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.”

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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.