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What is a Calcium Score and Why Do You Need to Know It?

August 26, 2014

Heart disease—it’s the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Each year, more than 700,000 Americans have a heart attack, and nearly 600,000 die from some form of heart disease.

It’s a scary thought. But what’s even more surprising is that nearly 70 percent of heart attacks and 50 percent of sudden deaths caused by heart disease occur in people who have never been diagnosed. This means that, in many cases, people are at risk for heart disease, but they aren’t experiencing any symptoms.

For example, a person could have what is known as coronary artery disease without having any symptoms. Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease, and it causes nearly 380,000 deaths each year. It can start at a very young age, and over time, it causes your arteries to become hardened and clogged because of fatty deposits and plaque buildup.

But with such a serious heart condition, there has to be a way to detect that plaque buildup before it causes symptoms, right?

Right. There are actually a number of different ways that doctors can figure out whether a person has coronary artery disease. They usually look at a person’s family history and risk factors, and they might also perform various tests. But more recently, doctors have started using another test that is able to simply and effectively determine whether a person is at risk for coronary artery disease. It’s called a coronary calcium scan.

What is Calcium?

Before I explain what a coronary calcium scan is and why it’s so helpful, you might be wondering, “What is calcium?”

Well, for starters, it’s not like the dietary calcium you might be thinking of. It’s actually quite different than that. While dietary calcium can help you stay healthy, this type of calcium can be harmful to your heart.

Normally, the arteries in your heart do not contain calcium. But over time, it can start to build up inside that plaque I mentioned earlier, which can harden and clog your arteries. Essentially, think of calcium as the thing that puts the “hardness” in the hardening of the arteries. It’s not a good thing to have in our bodies, and it can be a serious indicator of coronary artery disease.

What is a Coronary Calcium Scan?

So, what exactly is that coronary calcium scan I was telling you about earlier, and how can it detect calcium buildup?

A coronary calcium scan, also known as coronary artery calcium scoring, is a novel way to assess heart disease risk in adults who don’t have any symptoms. It can diagnose the presence of plaque, which, as I mentioned earlier, can lead to things like coronary artery disease and heart attack. The test even helps determine the extent and location of the plaque in the three major coronary arteries.

In many cases, a coronary calcium scan is an excellent way to determine a person’s risk for heart disease over the next five to seven years. It can also help doctors figure out which patients need to aggressively work to reduce their risk factors and change their lifestyle. And in cases where coronary artery disease is already present, the test is helpful in monitoring the progression of that condition.

Although there are other tests that can effectively determine whether a person is at risk for coronary artery disease, a coronary calcium scan is thought to be a much more accurate assessment of risk than many other tests, including blood pressure and cholesterol screenings.

What’s the Test Like?

A coronary calcium scan is a relatively simple and painless test, as it doesn’t require an IV or any type of medication. It is performed using a special X-ray test, and it uses the same dose of radiation as a routine mammogram. The total test time is only about 10 minutes, and all you have to do is lie down as the doctor completes the heart scan. Then, within minutes, you can receive a printout of your calcium score and an explanation of the results.

Who Should Have Their Calcium Score Checked?

A coronary calcium scan is a good test for both men and women between the ages of 40 and 70. In particular, it is recommended for people who have one or more risk factors for heart disease but aren’t experiencing any symptoms. The test has also been used more recently to screen specific subgroups of people, including women, diabetics and those who have received a heart transplant.

While a coronary calcium scan can be an effective test for many people, it is not recommended for everyone. For example, it is not a good test for those under the age of 40 or those with symptoms that may indicate an active heart condition. However, no matter what your age or risk level is, you should always talk to your doctor first to see if the test is recommended for you.

For more information about coronary calcium scoring, visit the National Institutes of Health website.

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