Simple heart screen test helps spot disease, prevent attacks

By: Sanford Health News .

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Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., even though it’s preventable 80 percent of the time through techniques such as a heart screen that can detect problems or risk factors in their earliest, most treatable stages.

Heart screens, which also can determine the severity of heart disease, are usually done only once every 10 years. Physicians may recommend the screen for postmenopausal women and anyone ages 40 to 75 who has risk factors for heart disease but no symptoms. Those risk factors include abnormally high cholesterol, family history, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, being overweight or obese, or being physically inactive.

The noninvasive procedure involves putting small electrodes that are connected to an electrocardiogram machine on the patient’s chest. The person then lies on a table connected to a computed tomography, or CT, scanner, which is a large, doughnut-shaped machine. The table slides into the opening of the scanner, which moves around the body. Patients may be asked to hold their breath for 20 to 30 seconds while about 200 pictures are taken of the heart.

The scan and other parts of the test reveal a wealth of information, including blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, heart impulses and a Framingham score that estimates the risk of developing heart disease within the next 10 years. The test also produces a CT calcium score that analyzes the amount of plaque in a person’s coronary arteries. The higher the number, the more plaque:

  • 0: No plaque is present. Less than a 5 percent chance of having heart disease and a very low risk of heart attack.
  • 1-10: Small amount of plaque is present. Less than a 10 percent chance for heart disease and a low risk of heart attack. Now’s the time to quit smoking, eat better and exercise more.
  • 11-100: Plaque is present. The person has mild heart disease and is at a moderate risk of heart attack. They should talk with their physician about quitting smoking, eating better, exercising and taking other necessary treatments.
  • 101-400: A moderate amount of plaque is present. The person has heart disease and plaque may be blocking an artery. Their heart attack risk is moderate to high and the physician may want more tests and to start treatment.
  • Over 400: A large amount of plaque is present. It’s very likely that plaque is blocking an artery and the person’s heart attack risk is high. Their physician will want more tests and will start treatment.

While a heart screen is a simple way to understand the risk of heart disease, other lifestyle changes that can greatly help include quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet and being more active.