Calcium Scans: How They Predict Heart Problems

heart & StethoscopeAre you at risk of developing heart disease? The likelihood of a person developing heart disease can be classified as being a high, intermediate or low risk. While there are specific medical guidelines for treating high and low risk patients, what happens to those people with an intermediate risk?

Patients at a high risk are treated aggressively with medication, lifestyle changes and, sometimes, surgical interventions. Those at low risk are often given a warning of their status and recommendations to begin an exercise program or get nutrition counseling. That leaves the roughly 23 million Americans who are classified in the intermediate category and need more specific information in order to develop an effective health care plan.

A heart scan, or coronary artery calcium scan (CAC), is a reliable predictor of cardiovascular disease in the intermediate risk patient population. People in this group tend to develop heart disease roughly 7 ½ years after diagnosis.

The 411 on Heart Scans

The coronary arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. They need to be clear and free flowing in order to be efficient and effective. When plaque collects inside the coronary arteries, it impedes the flow of blood and leads to problems.

Plaque contains calcium, so the amount of calcium-containing plaque in the coronary arteries is a good predictor of coronary artery disease. The CAC scan detects those calcium deposits in the arteries around the heart. Calcium found in the coronary arteries is a definitive indication of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart attacks, stroke, and other coronary problems.)

The CAC Procedure Explained

A calcium scan is fast and painless. It is a CT scan (computed tomography) that takes cross section images of the heart to measure the amount and density of calcium deposits in the coronary arteries. The resulting score is an accurate predictor of a person’s risk of developing coronary artery disease.

What is Your Score?

Coronary calcium scores range from 0-400. A coronary calcium score that is higher than 100 indicates a risk of heart disease. Obviously, the higher the score, the higher the risk of developing heart disease. When should you worry? People with scores of 101-300 are seven times (yes, seven) more likely to suffer a cardiac event than a person with a lower score and no coronary calcium.

A qualified physician can determine if a calcium scan is a good idea for you. The decision is based on several factors: the level of risk (high, intermediate or low), age and contributing risk factors (family history, hypertension, high cholesterol).

The Fix

Once a CAC is completed and interpreted, a physician will likely prescribe aggressive lifestyle changes to target your CAC score and bring down the final number. Some of the changes might include, but are not limited to:

  • Aspirin therapy
  • Statin drugs
  • Dietary changes
  • Exercise program

What is your calcium heart score? Once you find out your score, it might be time for a lifestyle change.

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