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What a Coronary Calcium Test Can Tell You About Your Heart Health

If you’re like most people, you want to keep your heart healthy. And even if you’re choosing a nutritious diet, exercising, managing stress and watching your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, it’s hard to know exactly how healthy your heart is.

One tool that may give you some insight into the health of your heart is a coronary artery calcium test, sometimes called a cardiac CT scan for calcium scoring. “A coronary artery calcium score is a specialized CT scan for the arteries of the heart,” said Sahil Agrawal, MD, an interventional cardiologist with Banner Health.

The test looks for calcium deposits or plaques in your heart’s arteries. These deposits, which build up over time, can be a sign that you are developing heart disease.

A coronary calcium test can detect heart disease early, allowing you to take steps to keep it from getting worse in a timely manner and help prevent heart attacks.

Who needs a coronary calcium test?

Your provider may recommend a coronary calcium test if you have risk factors for heart disease, such as:

“Calcium scoring is for people who have risk factors but not symptoms of heart disease. It should not be done if you are experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath or other cardiac symptoms,” Dr. Agrawal said. 

Health insurance often covers the cost of a coronary calcium test if you have certain risk factors. You’ll want to check with your insurance company to know what coverage your plan includes. 

What it’s like to have a coronary calcium test

“A calcium score is a quick outpatient test that takes about ten to 15 minutes for most people,” Dr. Agrawal said. 

The test uses X-rays to detect calcium in the arteries of the heart with the help of a CT scan machine. 

They may ask you to fast for a few hours before the test, so food doesn’t interfere with the results. On the day of the test, wear comfortable clothing without any metal buttons or zippers.

The technician will place electrodes on your chest so an electrocardiogram (EKG) can monitor your heart’s electrical activity. You’ll lie on your back on a table that slides into a CT scanner. You might have to hold your breath briefly, so the images are clear.

The scanner takes multiple images of your heart. No needles or catheters are involved, and there’s no discomfort. You can get back to your regular activities right after the test.

While there’s some radiation exposure in a coronary calcium test, it’s a small amount – similar to a chest X-ray or a mammogram. The value of the information you get from the test likely outweighs any risk from radiation. You generally only need to have the test once.

What your coronary calcium score means

“A calcium score measures the amount and density of calcium and cholesterol ‘plaque’ build-up in the walls of your heart arteries (a condition called atherosclerosis). Atherosclerosis in the heart arteries causes blockages, which can lead to heart attacks,” Dr. Agrawal said.

A lower score means you may be less likely to have heart disease, while a higher score may mean you are more likely to have it.

  • Low risk/0 to 100: A score of 0 means you have no (or almost no) detectable plaque. “A calcium score of 0 is ideal and predicts a very low risk of heart attack over the next several years,” Dr. Agrawal said. A score of 1 to 100 is considered mild plaque buildup, and you’re at low risk of heart disease.
  • Moderate risk/101 to 400: You have moderate plaque and a moderate risk of heart disease. 
  • High risk/401 or higher: You have a lot of calcified plaque and a higher risk of heart disease. Your health care provider may want to monitor you closely and take steps to prevent heart problems.

It’s important to know that while this test gives you valuable information, it can’t detect certain forms of coronary disease. “It isn’t absolute in predicting your risk for a heart attack,” Dr. Agrawal said.

What happens next?

After your test, your provider will review your results with you and explain what they mean for your heart health. Based on your results, other risk factors and overall health, your provider might recommend:

  • Eating more fiber and less saturated fat and sodium.
  • Medication to help control cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
  • Getting regular exercise that works for your health and fitness level.
  • Stress management such as mindfulness, meditation or relaxation techniques. 
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Other tests to get a better sense of your risk and check your blood flow, such as a stress test or coronary angiogram.

Ask any questions you have and share your concerns with your provider. Work together to come up with a plan to take care of your heart in ways that work with your lifestyle and preferences.

The bottom line

If you have risk factors for heart disease, your provider might recommend a coronary calcium test. This painless CT scan takes just ten to 15 minutes and can show part of your risk for heart disease. With the results, you can work with your provider to take steps to reduce your risk.

Talk to your provider or an expert at Banner Health to see if a coronary calcium test is right for you.

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