Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the US, killing around 610,000 people every year. Now, researchers have developed a test that they say can predict future heart disease risk for adolescents, as well as the risk for type 2 diabetes – a creation that has the potential to save lives.

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Researchers hope the new test will encourage adolescents to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes to reduce their future risk for heart disease.

Dr. Mark DeBoer, of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, and colleagues describe the efficacy of the new test and how it was developed in two studies published in Diabetologia and the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Modifiable risk factors – such as high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, lack of exercise and a poor diet – are key causes of heart disease, meaning the condition is largely preventable.

The new test works by assessing an individual’s metabolic syndrome status – a cluster of modifiable factors that raise heart disease risk – providing them with the opportunity to make lifestyle changes to lower the likelihood of developing heart disease and diabetes in the future.

The researchers note that current techniques used to diagnose metabolic syndrome often have gender and race/ethnic disparities. As such, the team developed a metabolic severity score that is specific to a person’s sex and race/ethnicity.

To create the test, Dr. DeBoer and colleagues assessed the body mass index (BMI), systolic blood pressure, fasting triglyceride levels, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels and fasting glucose levels of children of an average age of 12.9 years who were evaluated at the Cincinnati Clinic of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute Lipids Research Clinic (LRC) between 1973-76.

Fast facts about heart disease
  • Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing around 370,000 people in the US every year
  • In 2009, more than half of heart disease deaths in the US occurred in men
  • Around half of Americans have at least one key risk factor for heart disease.

Learn more about heart disease

These children were re-evaluated and assessed for development of both type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD) at an average age of 38.4 years through the 1998-2003 Princeton Follow-up Study (PFS) and again at an average age of 49.6 years via the 2010-14 Princeton Health Update (PHU) study.

“The current study was targeted at using that metabolic syndrome severity score on data from individuals who were children in the ’70s to see if it correlated with their risk on developing CVD and type 2 diabetes later in life,” explains Dr. DeBoer.

The researchers say their test is unique in that it has the ability to assess how a person’s metabolic syndrome severity changes over time. Previous diagnostic tests were only able to say whether an individual does or does not have metabolic syndrome, but the new test provides a scale of metabolic syndrome severity from adolescence to adulthood, alongside a specific score indicating risk.

In their studies, the team found that the metabolic syndrome severity score was highly accurate in predicting which youths would develop heart disease and type 2 diabetes later in life.

Based on their findings, the researchers have high hopes that their test could be an effective prevention strategy for heart disease and diabetes. Dr. DeBoer says:

We are hopeful that this score can be used to assess the baseline risk for adolescents regarding metabolic syndrome and their risk for future disease and use it as a motivator for individuals to try to change their risk so that they may have a healthier diet, engage in more physical activity or get medication to reduce their metabolic syndrome severity and their future risk for disease.”

Last month, Medical News Today reported on a study that associated stress in childhood with greater risk of heart disease and diabetes later in life.