Coronary Artery Test Provides Advance Warning

By: Dr. Jonathan Lebowitz,
University Medical Center at Princeton
July 20, 2001

According to the American Heart Association, each year 1.5 million Americans have heart attacks, and the number is rising. For 20 to 40 percent of these people, a heart attack is the first symptom of heart disease, and one in three people does not survive a first heart attack.

To help reverse this trend, it is important to take sensible steps to ensure a healthy heart before a tragedy occurs. In addition to making smart choices regarding nutrition, exercise and lifestyle, there is an exciting testing tool that can help you and your doctor assess your heart health — the coronary artery CT scan.
Coronary arteries are blood vessels that supply oxygen to your heart. Deposits called “plaque” can build up in your coronary arteries, which may eventually cause blockage. Over time, calcium can accumulate in part or all of the plaque. The more plaque that is present, the more calcium can accumulate. High levels of calcium may indicate that at least one major heart artery has a blockage, which can cause heart attacks.

The coronary CT scan evaluates the presence of — and quantifies — calcified plaque in the coronary arteries, generating a coronary artery calcification (CAC) score. This score reflects a broad estimate of cardiac risk and can be compared to average scores of people in the same age and gender category.

Regardless of the total score, it is imperative that your doctor evaluate all your risk factors. After discussion, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, medications, or other tests that would be appropriate.

Please note: You should not schedule this test if you are experiencing acute chest pain or other acute cardiac symptoms. Instead, call your doctor immediately.
The calcium cardiac scoring scan has been available for about 10 years, but it is only quite recently that the equipment has become faster and more accurate. The scan is done using fast spiral CT technology, without contrast, and takes less than five minutes to perform.

Another benefit is that patients may remain fully clothed, making this a comfortable and non-invasive procedure. The radiation exposure is less than that of a routine CT scan and has not been associated with harmful biological effects.

To better understand your overall heart health, familiarize yourself with the risk factors for heart disease and identify any you may have. Some risk factors,
including age, gender, family history and personal history cannot be changed.

• Age/Gender: In the middle decades of life, the risk of heart disease is three to four times higher for men than for women. For both men over 45 and women over 55, the risk gradually increases with age.

• Family History: A family history of early heart disease increases your risk.

• Personal History: The risk of a heart attack is five to seven times higher for people who have had a heart attack or stroke than for people who have not.
Controllable risk factors include:

• Smoking: Smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack than nonsmokers.

• High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure (140/90 or higher) weakens the heart, contributing to heart disease. Reducing your blood pressure in turn reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and blindness.

• High Cholesterol: Too much cholesterol in the blood can lead to clogged arteries and eventually to coronary heart disease. Opt for foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

• Weight: Being overweight increases your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. You can significantly reduce your risk by losing even 10 or 15 lbs.

• Diabetes: A person with diabetes has a two to three times higher risk of heart disease than a person who does not have diabetes. Maintain proper weight, keep active and eat a healthy diet, high in fiber and low in refined foods.

• Sedentary Life Style: Regular physical activity can cut your risk of heart disease in half and help prevent obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and high blood sugar. It will also improve your energy level and your ability to cope with stress.

Although you may have some or all of these risk factors, modifying them will reduce your overall risk of developing heart disease. If your risk factors warrant a closer look, you can either call your hospital directly or ask your doctor to set up a cardiac calcium scan appointment for you.

The test, currently available from University Medical Center at Princeton, costs $450 and is not yet covered by insurance. Test results are mailed to both you and your doctor, at which point you can discuss appropriate treatment options, if necessary.
To be heart smart, assess your risk factors, control those you can, keep an open dialogue with your doctor, and put medical advances to work for you.

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