The score that counts

Published 11:20 am Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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Many people have no idea they are about to have a heart attack or a stroke until it happens; for some, that unexpected event will kill them. My dad was the picture of health one moment; the next, he was being rushed to emergency cardiac cath and then triple bypass surgery even though he had never had a single chest pain. But what if there was a quick, painless, and affordable test that could predict your likelihood of having a cardiac event?

Remember that fancy CT scanner we purchased last year with your help? 

Our GE Revolution Elite CT is the best-in-class computed tomography platform and is tops in the world. And one test that it excels at is the heart scan (calcium score test). The heart scan is a CT scan that detects the amount of calcium in your coronary arteries. The value of the screening is that it helps to determine if you need preventative treatment to ward off a heart attack or stroke. This test at St. Luke’s provides much greater detail and accuracy and is most helpful to guide treatment for people who have a low to moderate risk of heart disease. In less than two seconds, our scanner takes two hundred-fifty multi-slices that combine to form sixty-four images. Now that’s impressive.

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A heart scan produces specialized X-ray imaging of your heart to help your doctor measure calcium-containing plaque in your arteries. Plaque buildup inside the arteries of your heart can restrict blood flow to your heart muscles. By measuring calcified plaque, your doctor can identify possible coronary artery disease before you have signs and symptoms.

Gradually developing, plaque comprises fats, calcium, cholesterol, and other elements in the blood. In advanced stages, these deposits restrict oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart; worse, they can burst and trigger a blood clot.

In addition to the uncompromised image quality, our scanner is a “low-dose” CT providing about the same amount of radiation you’ll receive naturally in a year. You’ll lie on your back on a movable table, and a technician will attach electrodes to your chest, which connect to a recording instrument that coordinates the X-ray timing between heartbeats. The setup for the test takes about five to seven minutes, and the actual scan lasts less than two seconds! And best of all, you can return to normal activities immediately after the test. 

You will receive an Agatston score reflecting the total calcium deposit area and density. If no calcium is detected, you’ll receive a score of zero, suggesting a low risk of a future heart attack. A score of one hundred to three hundred indicates a high risk of a heart attack over the next five years. Any score over three hundred indicates severe disease and risk of a cardiac event. In addition to the Agatson score, you will receive a percentile score to show how you compare with others of your age and gender.

With the heart scan results, your doctor will review the test results to determine a treatment plan — medication or lifestyle changes — to reduce your risk of heart-related issues. It’s essential to know the result of a heart scan isn’t a single predictor of your overall heart disease. The information from the scan is just one part of your health history and may require additional consideration.

Please discuss this test with your primary care provider to determine if it may be valuable to managing your health. The exam is offered for a cash price of $99 as most insurances do not cover.

The Foundation for St. Luke’s Hospital has received grant funding from Carolina Foothills Foundation to provide free calcium scoring exams for Polk or Rutherford County uninsured residents. You just need your primary care provider to send the hospital an order for the exam and inform the hospital scheduler that you qualify for the free exam.