How Calcium Helps Identify Heart Disease Risk
Artery buildups serve as silent danger signs of a heart attack, and one of the buildups we look for the most is calcium. A coronary calcium score is a type of heart scan that calculates a patient’s risk for coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis). By measuring the amount of calcium deposits in the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply oxygen to the heart, we can identify heart disease before patients have any signs and symptoms.
When calcium isn’t found, heart disease risk over the next 10 years is extremely low for these patients. For those with calcium, however, the risk is higher and depending on the score, we can recommend medication or lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of a heart attack or other heart problems.
LISTEN: Dr. Allen Taylor discusses coronary calcium scoring in the Medical Intel podcast.
Who should have coronary calcium scoring?
We suggest all people in their 50s to 60s get screened, even if they are active and feel healthy. This is the time of life in which heart disease risk goes up, and the disease often progresses slowly over time. As we age, calcium buildup increases. Buildup is more likely to occur in people with certain health conditions, such as:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Receiving the test empowers people to understand their risks and improve their heart health. For example, we once saw a patient in her 50s who was worried about her heart health but didn’t have a lot of risk factors. She opted for coronary calcium scoring, and we found that she had high levels of coronary calcium. She started to proactively manage her risk factors, which most patients are eager to do when we detect coronary calcium.
What happens if we find calcium in the arteries?
Interpreting the test is straightforward: the more calcium that is found in the coronary arteries, the higher the risk of heart disease. The calcium can’t be removed and indicates that plaque or other buildups, notably cholesterol, are in the arteries. We compare a patient’s results to the overall population to help identify if they are developing buildups faster than average.
We can stabilize these plaques by lowering cholesterol with safe, effective medications. Aspirin and certain diabetes and blood pressure treatments also can be effective for patients with associated conditions to help control plaque in their arteries. Furthermore, we encourage patients to consider lifestyle modifications, including:
- Following the Mediterranean diet
- Exercising 30 minutes a day, at least four days a week
- Getting enough sleep
- Managing stress
- Quitting smoking
There are many treatment options to reduce heart disease risk, and a cardiologist can offer a personalized plan tailored to a patient’s specific needs and goals.
What to expect during the test
The test is simple. All the patient does is lie down for a computer tomography (CT) scan, as we attach a few painless electrocardiogram electrodes to their chest. We’ll ask the patient to hold their breath for about 15 second increments to ensure we can capture steady images of the heart and arteries. Within about five minutes, the scan is complete.
The CT scanner machines are wide, so most patients don’t feel claustrophobic or closed in by the scanner tube. The radiation exposure from the machine is very low and comparable to about the same amount as one would get from two mammograms. And the cost is relatively inexpensive; most health systems do these tests for less than $100, and insurance companies might cover the cost.
MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute has been doing coronary calcium scoring longer than any medical institution in the mid-Atlantic. Many of our doctors continuously conduct important research regarding the test and the value it brings patients.
“A picture says a thousand words” is a metaphor I like to use in reference to coronary calcium scoring. That is, patients can learn about and improve their heart disease risk simply by having pictures of their arteries read and making lifestyle modifications or taking the appropriate medication, if need be.