What are CT Heart Scans and why are they important?
Heart health is something you can take into your own hands, as there are many modifiable risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. If you smoke, are overweight or obese, lead a sedentary lifestyle, or have high levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar, you’re more at risk for a cardiovascular event than someone who mitigates these factors.
One way to identify potential risk of a cardiovascular event is by undergoing a CT heart scan. “The key thing to keep in mind is that for most patients we see for CT, the reason to get the scan is if you have no symptoms but you do have some of these risk factors,” states Dr. Amit Zachariah, an Interventional Cardiologist at the Riverside Heart and Vascular Institute. “Even intermediate- to low-risk patients can develop heart attacks and strokes, and those patients need to be risk stratified even further. The CT heart scan is the best tool to do that.”
Scoring the Scan
The CT heart scan is an x-ray-based test that determines if calcification is present in the arteries that supply blood to the heart—the coronary arteries. The heart is a muscle, and just like any other muscle it needs blood supplied to it.
“The plaques we see can have different characteristics. Calcified plaque has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular outcomes that are negative,” explains Dr. Zachariah. “By looking at how much calcified plaque there is, we can determine if a patient is at a higher risk for having those bad outcomes.”
Severity is based on a scale of zero to greater than 400. Zero to 100 indicates low risk, 100 to 400 represents moderate risk, and greater than 400 puts one in the category of high risk. For those in the low to moderate range, addressing lifestyle habits—things like increasing your level of exercise or adjusting your diet—may be all that’s necessary to bring down their score.
Dr. Zachariah advises individuals who score above 400 to visit with their physician or cardiologist and consider undergoing additional noninvasive testing, typically beginning with a stress test. “The other option if you have a very high score is to go straight to an angiogram, where we look at the arteries supplying blood to the heart and use dye to see if any blockages are present,” he adds.
Who Is the Best Candidate?
Guidelines suggest that the best candidates for a CT heart scan include being a man over age 45 or a woman over 55, having a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or obesity, or lacking in regular physical activity.
As with any health condition, the sooner you can start to address it, the better. This screening tool is a great way to catch a potential cardiovascular issue before it turns devastating—and its quick, minimally invasive nature makes it a fairly simple way for patients to keep tabs on their heart health. “The whole test takes about 15 to 20 minutes, and there’s very minimal radiation. It’s straightforward and easy to do,” assures Dr. Zachariah.