Could five minutes and a bit of radiation save your life?
The answer is a resounding YES.
I’ve used a widely available and inexpensive test to help save lives over the last several years – including my own. I’ll share more about that at the end of this article.
Here’s the how and why you need this test.
Many people have heart disease. This condition is known as Coronary artery disease (CAD) and is more common than you think. Unfortunately many don’t even know it. According to the CDC, about 735,000 Americans suffer heart attacks each year. About 610,000 people die every year from heart problems – 1 in 4 deaths in the US are due to this condition.
The frightening fact is that the first sign for about half of those having coronary artery disease is death. Sudden blockage of a heart artery starves the heart of oxygen. The heart beats erratically or ineffectively, and death can occur. In reality, many people do not have glaringly apparent symptoms of heart disease before something catastrophic happens.
Traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol, and diet are important, but they only tell part of the story. Genetics plays a significant role, and with the advent of personalized medicine and genetic testing, healthcare practitioners can deliver a more tailored approach to preventing health problems.
The coronary arteries are the blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood to the heart. These arteries can become narrowed or completely blocked – a term called coronary artery disease. The blockage caused by plaque is the result of a build-up of fat, calcium and other substances that can either narrow or completely close the arteries.
Symptoms of heart disease include:
Chest pain or pressure
Tightness in the chest, neck, jaw or arm
Chest pain radiating to the jaw, ear, shoulders or back
Shortness of breath
Worsening symptoms with activity, exertion, and sexual activity
Unfortunately, death can be the first sign for some with severe blockage of the heart arteries.
Simple Answer – Heart Scan
The heart scan test is a quick and painless way to assess the risk of a heart attack. The patient lies on a small table, has electrode pads attached to their chest to monitor the heart rate, and about five minutes later the test is complete.
A doctor then reviews the images and looks for calcium buildup in the heart arteries. The results provide a pretty good idea of the risk of having a heart attack. Calcium scores typically range from 0- 400 or over 400. A perfect score is zero meaning that no calcium is detected in the coronary arteries and the risk of having heart disease is <5%. Scores over 400 signify a severe problem and that a 90% chance exists that one or more of the heart arteries are blocked.
Armed with this information, your doctor can target recommendations to decrease your risk or recommend another intervention or procedure to treat coronary artery disease (CAD).
It’s important to know that this test is not used for people who already have heart disease, an abnormal heart scan result or who are at very high risk for heart disease. In these cases performing the heart scan would not provide any additional useful information.
Someone with marked calcium (bright white)
Even though I am a plant-based physician/chef and have competed in numerous triathlons, trail races, and marathons, my family history is not the greatest for longevity. Against the advice of my doctor, I fully embraced the role of a proactive patient and signed up for a heart scan. It was only $100 out of my pocket, and the piece of mind would be worth the cost.
The result was zero, and I was pleased as I walked out the clinic door. A few weeks later, the formal result arrived in the mail. I was tempted to file it away without opening, but a nagging voice told me otherwise.
The color drained from my face as I read the following:
Calcium score zero and minimal risk for heart disease, however, a large aneurysm involving the thoracic aorta is identified. This is a critical finding, and you are urged to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Fast forward a few months and I found myself being wheeled down the OR corridor at Mayo clinic for a life-changing operation. During this complicated surgery, my body and brain were cooled, and my heart stopped for over four hours. It took several more hours after the completion of the aortic replacement surgery to warm my body up enough to restore neurologic function.
The road to recovery was challenging, and I credit my wife, family, and friends for making it as smooth as possible. I created a free online course
helping others prepare for and recover from open heart surgery. It’s called Healing The Heart on Udemy.com.
I hope that armed with information about the heart scan, and you will talk to your doctor about scheduling this potentially lifesaving test. It’s quick, painless and inexpensive. Your family and loved ones will thank you.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
Wishing you the best of health.