A blood test has been developed that could make it easier to predict which older people are at greater risk of heart failure, even before symptoms start appearing.
The test can detect tiny levels of troponin T, a protein marker for cell death damage to the heart.
The marker was discovered in two-thirds of people aged 65 and over who had taken part in a long-term heart study in the US.
Lead researcher Dr Christopher deFilippi, from the University of Maryland, said: “We found that the higher the level of troponin, the greater the individual was at risk for symptoms of heart failure or death from cardiovascular disease over the next 10-15 years.”
Troponin T - which until now has not been detectable in apparently healthy people - is already used in emergencies to help confirm that a patient’s chest pains are due to a heart attack.
The findings, presented at an American Heart Association meeting in Chicago, were published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The US study involved more than 4,000 older people who were not hospitalised and had no symptoms of heart failure. Blood samples were analysed at the start of the study and again two to three years later. Each participant was then monitored for heart-related diseases for around 12 years.
Follow-up research found that 1,279 participants experienced heart failure for the first time, and 1,103 heart-related deaths occurred.
The scientists found troponin T levels could change over time, rising in some individuals with a corresponding increase in their risk of heart failure or cardiac death. The risks dropped in those whose blood samples showed a reduction in troponin levels.
“These fluctuations suggest that even in people without clinical symptoms of heart disease, we may be able to intervene with lifestyle modifications to lower their risks,” said Dr deFilippi.