THURSDAY, Aug. 2, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Heart disease is a leading cause of death in patients with the autoimmune illness lupus. Now, research suggests high-tech scans can spot cardiac issues early.
The scans can detect heart abnormalities even before patients have any symptoms, Chinese researchers say.
"Our findings may affect current lupus diagnostics and treatment -- meaning more patients with silent cardiac [damage] could be identified and receive proper treatment," explained study co-leader Dr. Jun Pu, of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
One U.S. physician who cares for lupus patients agreed the finding could be an advance.
Dr. Rachel Bond said it's well-known that heart disease can be deadly for many lupus patients, so healthy living and routine screening for heart disease is recommended.
"Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus on what the best screening options are," said Bond, who helps direct Women's Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Our hope is to find a way to detect heart disease or the risks for heart disease, earlier on, to improve overall outcomes."
In the new study, Pu's team focused on a newer type of imaging called cardiac magnetic resonance (CMR), to see if it might improve screening. The study included 50 recently diagnosed lupus patients, 60 patients with longstanding lupus, and 50 people without lupus.
As hoped, CMR was able to show structural and functional changes in the hearts of patients with lupus. And the degree of the changes -- including signs of scarring (fibrosis) -- was associated with the stage of lupus.
As the researchers explained, current tests to assess lupus patients' hearts often miss changes that are visible with CMR. The new findings suggest that CMR can detect heart problems at an earlier stage, meaning patients can receive treatment to protect their hearts from further damage.
The longer-term benefit of the scans remains unclear, however. "Whether these treatments will improve a patient's prognosis still needs to be evaluated by further clinical studies," Pu said in a news release from the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology. Her team published their findings in the journal on Aug. 2.
Bond believes more physicians may need to be educated about CMR, however.
"This is an incredibly interesting study which highlights the importance and underutilization of CMR. Many cardiologists are not using this [technology] due to either lack of exposure or experience with advanced imaging. But this is yet another tool to identify potential heart disease before it becomes catastrophic," Bond explained.
"I personally believe that we should be using CMR in patients with inflammatory disorders as well as any other disorder which predisposes to accelerated heart disease," Bond said.
The Lupus Foundation of America has more on lupus.