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A new tool to check your heart disease risk

If you’re like most heart-conscious people, you probably know your blood pressure and cholesterol readings. You know whether you need to lose weight—and how much.

You may now want to add a new vital statistic to your dossier—your C-reactive protein level (CRP), a protein found in the blood that’s associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease.

C-reactive protein is normally produced by your liver when your immune system responds to an injury or infection. It’s a sign of inflammation, in the same way a fever means the body is fighting an infection. Researchers believe that when cholesterol and fatty deposits build up in blood vessels and form plaque, vessels become inflamed. As inflammation increases, the plaque can rupture, leading to blood clots and blockages, which cause heart attack or stroke.

Your healthcare provider can check your CRP with a simple blood test. A CRP level higher than 3 mg/L is considered high risk. If your CRP level is less than 1 mg/L, you’re at low risk, and a level between 1 and 3 signals average risk.

Studies show that patients in the upper third of CRP levels have twice the risk for heart disease as those whose levels fall in the lower third. One study found that the CRP test was a better predictor of heart disease than LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

By considering your CRP level with your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, your risk for heart disease may alert your doctor to a problem before your heart health reaches a danger zone. If you have other borderline risk factors, your CRP test might help your doctor decide whether to prescribe medication. You can lower your CRP with lifestyle changes like increasing exercise, losing weight and improving your diet. Anti-clotting drugs such as aspirin and clopidogrel, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs and ACE inhibitors may help as well. Always check with your doctor before starting any medication.

Who should have the test?

The American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the test only for those at intermediate risk of developing coronary heart disease in the next 10 years and only in addition to traditional lipid profiles and blood pressure readings. Because of the test’s simple nature and low cost, however, chances are good that other patients and doctors will seek CRP testing, too.