Scans could explain differing heart disease risk for men and women

When it comes to differences between the sexes, scientists have gone right to the heart of the matter in new research.

Variations in the shape and texture of men’s and women’s hearts could explain why their risk of heart disease differs, experts suggested.

Using a new heart-specific image analysis “toolkit” called CMR radiomics on the organ’s left ventricle, scientists delved deeper to discover more subtle differences between the genders and how these change with age.

In men, the heart muscle was dominated by more coarse textures, while women’s hearts had finer grained textures, researchers at Queen Mary University of London found, in collaboration with the University of Barcelona and University of Southampton.

Looking at at the heart structure of 667 healthy people – 309 men and 358 women – from the UK Biobank Imaging study, they also found that men had a larger surface area of heart muscle, even after accounting for body size.

The organ’s shape and texture was also found to change as years go by, with participants categorised into the 45-54, 55-64 and 65-74 age groups.

While differences in heart shape between men and women decreased with age, texture differences remained across all age groups and dominated in older age, researchers said.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF), which funded the research, said if used in future on people with heart and circulatory diseases, such as those with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and coronary heart disease, it could reveal how the heart structure differs between cardiovascular health and disease.

The findings, presented at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress, have unearthed “buried treasure”, said BHF associate medical director Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan.

She said: “CMR scans give us a wealth of information about the heart, meaning that we can understand it to greater depths than ever before.

Heart scan image
Heart scan image

“But the researchers have dug even deeper to find buried treasure within this routine data, revealing subtler differences that vary more between men and women and by age than what we normally see.

“Next we need to find out if this technology can prove useful to assess cardiovascular risk in both women and men.”

Dr Zahra Raisi-Estabragh, BHF clinical research training fellow at Queen Mary University of London and lead researcher, said current image analysis tools in hospitals “do not fully encompass the complexity of the heart’s architecture”.

She said: “We need to be able to see the heart in much greater detail to be able to truly understand how it changes between men and women, with ageing, and during the development of heart disease. Our technology has great potential to do just that.

“Our ultimate goal is to use our imaging ‘toolkit’ to allow faster and more accurate diagnosis of heart disease, improve our estimations of future risk of heart conditions, and better understand the processes underlying cardiovascular disease.”