Coronary heart disease is a leading cause of heart attack in the United States. To prevent it, doctors are now taking a new interest in something they always knew was there.
Stewart Phinizy is a real estate shark. In the business for 45 years, he knows all there is to know about selling, but it was the state of his health that came as a surprise.
"I never thought that I had any issues with my health," said Phinizy.
But there was an issue, his arteries.
"They said looks like you have some blockage," Phinizy explained. "I wasn’t feeling bad, this is the scary part, I wasn’t really feeling bad."
Cardiologist Dr. Sheldon Litwin says that’s not uncommon.
"A heart attack can be the first symptom in somebody that didn’t have any warning signs before it," said Litwin, who is the Chief of cardiology at Georgia Health Sciences University.
That’s why he says getting your calcium score checked is so important.
"Plaque is usually composed of cholesterol but there are also some components, some pieces of calcium that often develop within those plaques," Litwin explained.
Like cholesterol and fat, calcium can build up on the arteries and reduce blood flow to the heart. Traditional testing like stress tests, require severe blockage to come out positive, but the calcium score test allows doctors to detect plaque in the vessels at a very early stage. The non-invasive five-minute test uses a CT scan to better estimate a patient’s heart attack risk and gauges the benefit of certain heart treatments, like statins.
A new study in the Lancet found patients who had no symptoms of heart disease but did have a buildup of calcium (even those with low cholesterol) had twice the risk for heart attack or stroke and four times the risk for heart disease than those with a calcium score of zero.
"Somebody who has a calcium score of zero, the chance over the next 5 years of having a heart attack is well under 1% probably less than half of 1%," Litwin said.
While a normal calcium score is 200, Litwin says depending on your age, a score of 100 could be alarming. He believes this test could ultimately save lives.
"It’s going to be unavoidable as we age, but the goal is to slow the process down as much as we can," Litwin said.
As for Phinizy, he had a score of 125 and needed surgery.
"I was expecting to have one stent at my age and I have three," said Phinizy.
The test is recommended for men over 45 and women over 55. Litwin says the best way to avoid a high score is to maintain a normal body weight and watch your salt intake.