February 4th, 2009
12:55 PM ET

High tech heart test makes headlines

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

There were headlines this morning about CT scans for your heart.  An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the 64-slice cardiac computed tomography (CT) angiography (CCTA) of the heart has an average of 600 times the radiation of a single chest X-ray – that was the takeaway message. Pretty scary to read that, no doubt. In full disclosure, I had one of these scans as part of a story I did a few years back and it was interesting to see 3-D pictures of my heart. Take a look.

Still, I wanted to put a couple of things in context. It’s true that if you have had a single one of these scans, you are probably not going to get cancer as a result, which seems to be the biggest concern. But, if you are being asked to get multiple scans, it’s worth asking your doctor if they are really necessary and to balance the risks. Furthermore, because these scans have been more routinely used only since 2004, the data are pretty minimal on whether they have much effect on your outcome from heart disease.

I think there is a larger issue here. What is the right screening for you and should the costs be through the roof? A CT like this one is often not covered by insurance and the cost is between $800 and $1,200 dollars. Well, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which studies this sort of thing based on cost and effectiveness, getting a simple cholesterol check around age 35 is a good idea and approximately every five years after that, depending on what the tests show. Also, a baseline EKG (electrocardiogram –to look at the electrical conduction of your heart) around age 40 can be helpful. To be sure, they recommend a more advanced test if you have heart disease or are having symptoms, such as chest pain.

Now, despite all these screening tests, if you are pretty healthy, ironically, the advice will most likely be the same. Eat right, including less fat in your diet. Don’t smoke and try to get exercise. Yes, even will all these fancy tests, the basics still apply.

So, how good are you at getting your recommended screening tests and would you pay the extra money for a CT scan to get more information?

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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.