What is Heart Calcium Scoring

February 10, 2022

Memorial Staff

female patient getting heart scan in x-ray tube

With heart disease causing one in every four deaths of American adults, it couldn’t be more crucial to know how healthy our hearts are.

Fortunately, there is a quick and simple way to get a detailed look inside with a specialized heart scan known as a coronary calcium scoring CT scan.

This noninvasive procedure takes a series of X-ray images of the heart, looking for plaque inside the arteries. This makes it an excellent option for many patients to determine their risk of serious problems.

Scans are particularly useful for people who don’t necessarily have any heart-related symptoms, but who may be at increased risk for heart disease or other conditions.

Learning a patient’s calcium score can help tell whether they have heart disease, says Wayne Pollak, MD, a cardiologist at Memorial Cardiac and Vascular Institute.

“That knowledge is something that will change the management of the patient both from the patient's perspective and the physician’s perspective,” he says.

However, this scan isn’t for everyone. Here are some things to consider when deciding if you should talk to your doctor about getting a heart scan.

Why Calcium Scores Are Important

plaque calcification x-ray heart scan

The scan looks in the heart’s arteries for plaque, which is made up of materials like cholesterol, fats and calcium.

Once plaque is present, it can begin building up over time. This narrows the size of the artery’s opening and restricts oxygen-rich blood from flowing to the heart.

Restricted blood flow to the heart can cause blockages that put a patient at greater risk of severe issues, including heart disease or a heart attack.

In addition to restricting blood flow, plaque deposits can break open and form a clot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These clots can cause heart attacks, which happen in more than 800,000 Americans every year.

Getting a calcium score lets you detect these plaque build ups early, before they get worse. The earlier these buildups are detected, the sooner your doctor can prescribe medications or help suggest any lifestyle changes that may decrease your risk of heart problems down the line.

Coronary Artery Calcium Screening and Cardiac Stress Tests Explained

Wayne Pollak, MD, discusses how a Coronary Artery Calcium Screening can help determine the presence of coronary artery disease.

Who Should Get a Scan

Calcium scoring CT scans aren’t necessary for everyone. They’re recommended for those with an increased risk of heart disease or diabetes. Some of the factors considered in determining that risk include the following:

  • Family history of heart disease
  • Age
  • Diabetes
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Blood pressure levels
  • Lifestyle habits

Getting a scan does come with some risk because the CT scan produces some radiation. It’s about the same amount as 10 X-rays’ worth of radiation. That’s why a doctor needs to sign off on the procedure before a patient may have one.

What the Calcium Score Means

The basics of the calcium score are quite simple: The higher the number, the more plaque in the arteries.

Typically, the scan’s results come as an Agatston score, which is a number from zero to 400. The score represents both the total area of calcium accumulation and the calcium’s density.

Calcium Scores by the Numbers

Here are some score ranges and what they mean, according to the American Journal of Cardiology.

  • 0: A score of zero means there’s no plaque present and that the patient has a very low risk of having heart disease or a heart attack.
  • 1-10: This means there’s a little plaque, but still a low heart attack risk and a less than 10% chance of developing heart disease.
  • 11-100: Plaque is in the arteries, and there’s a chance of mild heart disease with moderate heart attack risk.
  • 101-400: There is a fair amount of plaque, enough to suggest heart disease and a chance that plaque could be blocking an artery.
  • Over 400: This highest score range means there’s a lot of plaque — so much that you have a 90% chance of plaque blocking an artery. There’s a high heart attack risk, and with these results your doctor will likely begin further treatment.

What Happens After the Heart Scan?

Once you have a calcium score, your doctor will analyze the results and talk them over with you. The next course of action is up to you and your doctor.

If you have a score that raises any concerns, your doctor may recommend a change in medication, either a different one altogether or simply a new dose. The doctor may also suggest a weight loss target, changing your diet, modifying your exercise regimen or further testing or follow-up visits.

No matter your score, Memorial Cardiac and Vascular Institute has world-class doctors, advanced technology and a deeper level of caring to provide holistic care at every step of your health journey. That includes heart and vascular services and treatments usually associated with university medical centers, but available close to home in South Florida.

Our team of cardiologists, vascular surgeons, heart surgeons, imaging specialists and electrophysiologists are here to help with whatever you may need, from diagnosis through treatment and follow-up care.

Scheduling a Heart Scan and What to Expect

Calcium scoring is currently available only to those with a prescription from a doctor. Request a heart scan appointment by calling 954-276-5500 or request an appointment online.

If you do get a scan, it’s quick and the procedure can take up to 15 minutes. At the beginning of the scan, one of our staff attaches electrodes to your chest that are then connected to an electrocardiogram, or EKG, machine. After that, you will lie on a table and move through a hollow X-ray tube that takes pictures of your heart.

At Memorial, a calcium scoring CT scan costs $99 self-pay. Check with your insurance provider about coverage and assistance with the cost.

Heart Calcium Score Test Locations

Memorial Healthcare System offers heart scans at the following locations: