Heart attacks are one of the most common causes of deaths worldwide. Most heart attacks occur due to inflamed plaques (fatty deposits) in the coronary artery causing a sudden blockage of blood getting to the heart.

Identifying which plaques are most likely to cause blockages is a challenge for doctors, but knowing which patients are at most risk will assist practitioners in treating them with aggressive therapies early on.

Researchers at the University of Oxford created a technology that analyses computed tomography (CT) images of the fat surrounding the arteries to detect inflamed plaques. The method looks for fat-modifying chemical signals that are released by the most dangerous arterial plaques.

The novel technology called the Fat Attenuation Index (FAI) has been tested for the first time in a big study published in The Lancet journal.

The study monitored the progress of 3,900 heart patients from Germany and the US for 10 years after they had undergone a coronary CT scan or angiogram. FAI accurately predicted fatal heart attacks many years before they happened. People who have abnormal FAI reading are up to nine times more prone to the risk of having a deadly heart attack in the next five years than those with normal readings, the research showed.