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Cross-section illustration of an artery with plaque buildup in yellow and red blood cells passing through.
Cross-section illustration of an artery with plaque buildup in yellow and red blood cells passing through.

Do I Need a Coronary Calcium Scan?

Assessing Your Heart Health

While a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise and a balanced diet, are foundational for optimizing heart health and wellness, an in-depth assessment of your heart health, such as the coronary calcium scan, can help detect early signs of heart disease. This can put you on the path to earlier interventions and preventive lifestyle changes that can help stop heart disease from getting worse. While certain people may benefit from a coronary calcium scan, not everyone needs one.

Understanding the Coronary Calcium Scan

A coronary calcium scan, also known as coronary artery calcium (CAC) scoring or a heart scan, is a noninvasive imaging test that uses a CT scan. It provides valuable insights into the presence and extent of calcified plaque in the coronary arteries. Calcified plaque is a buildup of calcium deposits in the artery walls, which can cause arteries to narrow and harden, increasing the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. The scan requires no preparation and takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete.

The primary purpose of a coronary calcium scan is to evaluate your risk of developing coronary artery disease. By measuring the amount of calcified plaque in your heart or coronary arteries, the scan produces a CAC score, which can predict how likely you are to experience a heart attack. A higher CAC score indicates a greater risk of developing a heart attack, but medications can help lower your risk.

Who Should Consider a Coronary Calcium Scan?

“It is important to note that not everyone needs a coronary calcium scan,” explains Sadiya S. Khan, MD, a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine. “The decision to undergo a coronary calcium scan should be made in consultation with a healthcare professional.”

You may be a candidate for this diagnostic scan if:

  • You have risk factors: These include a family history of heart disease, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity or a sedentary lifestyle.
  • You are a middle-aged or older adult: Coronary calcium scans are particularly relevant for middle-aged and older adults, typically between the ages of 40 and 74. These age groups are more prone to developing heart disease and can benefit from early detection through the scan.
  • You have an uncertain risk assessment: In cases where traditional risk assessment tools, such as cardiac risk calculators or risk scores, produce inconclusive results or determine that you are at intermediate risk, a coronary calcium scan can provide a more accurate risk assessment.

Coronary Calcium Scan Benefits

"A coronary calcium scan can detect calcified plaque in the heart arteries even before symptoms appear, enabling early intervention and lifestyle modifications to prevent further progression of heart disease," says Dr. Khan.

If you are at intermediate risk, the scan can help determine if you need more aggressive preventive measures or lifestyle changes, including medication, diet adjustments or increased physical activity. Conversely, if you have a low CAC score, the scan can provide reassurance and potentially prevent unnecessary interventions or overtreatment.

It's important to note that a coronary calcium scan involves exposure to radiation. However, the radiation dose is relatively low and generally considered safe.

Preventing Calcium Buildup

To help prevent plaque buildup, you can:

Your physician may also recommend medications that lower your cholesterol and help prevent plaque buildup.

If you have concerns or believe you may benefit from a coronary calcium scan, consult with your physician. Prevention and early intervention are crucial for maintaining a healthy heart and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.