Quick scan for calcium can help predict heart attack

Medical Watch

Predicting a heart attack is both possible and affordable even without symptoms.

It’s a quick scan for calcium. The inexpensive test doctors said can help motivate patients to make important lifestyle changes. That’s the idea behind a calcium score.

Dr Amit Pursnani is a cardiologist at NorthShore University HealhtSystem.

“What we’re trying to detect is the calcium that is within the coronary arteries of the heart,” Pursnani said.

Bob Carrane invited WGN’s Medical Watch team along during a recent scan. The scan is a low-dose CT of the chest designed to look inside the coronary arteries. The 58-year-old’s family history with cardiovascular disease runs deep. His grandfather had a heart attack at 50 and his father at 60.

“I would much rather know than live in this state of denial that I don’t have this condition,” he said.

The more calcified plaque present, the more overall non-calcified plaque a person has  – and that’s the dangerous type.

“The non-calcified plaque is the plaque when you have a heart attack,” Pursnani said. “The plaque can rupture, a clot can form on top of it and block a vessel.”

“It’s always in the back of my head but it’s like I got to get on this,” Carrane said.

He’s already made significant lifestyle changes. He dropped weight and traded a stressful career for a job at Trader Joe’s.

“My job entailed lots of travel lots of stress, lots of deadlines and I got to the point where I hit a wall and I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “It was affecting my health and my family. … I’m able to walk to work now the job that I have now entails being active.”

Bob Carrane

After the scan, Pursnani read Carrane’s results that showed calcium in one of the coronary arteries and the circumflex artery.

“The higher the calcium score, the higher the cardiovascular event rate,” Pursnani said. “So patients who have a calcium score of zero have low risk of having a heart attack over the next 10 years. Patients who have a score of 100 have a much higher risk. Patients who have over 400 have an even higher risk. This is something (that is) not going to be great news for him to hear. His score is this high but at least he can use this information to try to make a difference going forward.”

Carrane said he saw it coming.

“He has the ability to reduce his risk of a cardiovascular event over the next 10 years by really employing the lifestyle changes, reducing his cholesterol, getting him in an ideal weight category, avoiding smoking,” Pursnani said.

“I’m not afraid. I’m not freaked out by any of this,” Carrane  said. “It’s really the resolve to get this taken care of or at least manage it the best I can.”

The coronary calcium scan costs about 50 dollars and is designed for asymptomatic patients worried about cardiovascular risk. More information on NorthShore’s website.

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