Am I at Risk for Heart Disease?

February 1, 2012

Article by Donna Kennedy, Ph.D. and Dr. John McElligott

Everyone knows you’re at risk for heart disease if you’re overweight, if you smoke, if you have a family history, etc.  But did you know there is a simple test that will tell you your risk?  The test is a heart scan, which gives you a number called a calcium score (sometimes also referred to as Agatston Score).  The calcium score is based on the total amount of plaque in your coronary arteries (these are the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart; see picture below).  Having plaque in these arteries shows that you may have coronary artery disease, which is the leading cause of heart attacks.  The higher your calcium score, the more plaque you have in your arteries and the greater your risk. You can use these numbers as a guideline for risk:











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Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), getting your Calcium Score may be helpful for determining whether you need to take action to prevent a heart attack within 3-5 years if you are of intermediate risk (10-20%).  The AHA does not recommend this test if you are at low (<10%) or high risk (>20%; because you and your doctor already know your risk factors and should be taking steps toward prevention) of heart disease.  You can assess your risk online with the AHA risk calculator (; however, you will need to know your blood pressure, cholesterol level, HDL and LDL cholesterol numbers, and your fasting blood sugar.

What’s next?  After your scan, your doctor will discuss your results and risk of heart disease.  If you have very few calcium deposits (i.e., plaque), you will not need another scan for at least 5 years.  But if you do have plaque buildup, it may be recommended that you repeat the scan in the next 2-5 years, depending on your other risk factors.

Things to remember:  You can dramatically decrease the likelihood of a heart attack, even with a very high calcium score, by immediately beginning an aggressive prevention program.


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