Making people to see the images of their clogged arteries make them to adhere to treatments such as weight loss and anti-cholesterol drugs, according to a study.
Two studies presented at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting in Chicago showed that having a look at the real-time effect of one's own lifestyle habits was a major motivator for change.
The findings are important because convincing people to regularly take cholesterol-lowering drugs is a key hurdle in medicine and many patients are reluctant to make the changes needed until it is too late.
"Seeing a coronary artery calcium scan gives patients a visual picture of how severe their disease is, and this picture seems to have a really big impact," said Nove Kalia, one of the lead investigators for both studies.
The most striking results were seen among patients with the most severe disease, or whose inner arteries had grown clogged due to such factors as overeating, smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes.
Patients undergoing coronary artery calcium (CAC) scoring with cardiac computed tomography, or a CT scan that shows images of the heart, were shown images of their arteries.
Those with the worst arteries, or whose CAC topped 400 or more, were 2.5 times more likely to take statins as directed and more than three times more likely to have lost weight, according to a follow up questionnaire, compared to those whose scans showed little evidence of disease.
The statin study followed 2,100 patients and the weight loss study tracked a total of 518.
Neither study was able to show whether the scans caused enough of a behavioral change to ward off future heart attacks or stroke.
"With increasing use of noninvasive imaging, it seems we already have a powerful tool in helping to motivate patients," said Kalia in a statement.
"I think we may find this can also help improve outcomes."