A little-known test can detect heart-attack risk early

Coronary heart disease is a leading cause of heart attacks in the United States. To prevent it, doctors are now taking a new interest in something they always knew was there.

Stewart Phinizy is a real estate shark. But it was the state of his health that came as a surprise.

"Never thought that I had any issues with my health," he said.

But there was an issue, his arteries.

"They said ‘looks like you have some blockage’. I wasn't feeling bad, this is the scary part," said Phinizy.

Cardiologist doctor Sheldon Litwin of Georgia Health Sciences University says that it is not uncommon.

"A heart attack can be the first symptom in somebody that didn't have any warning signs before it," he said.

That's why he says getting your calcium score checked is so important.

Like cholesterol and fat, calcium can build up on the arteries and reduce blood flow to the heart. Traditional testing needs to show severe blockage in order to come out positive.

But Litwin says the calcium score test “allows us to detect these plaques in the vessels at a very early stage."

The non-invasive five-minute test uses a CT scan to better estimate a patient's heart attack risk and gauges the benefit of certain heart treatments, like statins. A new study found patients who had no symptoms of heart disease but did have a buildup of calcium, even those with low cholesterol, had twice the risk for heart attack or stroke and four times the risk for heart disease than those with a calcium score of zero.

"Somebody who has a calcium score of zero, the chance over the next five years of having a heart attack is well under 1% probably less than half of 1%," said Litwin.

As for Stewart, he had a score of 125 and needed surgery.

The test is recommended for men over 45 and women over 55. Doctor Litwin says the best way to avoid a high score is to maintain a normal body weight and watch your salt intake.

BACKGROUND: Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. CHD is also called coronary artery disease. Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the leading cause of death in the United States for men and women.

Coronary heart disease is caused by the buildup of plaque in the arteries to your heart. This may also be called hardening of the arteries.

* Fatty material and other substances form a plaque build-up on the walls of your coronary arteries. The coronary arteries bring blood and oxygen to your heart.

* This buildup causes the arteries to get narrow.

* As a result, blood flow to the heart can slow down or stop. (Source: PubMed Health)

CALCIFIED ARTERIES: According to the Framingham Heart Study of the National Institutes of Health, nearly half of all coronary deaths affect people with no history of heart disease symptoms. For them, a fatal heart attack or sudden death is the first and last hint of a problem. Calcium (along with fat and cholesterol) is a major part of plaque. Calcium scores range from zero (no detectable plaque) to several thousand (extensive plaque). (Source: The New York Times)

TESTING YOUR CALCIUM SCORE: The procedure saves lives by detecting heart disease early enough to allow intensive therapy -- with cholesterol-lowering drugs, for example -- to keep it in check. Studies have shown there are no ''false positive'' scans, because calcium deposits turn up in coronary arteries only when they are associated with plaque.

It is frequently done at commercial imaging centers using a CT scan. Any calcium deposits will stand out clearly. After the scan, software analyzes all the images and calculates a cumulative calcium score based on the size and density of the deposits. The results are immediately available. A study published in the Journal of Circulation found calcium scans to be a better predictor of coronary events than looking at conventional risk factors like blood pressure and cholesterol. ( Source: Journal of Circulation, The New York Times)

For More Information, Contact:

Amy Warlick
Georgia Health

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