The best way to help prevent a heart attack brought upon by coronary artery disease is to catch the disease early. But the development of heart disease can be a symptomless affair — meaning you may not notice you’re in trouble until it’s too late.
“Folks often don’t realize there’s a problem because coronary artery disease is usually asymptomatic until the narrowing of the blood vessels around your heart reaches a critical stage,” says Dr. Christopher Daub, a radiologist who practices at Tidelands Georgetown Memorial Hospital and Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital. “If you can catch it early and do something about it, whether it be lifestyle modifications or medical treatments, then obviously that’s much better than finding out by suffering a heart attack.”
One option to help catch the disease early is through Heart Scan coronary artery calcium scoring, which measures the amount of calcium in your coronary arteries. The amount of calcium in your coronary arteries can be used to predict if you are at a high risk for heart disease or a heart attack.
How it works
“Essentially, a calcium scoring scan is a CT scan of heart,” says Dr. Daub, who specializes in body imaging. “The scan acquires high-resolution images of the heart at rest based on electrocardiogram (EKG) gating. It shows the coronary arteries in great detail.”
Next, clinicians use a software program that can identify calcified coronary artery plaque using the scan of your heart. Coronary artery plaque, which is different than the plaque the dentist warns you about, is accumulated in a process called atherosclerosis. Over time, this process can lead to a blocked coronary artery and, subsequently, a heart attack.
Because atherosclerosis is generally considered nonreversible, it’s of the utmost importance to catch it early and prevent progression of the disease.
After processing your Heart Scan, the software will give you a “calcium score” that can be compared to people of similar age, ethnicity and gender. The higher your calcium score, the more likely you are at risk for underlying heart disease.
“For example, a score of over 400 would be quite high and it would signify a high likelihood of at least one significant coronary artery narrowing,” Dr. Daub says. “Someone with such a high level would want to follow up with a cardiologist for possible further testing and evaluation.”
Not for everyone
Heart scan coronary artery scoring is not for everyone and is not helpful for patients who are experiencing symptoms of heart disease.
“It’s for asymptomatic patients who are at intermediate risk of developing coronary artery disease and have no known heart disease at the time of the exam,” Dr. Daub says. “It doesn’t really benefit people who are symptomatic. People who are symptomatic — who have chest pain, angina or shortness of breath with exertion — need to seek immediate treatment for the condition.”
Dr. Daub generally suggests people in their early 50s consider this procedure. People who have a family history of heart disease or other risk factors can begin the conversation with their doctor as early as their 40s.
Risk factors include diabetes, hyperlipidemia, smoking, aging, obesity, a high-fat diet, sedentary lifestyle and hypertension.
Dr. Daub says patients appreciate the fact the test is completely noninvasive.
“The scan itself takes about 30 seconds,” Dr. Daub says. “Once it’s over with, you’ll be done and you can leave. There’s no dye. There’s no recovery time.”