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February 28 2018

Calcium scoring screening detects early coronary artery disease

By William Burns, MD

Coronary artery calcium scoring is a technique for detecting and measuring plaque buildup in the walls of the coronary arteries. Physicians use calcium scoring screening to determine if an adult has coronary heart disease – before symptoms develop.

Plaque buildup can interfere with the flow of oxygen-rich blood. Blood clots can form, break off and stop the flow of blood to the heart, causing a heart attack, or to the brain, causing a stroke.

Calcium scoring is based on the results of a CT scan. Cross-sectional images from the scan are viewed by a specialist for signs of coronary artery disease.

The scan shows whether calcified or hardened plaque is present and, if so, how extensive it is. The total amount of buildup is calculated using a scoring system. The scoring system allows each patient’s results to be compared with other patients of the same age in a large database.

A score of zero means that no plaque is present. A composite score of less than 100 indicates a low risk for a coronary artery blockage. A composite score between 100 and 400 indicates moderate risk for blockage. A score of 400 or higher indicates a high risk for artery blockage and a potential heart event.

Screening for patients at risk

Calcium scoring is an early screening tool for people who are at risk for coronary heart disease and have not had a heart procedure. A 50-year-old with a family history of coronary heart disease and a concern about a genetic predisposition for the disease could be considered an appropriate candidate for calcium scoring.

A CT scan takes only a few minutes to conduct. It is noninvasive, does not require an injection, is not painful and has no immediate side effects. The radiation risk is similar to that of a mammogram.

The test results help physicians determine whether a patient needs to manage cholesterol with aspirin or medication in addition to good exercise, nutrition and sleep habits. A doctor may order blood tests, an exercise “stress” test, electrocardiogram, chest X-ray or other testing to obtain additional diagnostic information, if needed, and help develop a multifaceted treatment plan.

The scan is very sensitive to the presence of calcified plaque, which makes it highly accurate.  Patients do not need to undergo additional or regular calcium scoring screenings.

Risk factors and disease prevention

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death. It accounts for more than 800,000 deaths in the U.S. each year: about one in three. Ninety-two million American adults have some form of cardiovascular disease or have been impacted by the effects of stroke.

Most people can prevent heart disease. Common risk factors include:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Family history

You can decrease your risks by:

  • Exercising more
  • Avoiding foods and beverages that are high in calories, carbohydrates, salt, sugar and saturated fat (such as fried food, red meat and full-fat dairy products)
  • Avoiding packaged food, fast foods, soda and eating on the go
  • Eating more vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts and whole grains
  • Losing weight
  • Quitting tobacco products
  • Moderating alcohol intake
  • Reducing stress
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Scheduling health checkups
  • Getting recommended blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar screening tests

If you are at risk for coronary artery disease, calcium scoring offers a way for you and your doctor to learn about your heart health and take steps toward preventing a life-altering heart event or stroke. By limiting coronary plaque buildup, you can help improve your well-being and longevity.  

Consult with your physician about screening for coronary heart disease. Calcium scoring is not covered by most health insurance plans but has become quite affordable – in many cases it is available for less than $100.

William Burns, MD, is an interventional cardiologist with ProHealth Heart & Vascular Care. He sees patients in Mukwonago, Oconomowoc and Waukesha. The heart and vascular team can be reached at 262-928-8880.

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For more than a century, ProHealth Care has been the health care leader in Waukesha County and surrounding areas, providing outstanding care across a full spectrum of services. The people of ProHealth Care strive to continuously improve the health and well-being of the community by combining skill, compassion and innovation. The ProHealth family includes ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Rehabilitation Hospital of Wisconsin, ProHealth Medical Group, the UW Cancer Center at ProHealth Care, Moreland Surgery Center, ProHealth AngelsGrace Hospice, ProHealth Home Care, ProHealth West Wood Health & Fitness Center and ProHealth Regency Senior Communities. Learn more at ProHealthCare.org.