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How calcium helps determine heart disease risk

This content is sponsored by MedStar Washington Hospital Center

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one test can help determine if heart ailments could be in a patient’s future.

Artery buildups can be a warning sign of heart disease or a heart attack, and one common type of buildup is calcium, said Dr. Allen Taylor, chair of cardiology at the MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. A coronary calcium score is a type of heart scan that detects calcium and calculates a patient’s risk for coronary artery disease. “The important thing about calcium scoring is that it tells us more of the story. It adds to what we already know about the patient and determines who really is at risk for heart disease,” Dr. Taylor said.

The scan detects the amount of calcium deposits in the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply oxygen to the heart. Using that, doctors can identify heart disease before patients have any signs or symptoms.

The scan is very simple, inexpensive, has very low doses of radiation and requires neither needles nor medications, Dr. Taylor said. For the test, a patient lies down for a CT scan and holds their breath for about-15 second increments while it captures images of the heart and arteries.

“They say a picture says a thousand words — that’s the case with this. By doing this very simple test you can get a complete view of heart risk within five minutes and it’s something no other test can provide,” Dr. Taylor said.

The scan is appropriate for most people in their 50’s to 60’s, a time when heart disease risk factors and heart health problems become more frequent. People with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or smokers may have a faster rate of calcium buildup, so it’s also beneficial for those people to undergo the test.

“If you find calcium, what does it mean? It means you’re at an increased risk for heart disease. By the converse, if you don’t find calcium, it means you’re at low risk for heart disease. So it puts a lot of clarity on who is and who is not at risk,” Dr. Taylor said.

The test results can help patients make lifestyle changes to improve their heart health, Dr. Taylor said. Diet, exercise, rest, avoiding stress and adopting other healthy habits can help patients reduce their heart disease risk.

Calcium in the arteries can’t be removed once it’s there, but acknowledging the presence of calcium can help doctors guide patients to auspicious medications and life choices.

“When people get this test, they are more likely to get appropriate cholesterol medication. For example, they are more likely to take appropriate measures like taking an Aspirin and they are also more likely to make other more healthy lifestyle choices,” Dr. Taylor said.

MedStar Washington Hospital Center has been performing these scans longer than any other facility, Dr. Taylor said.

“We so strongly believe that this is the best test that a patient age 50 and above could take to really know their heart risk that we provide this at a very low cost,” he said. “So we believe in the test, we think it’s very important and we provide that care so that no patient shouldn’t have the benefit of a coronary calcium scan.”

For more insights from Dr. Taylor, including his podcast on coronary calcium scoring, click here.