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A test that really is life or death

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Posted at 3:09 PM, Jul 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-16 17:09:07-04

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The following article is sponsored by University of Utah Health Care.

Forget the SATs. The number you get on your calcium score may be the most important result of your life.

Sure, college dreams are on the line when you pencil in those little bubbles, but the stakes are even higher when electrodes are placed on your chest during a CAC (coronary artery calcium) scan. This test answers a vital question: Do you have plaque clinging to the artery walls in your heart, a condition called atherosclerosis?

Yes, plaque. Sound familiar? We’ve all heard of the gunk that builds up on teeth, but instead of leading to tooth decay, plaque of the coronary variety — made up of calcium, cholesterol and white blood cells — can cause heart attack and stroke.

“When the plaque ruptures away from the artery wall and flaps into the main blood flow, all of a sudden you’ve got a clot — that’s the nature of a heart attack,” said John Ryan, M.D., a cardiologist with University of Utah Health Care.

In our teens and 20s, we’re unlikely to have much plaque in our coronary arteries. But after years of unhealthy eating, it builds up and becomes incredibly dangerous, Ryan said. It’s a problem worldwide, yet nowhere is the issue more of an it’s-time-to-make-drastic-changes emergency than in North America where heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in both men and women.

If you’re anxious about how your arteries are holding up, the peace of mind of a calcium score might do you good. A health care provider will use a low-radiation CT (or CAT) scan to take a peek at your arteries and give you a numbered score. The lower the score, the lower your risk of heart attack in the next 5-10 years.

“A normal score is zero,” Ryan said. “If there’s evidence of coronary artery calcification, your score could be 100, 200, 300, even in the thousands.”

If you receive a zero, it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. In North America, everyone should be on high alert, Ryan said. If you intend to keep your coveted score low, it’s vital to eat healthily, exercise, maintain a normal weight, and refrain from smoking, he said.

Any score above zero is worthy of concern. If you don’t ace your calcium test, your doctor can help you figure out the best approach to get yourself on track.

In many cases, an action plan may simply include adopting a healthier lifestyle. If your high score is accompanied by other risk factors, such as high cholesterol, diabetes and angina (a.k.a. chest pain), your doctor may suggest medication. In more severe cases, surgery to place a small tube called a stent into the artery may be necessary to keep blood flowing, Ryan said.

If you’re interested in learning your calcium score, Ryan said the first step is to prepare yourself for the unveiling of your results, no matter what they might reveal. What will you do with a positive score? How will you change if the score is worse than you expected? What fatty foods can you bid adieu to? What measures are you willing to take to rescue your heart from its collision course?

Simply hearing your calcium test results can give you the extra kick of motivation you might need.

“There’s no doubt a CAC test can be a wakeup call for some people,” Ryan said. “They see the number and realize they need to take their risk of coronary heart disease seriously.”

Would you like to find out your calcium score? Call 801-585-7676.