Cardiac Calcium Score Test

When plaque builds up on your arteries, your risk for a heart attack increases. One way to find out your level of risk is through a simple screening exam called a cardiac calcium score test.

What is a cardiac calcium score test?

A calcium score test is a quick and noninvasive imaging exam that can detect heart disease at its earliest stages. Calcium score testing uses computed tomography (CT) to look for hardened calcium deposits—also known as plaque—in your coronary arteries. A higher calcium score corresponds to a higher risk of heart attack. This is because plaque narrows the arteries, depriving the heart of blood and oxygen.  

You and your doctor can use the information from the calcium score test to make decisions about your health which may help you avoid a heart attack.

Who should get a cardiac calcium score test?

Talk to your doctor about calcium score testing if you are between the ages of 40 and 70 and at increased risk for heart disease:

  • You have a family history of heart disease.
  • You are a smoker or have a history of smoking.
  • You have high cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure.
  • You are overweight.
  • You have a sedentary lifestyle.

People who are less than 40 years old and have high cholesterol in the family (which could indicate a genetic disorder called familial hypercholesterolemia) should also consider a calcium score test.

People who are considering changes in daily medication therapy—such as statins for high cholesterol—can also benefit from a calcium score test.

How do I get a cardiac calcium score test?

Your healthcare provider will order the test. You will go to a radiology facility that has a CT scanner for your appointment.

How should I prepare for the test?

  • You may take your prescribed medications as usual.
  • Avoid caffeine, smoking, alcohol, or other stimulants for four hours before your appointment.

What will happen during the test?

When you arrive for your appointment, you will be asked to change into a gown and a technologist will escort you to the CT scanner. You will be asked to lie on the scanner table. The technologist will attach three small electrodes to three areas on your chest. The electrodes are attached to a electrocardiograph (EKG) monitor, which determines when  the CT scanner will take images of your heart to get the best quality images.

The table will move inside a donut-shaped scanner briefly. During this time, the CT scanner will take multiple images of your heart. These images are then analyzed by a radiologist who specializes in imaging of the heart. The entire process takes 15 minutes and involves no contrast dye.

Are there any risks?

A calcium score test exposes you to a very low dose of radiation. For people who are candidates for this test, the benefits of the test are greater than the risks from radiation.

This procedure is not recommended if you are pregnant.

After the exam

Your doctor will review your results with you. Your calcium score helps determine your future risk of having a heart attack. Together with your other risk factors, your score can help you and your doctor make decisions that reduce your risk of a heart attack, such as an appointment with a cardiologist, diet and lifestyle changes, and medication.