The coronary calcium scan is a non-invasive way of screening for heart disease. It’s available to patients whose calcium levels are greater than 1.00 – or 1.5 – micrograms per decilitre. In Scotland, it can be ordered at the Royal Free in London or the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, but over in the UK, it is administered only by specialists at Glasgow Royal Infirmary (GNI).
If the patient has heart disease, his/her risk factors for a heart attack are likely to be exacerbated by the high levels of calcium in the arteries. If you are a risk group then the coronary calcium scan will only improve your understanding of the risk you have, and whether your doctor is right in trying to prevent a heart attack.
Consequently, if the patient is a risk group, this scan should be an alert to your doctors to reduce the risk by changing your lifestyle, adopting a healthier diet, reducing blood pressure, getting a better night’s sleep and taking regular exercise, regardless of whether you are willing or able to do so.
If the patient is already at risk of heart disease, however, the scan does not indicate whether they will benefit from lifestyle changes, or whether they are all on the right course, and therefore the scan simply provides them with an invaluable source of information. Patients are free to decide whether they want to have the scan if their GP or cardiologist recommends it, or whether they want to defer this as nothing should be read into the results.
The scan is a very sensitive test for the calcification of artery walls, and it will show if your cholesterol levels are too high. It will also show if your blood pressure is above the normal level and this is significant as heart disease may begin with high blood pressure. Because it can take two months for the scans to be clear, results can vary widely from one person to another and that’s why it is so important that patients discuss with their doctor their worries, lifestyle choices and future plans if they want to have the scan.
Taking the scan, however, does not mean you will be more prone to heart attack. The scan cannot predict when you will have a heart attack, and if your risk factors are above the guideline of one in four, you still have a heart attack – so taking the scan is not a magic bullet. The only safe place to be when having the scan is at your GP or cardiologist’s surgery.
This story was produced by Heart’s Heart Team to mark National Cardiac Screening Week. For more information on this topic and our work, please visit www.heart.co.uk