Keeping Score: A Way to Measure Heart Disease Risk

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Does the following describe you? 

  • Heart disease runs in your family.
  • You’re being treated for cardiac risk factors. For instance, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or obesity.
  • You haven’t yet had heart disease symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath or fatigue.

With all this in mind, you could be wondering how much you’re at risk of having a heart attack. 

Your concern could be answered by coronary artery calcium scoring — an imaging test conducted in about 10 minutes with a computed tomography (CT) scanner

Calcium scoring provides a cross-sectional view of coronary arteries and measures the amount of calcium in them. Calcium deposits can indicate the start of plaque building up in coronary arteries and obstructing blood flow to the heart. This situation increases the potential for heart attack.

If you don’t have symptoms of heart disease but you have underlying conditions like high blood pressure that could predispose you to a cardiac condition, cardiac calcium scoring could help with risk stratification.

Risk stratification is a process physicians use to rate their patients’ risk for a health condition and plan the course of treatment. 

The higher the calcium score, the more severe the risk of heart attack. Depending on the results, your doctor could prescribe medication or lifestyle changes. Results could open the door to more testing — to better determine the degree of risk and to rule out a false positive calcium score. With any test, there’s always a risk for a false positive.

Calcium scoring is one of several tests available to diagnose heart disease.

About the Calcium Scoring Test

Coronary calcium scoring is noninvasive. The test requires no needles, no dyes, no injections and no exercise. And you’ll stay in your street clothes during the test. 

You’ll lie flat on your back on the CT examination table. A technician will attach to your chest electrodes, on small, sticky discs, to monitor electrical activity of your heart with an electrocardiograph (ECG) machine. This enables CT scans to be recorded between contractions of your heart to create a clearer image. 

Lying on the table, you will move through the CT machine as it performs the scans. You’ll be asked to hold your breath for 10 to 20 seconds while images are recorded.

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The entire procedure is usually completed within 10 minutes.

The higher the calcium score, the more severe the risk of heart attack.

Risks vs. Benefits of Calcium Scoring

There’s very little negative to a calcium scoring. Benefits far outweigh risks.

CT scans result in more radiation exposure than regular X-rays. But the risk from a single scan is small. The radiation dose is similar to that of a year of natural radiation exposure.

However, if there’s any possibility you could be pregnant, inform your physician. Due to potential risk to the baby, CT scanning is not recommended for pregnant women, unless medically necessary.