"Just in case" artery scans offer little or no payoff, possible harm

The carotid arteries that run up either side of the neck are prone to becoming narrowed by cholesterol-filled plaque. A test called carotid ultrasound can identify a narrowing, also called a stenosis, quickly, safely, and without any immediate potential for harm. This test makes perfect sense for someone experiencing lightheadedness, memory loss, or the warning signs of a stroke or mini-stroke.

In people who have their carotid arteries checked "just in case," ultrasound doesn't do much good. University of Wisconsin researchers tracked almost 600 people who underwent carotid ultrasound for this reason. A year later, those whose scans had shown a significant narrowing were no more likely to have their blood pressure or cholesterol under control — two key steps for managing carotid stenosis — than those whose arteries were clear, or to have made healthy changes in diet, exercise, and other long-term health behaviors (Archives of Internal Medicine, March 28, 2011).

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