According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 735,000 Americans have a heart attack every year and for 525,000 of them, it’s their first heart attack.

Of those individuals who experience sudden death from heart attack, many were not experiencing symptoms and may not have been considered at high risk. Now, with calcium scoring, radiologists can determine your risk of heart attack based on the amount of calcium present in your artery walls.

What is calcium scoring and why do I need it?

Calcium scoring is a noninvasive CT scan that measures calcium build-up in your artery walls.

“The CT scans your heart and then we use a program to see if there is calcium present,” Johnathan Hadley, M.D., a board-certified radiologist at EAMC explained. “From there, we can determine a score based on our findings. In addition to looking at your heart, we also look at your lungs and upper abdomen to check for any abnormalities. The test itself only takes a few minutes and the exposure to radiation is minimal.”

Dr. Hadley explained that the only normal calcium score is zero.

“Healthy individuals should have no calcium in their heart,” Dr. Hadley noted. “If you have any calcium in your heart; you have coronary disease. Unlike guessing what your risk of heart disease is based on family history or symptoms, by looking at your heart for the presence of calcium, we can tell you more definitively that you are at risk for heart attack.

"Based on your calcium score (the amount of calcium found in your system), we can determine whether you are low, intermediate or high risk for a future heart attack.

“For years, doctors have been relying on a list of risk factors that can increase the development of heart disease: smoking, being overweight, having high cholesterol, having high blood pressure or being diabetic,” Dr. Hadley said.  “Based on those findings you would be classified as low, intermediate, or high risk for heart attack. Unfortunately, most of the people who go on to have heart attacks are actually the people who are in the intermediate risk group.

"However, with calcium scoring, that is not the case," Dr. Hadley said. "The risk of heart attack for individuals who score low or intermediate calcium scores is very low compared to those who are in the high risk group. Almost 90 percent of all heart events happen to the high-risk group, which allows us to identify people who actually need to be monitored and treated.”

Am I a candidate for calcium screening?

Heart disease is prevalent in Alabama, which is why calcium screening is so important. Doctors recommend that if you are otherwise healthy, a calcium screening test should be performed at age 40 for men and 45 for women. If your score is zero, generally, you do not need to be tested again for five years.

“Even for people who have good health, this is a safe, noninvasive test (much like a screening mammogram) that can provide more information about your heart health,” Dr. Hadley stated.

“This is a study that is underutilized. Calcium scoring is valuable because it is a very good reflection of actual risk for the individual," Dr. Hadley said. "Sometimes, even if you have a normal stress test, your calcium score could determine that you are at high risk for heart attack. It’s another piece of information that can provide your doctor a more complete picture of your actual risk.”

Auburn Diagnostic Imaging (ADI), a service of EAMC, is equipped with the most advanced digital technology and staffed with board-certified radiologists to perform calcium screening tests.

This test is not covered by insurance in most states, including Alabama and Georgia. However, ADI is offering calcium scoring tests at 50 percent off for any screenings scheduled between Sept. 1-30. ADI also offers same-day or next-day appointments.

Those with chest pain, known heart disease, previous angioplasty/stent or heart surgery are not good candidates and do not qualify for this test. See the advertisement with this article or more information.

Common misconceptions about calcium screenings:

 According to Justin Phillpott, M.D., radiologist at EAMC, there are a few common misconceptions about calcium screening tests.

“Patients who are considering calcium screening should understand that it is a minimally invasive test," Dr. Phillpott said. "There are no contrast materials like there are in some imaging procedures, so there are no needles involved or risk of an allergy to the contrast material. The test only takes about five minutes and the exposure to radiation is very small. The test also doesn’t cause as much claustrophobia as some tests because patients are not as constricted during the test.”

Dr. Phillpott explained that even if you test negative for calcium, there is still some risk for heart disease, but it is a very low risk.

“Calcium scoring is a great screening test, but some patients may think that this test allows doctors to see narrowing of blood vessels—it does not,” Dr. Phillpott said. “Patients could test negative for calcium and still have some narrowing of vessels. Calcium scoring is helpful because it provides patients with a risk percentage based on the amount of calcium present, and cardiologists can then use that information to make further recommendations.”

In February, Auburn Diagnostic Imaging held a promotion for calcium screening, and of those who were tested, 48 percent presented with calcium in their heart.

“When we offered calcium screening at a discounted rate in February, nearly half of everyone we tested had calcium present,” Melinda Johnson, director of Radiology at EAMC said.

“Based on those findings, our radiologists were able to recommend patients to a cardiologist," Johnson said. "By offering these screenings at a lower price during promotional months, our goals is to raise awareness about the value of this screening, and our hope is to positively intervene in as many lives as we can, for those who may be unsuspecting that they are at serious risk of heart disease.”

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