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Health Watch: Coronary Calcium Scores can provide peace-of-mind, or a wake-up call

HARTFORD -- One of the challenges of treating and preventing heart disease is that everything is hidden away. Heart attacks can be strike without warning, because the arterial plaques that cause them can form and break off without any symptoms beforehand.

Judging heart attack risk was, and for the most part is, done indirectly, by assessing a patient according to risk factors, like age, diet, exercise and family history. However, there exists a test that gives more objective data, and in certain cases, can almost rule out the possibility of a heart attack for a five to fifteen year stretch. It’s called a coronary calcium test.

“Instead of just speculating or calculating somebody’s risk, that gives you objective data that yes, you have the disease (atherosclerosis) or you don’t have the disease,” said Dr. Waseem Chaudhry, a preventative cardiologist with Hartford Healthcare. The test is tone using a CT scan.

“You objectively look at coronary arteries without having to put in needles or catheters in somebody’s body,” said Dr. Chaudhry.

The test quantifies the most dangerous types of plaques – calcified plaques – by detecting the calcium in them.

“So, if you have zero coronary calcium, what they means is you have five to ten … up to fifteen years [of a] heart-attack free warranty really, up to 95 percent of the time. There’s only a five percent chance that you can have a soft plaque that’s not calcified yet.”

The test isn’t for everyone – it’s still not recommended for people who don’t have risk factors, because even the small amount of radiation received while undergoing the test is not considered to be worth it just to have the test confirm that a patient is not at immediate risk. However, for otherwise healthy people who do have a family history, a test score of zero can be immensely relieving news. Also, if the test does return a concerning level of calcium, Dr. Chaudhry said that objective evidence can be more motivating than a general warning about risk.

“If you have the disease, anything less than a score of zero, I’d put that person on a statin medicine and also implement all the pretty much preventative measures to prevent a heart attack from happening in them or from having atherosclerosis,” said Dr. Chaudhry.

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