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Duke University's Douglas Weighs In On Low-Cost Heart Scans

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Low-cost heart scans are being promoted by hospitals across the country.

“If you could take a test that cost just $49 and it would tell you if you were at risk for a heart attack, would you do it? And what would you need to know about that test before making your decision? Low-cost heart scans are being promoted by hospitals across the country. So we wanted to know what they're testing, how effective they, and whether they pose any risks," says host Barbara Lewis.

According to Dr. Pamela Douglas, who directs the cardiovascular imaging program at Duke University’s clinical research institute, a coronary calcium scan detects calcium accumulation in the walls of the arteries that lead to the heart, using a very low dose x-ray technology.

“That generally only occurs when there’s also plaque or cholesterol build-up or narrowing of the arteries. Now it can occur with plaque but without a lot of narrowing, just as we age and we live our relatively not-heart-friendly-western-diet-and-sedentary lifestyle," says Dr. Douglas. "It’s extremely common for individuals to start having some thickening of the arteries or hardening of the arteries. And this occurs in young adults. Even people in their 20s and 30s have this."

"It tells you whether or not you have this hardening of the arteries or the calcification... It doesn't tell you if there's a blockage in the arteries or if you're going to be at risk for a heart attack," says Dr. Douglas. "Obviously, if you've got hardening of the arteries, you're at a higher risk for a heart attack, 7 times higher, in good research, than somebody that doesn't have that calcium."

For those without symptoms of heart disease, the American Heart Association doesn’t recommend routine use of the heart scans

“The reason that it’s not supported is that it [calcification in arteries] is so common that it’s not clear that it truly differentiates between people who are going to have a risk in the near term and those who don’t," says Dr. Douglas. 

Trips to the doctor for cardiovascular assessments are still a good idea, she says. 

"If you get this test and it shows some calcium, it's a little unclear of what you should do in the absence of other indications to treat with medicine. On the other hand, if somebody wants an extra motivator to get out there and exercise more frequently or eat a healthier diet, it could be beneficial for them, provided they act on the results," says Dr. Douglas.