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Finding early warning signs: Jay N. Cohn, M.D., makes preventing heart disease his professional mission

In the midst of a successful career in cardiology, Jay N. Cohn, M.D., was pondering a change.

By the mid-1990s, after almost 40 years as a cardiologist and 22 years as head of the University of Minnesota’s cardiovascular division, Cohn had developed and refined innovative, effective methods for treating patients with end-stage cardiovascular disease and acute heart attack.

But Cohn felt he could do more.

“I became disillusioned because, despite our phenomenal success in restoring stability to these patients and in prolonging their lives, we were left with people who were quite sick, and long-term management of their condition required considerable health care expenditures,” recalls Cohn. “It occurred to me that if we could identify the disease long before people became sick, the same approaches we used to slow progression of disease once it advanced could also be used to slow progression so people didn’t even get sick.”

So Cohn resigned his position as division head and began work on an innovative cardiovascular prevention program. His vision seemed straightforward: put together a series of tests to identify heart and blood vessel abnormalities, and use those abnormalities as markers for an impending deadly heart attack or stroke.

The tests needed to be efficient and practical, he thought—noninvasive, without radiation, and able to be completed in one hour in a single room.

In 2000, his brainchild—the Rasmussen Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention—became a reality. In the decade since it first opened its doors, the center has served more than 2,000 patients.

Cohn has found the Rasmussen test series to be far more sensitive than simply measuring traditional risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, in identifying individuals who are likely to develop heart disease. Treatment for those with early abnormalities has the potential to eliminate heart attacks and strokes, he says.

Today Cohn continues to direct the center while educating both established and future physicians about ways to identify heart disease before it’s too late.

And since he made the career shift, he has never looked back.

“The future of health care is in preventing disease,” Cohn says. “But current financial incentives, which reward management of sick people, have thwarted widespread application of this concept. I look forward to the day when the rest of the world has caught up with us.”

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