Do I need a Heart Scan?

Aging is a natural process for all of us that can bring many health and physical changes. As we age, it’s important to be mindful of what screenings are out there, especially for our hearts. Getting screened for heart disease is just as important as other preventative health screenings, like breast or colon.

Heart Hospital of New Mexico at Lovelace Medical Center, in conjunction with New Mexico Heart Institute, offers coronary artery calcium scoring, also known as the Heart Scan. The test detects calcified plaque in a patient’s coronary arteries, the vessels that carry blood to the heart muscle.  

Calcified plaque can grow slowly over time as cholesterol builds up inside the walls of the heart arteries. Known as “hardening of the arteries,” calcified plaque signals the presence of coronary artery disease, which increases the risk of heart attacks. 

The Heart Scan is the only screening test available that can accurately detect the presence of heart disease. So who needs to know about the Heart Scan?

The magic number

“I recommend that everyone at age 50 get a Heart Scan because it is the most accurate screening tool we have for identifying heart disease,” explains Chief Medical Officer of New Mexico Heart Institute, Brendan J. Cavanaugh, M.D., FACC.

This test is geared towards people who don’t have symptoms, similar to an annual mammogram or colonoscopy. “The vast majority of those diagnosed with breast cancer or colon cancer do not have symptoms,” says Dr. Cavanaugh. “Similarly, this test can discover heart disease in folks who otherwise didn’t know they have it.”

The Heart Scan is a quick and easy procedure that takes no more than 15 minutes. “The actual Heart Scan itself takes about 5 or 6 seconds to get the data we need,” says Dr. Cavanaugh.

The test requires no dye, needles or medication. According to Dr. Cavanaugh, radiation exposure is the same as a mammogram, which is low.

Patients receive their Heart Scan results within 24 hours. “Every scan is read by a cardiologist then over-read by a radiologist to look at lung windows and soft tissues around the heart,” explains Dr. Cavanaugh. “The Heart Scan doesn’t just look at heart arteries, we’re looking at the aorta and other cardiac structures including lungs.” The Heart Scan is not a complete lung scan. The CT scan for lung cancer is a more comprehensive look at the lungs.

What your score means

In a perfect world, everyone would have a negative coronary artery calcium score.

“A score of zero is the most powerful information we can give someone because it means his or her risk of having a life-altering cardiac event is essentially zero at five years,” shares Dr. Cavanaugh. “In my fifteen years of heart scanning, I have never seen a patient with a score of zero have a cardiac event.”

Low risk: 0-100

Moderate risk: 100-300

High risk: 300+

“A score of anything infers an increased risk of a cardiac event,” explains Dr. Cavanaugh. “The numbers themselves can be confusing for patients, so that’s why it’s important to discuss your score with a cardiologist.”

Dr. Cavanaugh refers to the Heart Scan as only a “piece of the puzzle” when it comes to determining the next steps of a patient’s heart health journey. Including the calcium score, the physician will weigh in a patient’s risk factors such as family history, smoking and diabetes before coming up with an appropriate plan of action.

“Heart disease is a completely silent killer, whether you are a man or woman,” says Dr. Cavanaugh. “Once you hit 50 and haven’t seen a cardiologist, you should. The incidence of heart disease in this country is rapidly increasing year after year. Luckily, dying from heart disease is going down because we are doing a better job of identifying patients with calcium scores before they have a life-altering heart event.”

Talk to your primary care provider to see if the Heart Scan is right for you. To make an appointment with a New Mexico Heart Institute/Lovelace Medical Group provider, call 505.841.1000.