Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), a genetic disease characterized by increased levels of total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the blood, results in a markedly increased incidence of atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease in homozygotes and to a lesser extent in heterozygotes. The purpose of this study was to detect the presence of myocardial ischemia, particularly in heterozygotes, with stress single-photon emission computed tomography thallium-201 scanning and to determine if there were any differentiating variables between heterozygotes with normal and abnormal thallium-201 scans. Fifty-four patients (mean age 16 years; range 8 to 24) with FH were analyzed (4 homozygotes and 50 heterozygotes). Eleven heterozygotes and 3 homozygotes had abnormal thallium-201 scans. Family history, lipid profile, age and sex of heterozygotes with FH did not predict the presence of myocardial ischemia. The mean total cholesterol level in heterozygotes with normal thallium-201 scans was 7.68 +/- 2.29 mmol/liter (297 mg/dl), which was not significantly different from that in heterozygotes with abnormal scans (7.63 +/- 1.07 mmol/liter [295 mg/dl]; p = 0.91). The coronary angiography of 1 homozygote who had an abnormal thallium-201 scan demonstrated a 50% stenosis of the left anterior descending artery. Aggressive, repetitive plasma exchange was then instituted. The 11 heterozygotes with abnormal thallium-201 scans underwent more rigorous dietary and drug therapy. It is concluded that myocardial ischemia with stress in heterozygotes with FH can occur at a young age and that thallium-201 scanning should be performed early as a screening test and to guide patient management.