Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctor: Are community heart check-ups worth doing?

Ask the doctor

Are community heart check-ups worth doing?

Q. I often get mail from companies like Life Line Screening about having tests to look for "hidden" heart risks. The events are usually held at a local church and cost about $130. Are these tests valid? Are they worth the money?

A. Valid and worth the money are two different issues. The tests these companies offer are quite valid, and doctors often do them precisely for the reason you listed. The big difference is that doctors usually do them when they suspect a patient has a particular condition or is at high risk for it. Doing these tests in seemingly healthy people often causes more problems than it prevents.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which does tough-minded assessments of health care interventions, has weighed in on the tests that are usually offered. Among people without symptoms, the task force does not recommend having an ultrasound to check for narrowing in the carotid arteries (the large arteries that supply the brain) or a ballooning blood vessel in the abdomen (an abdominal aortic aneurysm), an electrocardiogram to check for atrial fibrillation (a rapid beat in the heart's upper chambers), or a test for peripheral artery disease (cholesterol-clogged arteries in the legs or arms). There's one exception "" the task force says that men between the ages of 65 and 75 who have ever smoked should be checked for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. For each test, the task force concluded that the potential for harm, in the form of false alarms and unnecessary follow-up testing and procedures, was bigger than the small number of cases of "hidden" heart disease detected.

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