Calcium Scoring Saves Lives

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Calcium Scoring Saves Lives
With Melish Thompson, MD, Cardiologist, Columbia St. Mary’s

Peace of mind about a loved one’s health is invaluable, especially when the person has risk factors for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.

Today there is technology that can help save lives with a quick test. A noninvasive heart scan for calcium scoring has proven to be a reliable way for doctors to assess a person’s risk for heart disease by revealing hidden plaque in coronary arteries.

For example, after losing a younger brother suddenly to cardiac arrest, a man agreed to undergo a heart scan to assess his own risk for heart disease. Ironically, the man’s younger brother had been offered the same test just a few months before his death and he turned down the opportunity. Not surprisingly, the man who shared some of the same unhealthy characteristics with his recently deceased brother like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, registered a very high calcium score. A subsequent heart catheterization revealed that the man had severe heart disease and he underwent immediate bypass surgery.

Traditionally, doctors have used a standard formula based on several health and lifestyle criteria to predict if patients are at risk for developing cardiovascular disease. But more and more, doctors are relying on calcium scoring as a screening tool to identify the potential risk for patients to experience a heart attack.

What is a heart scan for calcium scoring?
A calcium score is a measure of how much plaque has accumulated in blood vessels of the heart. The amount of calcium build-up is a good predictor of a person’s risk of a heart attack and can be used as a guide for treatment.

Columbia St. Mary’s uses dual source CT technology that is accurate without being invasive. The multi-slice CT scanner takes high-speed, low-radiation images of the heart and counts the amount of calcium present. The scan typically takes 10 to 20 seconds and patients remain in their street clothes. There is no need for an IV or medication prior to the heart scan, and the patient’s prep and test time is less than 10 minutes.

Unlike the traditional risk factor formula that generally predicts the likelihood of heart disease in a specific group of patients (i.e. those who are overweight, smoke, have high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol), calcium scoring is a more definitive assessment tool for individual patients.

Benefits of a heart scan for calcium scoring
Studies show a strong correlation between high levels of calcium build-up and a high amount of blockage in people’s arteries.

Calcium scores can range from 0 to over 1,000. If the heart scan shows an absence of calcium build-up, doctors can assure their patients that they are at low risk for having a heart attack over the next two to five years. The presence of plaque confirms that patients do have heart disease, and the higher the calcium score, the greater the risk that patients will suffer a coronary episode.

Because a heart scan for calcium scoring can definitively identify the presence of plaque in the arteries, the test is often a turning point for patients who have been reluctant to make lifestyle modifications, such as quitting smoking, losing weight or taking medication to control their blood pressure or cholesterol levels.

What’s more, a heart scan can accurately predict a person’s risk of developing heart disease, even if they don’t have any of the traditional risk factors.

For instance, a man in his mid 40s who was in excellent health, ate a well-balanced diet and regularly trained as a marathon runner was convinced to undergo a heart scan for calcium scoring. Although he was completely asymptomatic, the man registered a very high calcium score. A heart catheterization revealed a total blockage in one artery and the man ultimately underwent bypass surgery to correct the blockage.

Not all patients who receive a high calcium score need to undergo a heart catheterization. Generally, patients who register a calcium score in the 300 range are given a stress test to see if the plaque build-up in their arteries has limited blood flow to the heart muscle. Depending on the results of the stress test, a patient may be instructed to have a heart catheterization to confirm any potential blockages.

People at increased risk for heart disease include men 45 years and older, women 55 years and older, individuals suffering with hypertension or diabetes, those with a family history of heart disease; also people who smoke, are overweight or physically inactive.

Although insurance plans rarely cover the cost of a heart scan, the cost of the test has dropped dramatically since the assessment tool was first introduced 20 years ago. Today, a heart scan typically will cost patients $150 out of pocket. And that is a small price to pay for a little peace of mind. Schedule your heart scan today. Call 414-326-1800.


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