierce.

Research from the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in 2010 suggested that a simple ultrasound of the carotid artery may significantly improve the prediction of heart disease.