Study: To predict heart attacks, use images
For his special on heart disease, Dr. Sanjay Gupta undergoes a coronary calcium scan like the ones reported on here. Tune in Sunday night to learn his results.
August 18th, 2011
06:36 PM ET

Study: To predict heart attacks, use images

Editor's note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta explores the signs, tests and lifestyle changes that could make cardiac problems a thing of the past on "The Last Heart Attack," Saturday, August 27,  8 and 11 p.m. ET.

Heart disease is the No. 1  killer in America, and the world.

Some people are at a very high risk of suffering a heart attack – those people may have high blood pressure or high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.  They also may be smokers or have a family history of heart disease.

Others are at extremely low risk – they’re young, athletic, eat healthy, and don’t have any of the risks above.

Will you have a heart attack? These tests can tell

But for all those millions of people at moderate risk, determining whether to take preventative medication just isn’t as clear as it could be, finds a new study published Thursday in the journal Lancet.

Coronary calcium scans – they’re not yet standard medical care, but they create images showing whether plaque has built up in the heart.

The dietary education of Bill Clinton

Plaque build up means the arteries have hardened, a condition called atherosclerosis, and are more susceptible to becoming blocked by a blood clot, causing a heart attack.

What your cholesterol numbers really mean

In a six-year study of 2,083 people with some heart disease risk factors, but normal levels of cholesterol, Dr. Michael Blaha, the study’s lead author, found that 95% of the heart-attack, stroke, and heart-related deaths occurred in people with some calcium buildup.

For every 24 people with high levels of coronary calcium buildup, prescribing a statin (cholesterol-lowering) medication would prevent one heart attack over five years, according to the study.

The research concludes that coronary calcium scans are a much better indicator of risk than the commonly used C-reactive protein levels, a measurement of inflammation.

“While not everyone needs a calcium scoring test,” says Blaha in a written statement, “we believe looking for calcification in coronary vessels in certain patients makes sense in order to predict who may benefit from statin therapy because the test gets right to the heart of the disease we want to treat.”

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. Sherry

    This might be a good way to start but it isn't always the best for diagnosis. I went to the ER with possible pneumonia, am healthy and exercise regularly. They did an EKG that showed a 'not normal' EKG. I was rushed to the scan that diagnosed extensive heart disease and 3 major arteries almost blocked, Told to begin preparing for at the very least stents and maybe open heart surgery probably immediately after cardiac cath. Woke up after the cath hearing that the test had extensively overblown what they saw on the scan. Cath findings only 20% narrowing in one minor heart vessel, nothing in the major arteries, and told that I had a better than average 55 yr old female heart! It might be a good first tool but in my case, totally wrong.

    August 19, 2011 at 07:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Phil

    My symptoms were limited to shortness of breath. Initially my doctor told me it was do to being overweight. To be safe they scheduled a thallium treadmill test. It showed nothing. Over a six month period I finally convinced my cardiologist to perform a cardiac cath. He told me I was wasting my money and nothing was wrong with my I heart – just lose weight. Well, I ended up with a triple bypass (had a widow maker) and a year later with two stents. I think for some people the treadmill is a waste of money and time. Although being an invasive test, the cardiac cath can save your life.

    August 19, 2011 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • bob

      First, shortness of breath should always be taken seriously, in shape or not. Second, in the six months that you waited you could have taken statins, changed your diet and exercise habits and may have been able to avoid the bypass. That said, shortness of breath and chest pain is the gold standard because if you don't have these you most likely will not have a stent – so why get a scan when you can just eat right and exercise in the first place? Why make the rest of us pay?

      August 19, 2011 at 11:31 | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      My heart disease is genetic. I was on a statin and my cholesterol levels were normal. My weight is not caused by overeating. I consume less than 1200 calories per day and avoid fried fatty foods. I also walk 3 miles every other day. Do some research...the healthcare cost to you is mainly driven by malpractice lawsuits,

      August 19, 2011 at 11:46 | Report abuse |
  3. Captain Gort

    These screenings are big business.
    I'd be VERY wary if I were you....

    August 19, 2011 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JeramieH

      Just because somebody makes money doing it, doesn't mean it's invalid.

      August 19, 2011 at 11:11 | Report abuse |
  4. Phil

    Every time I need a cardiac cath, the doctor always wants to perform a thallium treadmill test. I believe he does this to pay for his machine since it's in his office...as I stated before a complete waste of money and time for me.

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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.