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Heart disease: How MRI scans may more accurately detect the condition in women

A woman gets her blood pressure checked by a female medical technician
Experts say women should keep close track of their heart health. aldomurillo/Getty Images
  • Researchers are reporting that MRI scans may detect heart disease earlier and with more accuracy in women than other types of diagnostic tools.
  • They note that echocardiography, which is currently used to diagnose heart disease, is not always accurate.
  • They add that women can experience heart disease differently than men do.

MRI scans can accurately detect heart failure in women, according to researchers at the Universities of East Anglia and Sheffield and Leeds.

In a new study Trusted Source American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Peer reviewed journal Go to source published in the journal European Heart Journal Open, researchers analyzed the records of 835 participants, 60% of whom were female, from the ASPIRE registry who received an invasive assessment as well as a heart MRI on the same day.

The researchers reported that the noninvasive MRI scans provided more accurate images than using a catheter to measure heart pressure.

The scientists also noted that many of people with incorrect measurements from an echocardiogram had correct measurements from the MRI scan. They said they believe the findings support using an MRI scan as a noninvasive test for heart disease.

“If, in fact, the researchers have found a way to measure the pressure in the heart, it would be very advanced and welcomed,” said Dr. Richard Wright, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California who was not involved in the research.

“Right now, we don’t have a good way to do that without a catheter,” Wright told Medical News Today.

How heart failure is currently diagnosed

“Heart failure is a clinical diagnosis and is typically diagnosed through an examination,” explained Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, an interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in California.

“Finding out about the symptoms is essential. If the exam is not enough, we can use an echocardiogram,” Chen, who was not involved in the research, told Medical News Today. “Other diagnostic tools are electrocardiogram, CT scan, and as a last resort, using a catheter to measure the pressure in the heart.”

Physicians commonly use echocardiograms to detect heart disease. However, experts say they are often inaccurate. Although noninvasive, they do require an injection of dye.

Another diagnostic tool involves inserting a catheter to measure pressure in the heart. This method is more accurate, but it is invasive and there are risks.

“Echocardiography is a common tool for detecting increased heart pressure,” explained Dr. Pankaj Garg, a consultant clinical associate professor at Norwich Medical School and lead author of the study.

“However, it’s not always accurate and sometimes the images aren’t clear enough to diagnose precisely,” Garg told Medical News Today.

Using MRI scans to detect heart disease in women

The research team used an MRI scanner and developed an equation to determine heart pressure.

They said the MRI scans provided much more accurate images. The scientists say this method can increase early detection of heart disease in women.

“We noticed that our [current] methods were often underestimating the heart pressures in women,” Garg said. “This led us to believe that there was a need for improvement in this area to better diagnose heart failure in women. Our recent research has taken into account the patient’s sex to provide sex-specific values of heart pressures. This has significantly improved the accuracy of our method. We believe this will enhance the diagnostic process for women who are suspected of having heart failure. It’s a step forward in providing better care for women’s heart health.”

MRI scans are a beneficial and accurate technology, Chen explained.

“I think their use will become more widespread in the coming years. Women are more likely to have diastolic heart failure, which is more difficult to diagnose,” he said. “The MRI scans could help, but one of the limitations is that you need specific radiologists to interpret the results and their availability is limited.”

MRI scans might be more accurate but there are some obstacles that prevent them from being used regularly, said Wright.

“For example, some people find it very uncomfortable to be in an MRI scanner, to the extent that they won’t do it,” he said. “Some people have physical limitations that make using an MRI scanner impossible. Besides those issues, using MRI scanning is very expensive. Not all hospitals have the scanner or the expertise to complete a heart MRI. It is a niche field.”

Differences between men and women’s hearts

Women’s hearts are biologically different from men’s. Their hearts are smaller and they have narrower blood vessels, according to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Their heart disease can also progress differently. 

Heart failure affects women differently than men and it poses unique challenges in both diagnosis and treatment,” Garg said. “Women generally have smaller hearts than men, which means they pump less blood with each heartbeat. If a woman develops high blood pressure or becomes overweight, her heart has to work harder. This is especially common in women over 70 years old.”

“This extra work can lead to a specific type of heart failure,” Garg added. “Even though the heart still pumps normally, the increased workload causes the pressure inside the heart to rise. This pressure can make a woman feel short of breath. So, while women often live longer than men, they may experience more symptoms related to heart failure and a lower quality of life because of it. It’s important to be aware of these differences to ensure women receive the best possible care for their hearts.”

This article originally appeared on Medical News Today.

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