TUESDAY, June 18 (HealthDay News) -- People with a "hardening" of the abdominal aorta are at increased risk for heart attack and stroke, according to a new study.

Atherosclerosis is the medical term for a narrowing and hardening of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque. The aorta is the largest artery in the body, carrying oxygen-rich blood from the heart; the section of the aorta in the abdomen is called the abdominal aorta.

Researchers used MRI to examine plaque accumulation and abdominal aortic wall thickness in more than 2,100 people in Dallas County, Texas. During a follow-up period of nearly eight years, 143 of the participants, whose average age was 44, had a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke. Thirty-four of those events were fatal.

Increased abdominal wall thickness was associated with an increased risk for all types of cardiovascular events. An increase in both wall thickness and plaque buildup was associated with a higher risk for nonfatal events in arteries outside of the heart, such as a stroke.

The study appears online June 18 in the journal Radiology.

"This is an important study, because it demonstrates that atherosclerosis in an artery outside the heart is an independent predictor of adverse cardiovascular events," lead author Dr. Christopher Maroules, a radiology resident at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said in a journal news release. "MRI is a promising tool for quantifying atherosclerosis through plaque and arterial wall thickness measurements."

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about atherosclerosis.