My dad, Billy Morris, would be 96 this year, were he still alive. He died of heart disease in 1991 at the age of 74. He had his first heart attack in 1982, at the age of 65. As a result, he underwent bypass surgery, and for several years his symptoms subsided. At the doctor’s recommendation, he changed his diet, cutting out eggs and other sources of cholesterol, and began an exercise program. However, the angina symptoms eventually returned and in November 1991, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
I am now 57, approaching the age at which my dad had his first heart problems. I have had “borderline” blood pressure since the mid 90’s. I worked in a high stress (but rewarding) job in the computer industry for over 30 years. Although I had recently let my weight creep up a bit, for at least 20 years, I had exercised at least 5 days a week, didn’t smoke or drink, and tried to live a healthy lifestyle.
Within the last few months, several of my friends have experienced heart attacks. Two did not make it. Two were “healthy” guys – exercise nuts even! Like my dad, they were near their ideal body weight at the time of their attack.
Facing the music
Being aware of my family history and following these events, I talked to my doctor and told him that I was concerned about the fact that some seemingly healthy friends were having heart issues.Was there anything I could do to learn if I was at risk? He suggested that I consider a “Calcium Scoring”. He warned that insurance would not cover this test, but it could give me an idea of my risk of Atherosclerosis. The test was a very reasonable $75.00 and could be done very quickly. I figured I didn’t have too much to lose, so I signed up for the test.
On April 25,2013, I went to Greenview Hospital for the procedure. The test, also known as a High Resolution CT Scan, is actually a specialized X Ray, in which they take various photos of various slices of your heart and lungs. Through computer analysis, they can determine a “Calcium Score” also known as the Agatston Score, indicating the level of calcium identified in your coronary arteries. Calcium is found in calcified plaque, which is deposited when you have coronary artery disease. The presence of calcium means that you have plaque built up. However, not all plaque is calcified, and the presence of plaque does not indicate that you have a blockage or even predict that you will have a heart attack in the near future. That is the reason that insurance companies do not cover it.
The procedure itself is really quite easy. Other than the small amount of radiation you are exposed to from the X Ray, there is no risk. You simply sit on a table and a device moves around your chest. You must simply follow instructions to repeatedly breathe in, hold your breath and breathe out. It is done in under an hour.
The best possible score you can get on the test is 0,indicating that you have no calcification. A score of over 400 indicates that you have at least a 50% chance of a stenosis (Blockage). You probably should make sure your life insurance is paid up if you are in this category. Having any score above 0 is still not good, as this indicates you do have plaque accumulating. The higher the value the worse, although the “normal” state is zero, and it is actually possible to attain such a score.
A few days after the procedure, I got a letter from the hospital. My score was 148, which is in the upper 50% of males my age. Not what I wanted to hear. The interpretation of the scoring was “Moderate plaque burden, moderate non-obstructive heart disease highly likely.” In other words, I do have heart disease (as do most Americans). The good news is that it probably has not blocked any arteries (yet).See the graphic below.
According to Dean Ornish, 30% of the people with heart disease die of it without ever knowing they have the disease! So, I am fortunate. At least I know I have it! But … what good is it to know you have a problem unless you can do something about it? After all, you can exercise and stay fit and trim and still have heart disease. In the next post, I will discuss how I addressed this question.