Study Finds Many People Over 40 Could Have 'Hidden Heart Disease'

Heart disease continues to take the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. every year. In fact, nearly 700,000 deaths from heart disease occurred in 2020 alone, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those who smoke, have high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, or obesity, as well as individuals who engage in excessive alcohol consumption, get too little exercise, or eat an unhealthy diet tend to be at an increased risk for heart disease.

Sometimes, early indicators of heart disease can develop, serving as a red flag that someone might be at risk for an event such as a heart attack, according to experts at Deaconess Health System. Such symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, ongoing fatigue, waves of chest pain that come and go, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or fluid retention. 

However, a new study published in Annals of Internal Medicine has found that even individuals who are symptom-free may have subclinical heart disease — an asymptomatic form of heart disease that is particularly skilled at flying under the radar.

Subclinical heart disease presents without symptoms

The researchers examined 9,533 people in Denmark who were at least 40 years of age and who had no symptoms or diagnosis of ischemic heart disease. A little over half of patients had no indicators of subclinical heart disease, while 36% of patients turned out to have non-obstructive heart disease and 10% had obstructive heart disease, reports HealthDay. The study team determined that the 10% of patients with obstructive heart disease had an eight times greater risk for heart attack.

Rather than waiting for the emergence of more troubling symptoms of heart disease before taking action, experts say the study highlights the importance and necessity for early, in-depth screening measures for patient cardiovascular risk. This is particularly true since a patient with subclinical heart disease may not present with any indications of heart disease on a standard stress exercise test.

"Computed tomography is a key tool available today that permits us to see beneath the surface and identify atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries) in its subclinical phase," cardiologist Dr. Matthew Tomey told HealthDay. Tomey recommends patients discuss their heart disease risk with their doctors to decide if they should undertake more comprehensive screening.