Q: My doctor has asked me to take a treadmill test. What is that and does it have any value? My cholesterol level is high.
A: The treadmill test, also known as an exercise stress test, tells physicians how well the heart handles physical exertion. The test measures heart rate, blood pressure and the electrical function of the heart as the patient walks on a treadmill. The speed at which the patient walks is gradually increased, requiring the body to use more oxygen and the heart to pump harder. Treadmill test results can indicate a lack of blood supply through the arteries that go to the heart.
Yes, the test has lots of value. Two Johns Hopkins studies have strongly affirmed the value of treadmill exercise tests in diagnosing heart disease in middle-aged women and men before symptoms occur.
"The current guidelines say that it's not necessary to do routine treadmill exercise tests on people without symptoms, but our studies suggest that for those with high cholesterol or other diseases, it might be warranted," says Samia Mora, M.D., lead author of both studies and a cardiology fellow at Hopkins
Results of the studies showed that women who had abnormal or inconclusive test results were up to 2.6 times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than counterparts who had normal results. Similarly, men whose tests showed some form of heart complications were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those with normal tests. Many participants had high cholesterol but no standard symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, heart attack or exercise-related cramping.
It is not recommended that you get "in shape" for a treadmill test. Many patients go into an exercise routine before a treadmill test, and then stop exercising shortly after. That defeats the reason for the test.