Heart attack; the phrase sends shivers down the spine. Still, we as human beings tend to be arrogant, believing that heart attacks are something that happen to someone else; not to us. I’m guilty of that thought and so is my husband. However, on December 23, 2006, both he and I received a wake-up call. Instead of spending the planned Christmas with our children and grandson, my husband spent his in the hospital recovering from cardiac catheterization and a stint implant after suffering a heart attack.
We hear it every day: Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death and disability in both American men and women. In many cases, the first sign of heart problems may be an actual heart attack, which unfortunately could result in death.
Heart disease and heart attacks are most often caused by a process called atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. As we age, cholesterol builds up in the walls of the blood vessels. This gradual buildup is referred to as plaque. Oftentimes, plaque will grow large enough to obstruct blood flow, become unstable, and/or rupture, resulting in heart attack.
There are, of course, a myriad of medical tests that can help physicians identify heart issues. There are blood tests, electro-cardiograms, x-rays, and scans. However, the newest of these – – the 64-Slice CT Scan – – is currently being touted as the most effective test so far.
Why is This Test Better?
Unfortunately, coronary artery disease has heretofore been difficult to diagnose without an invasive procedure; most typically the cardiac catheterization, a process that threads a thin plastic tube into a blood vessel of the arm or leg into the heart. Unfortunately, the earliest signs of this coronary artery disease aresimple, minute changes in the blood vessel lining or wall of the heart. Because of their small size, however, it is often difficult to pick up such changes without the cardiac catheterization invasive procedure, which can cause complications such as stroke and bleeding.
The new 64-Slice CT Scan, however, can detect those early signs. In many instances, when no plaque buildup is identified, doctors can then treat patients with medication and lifestyle changes that may allow them to avoid invasive heart procedures in the future. Additionally, this test is much easier on the body than many other diagnostic procedures which are currently being used.
How Does it Work?
This new, ultra fast scan is painless. The scanner is placed over the patient’s chest. It can tilt and rotate to allow the x-ray device to obtain multiple images of the heart. The scanning device times the scan to match the patient’s heartbeat and takes only a fraction of a second to record each slice of the heart. This quick response allows doctors to image the heart and its blood vessels without x-ray blurring.
The machine takes about 250 to 350 images. Then the computer takes those and slices them even thinner into about 8,000 images. Everything is then analyzed by advanced computer technology and finally reconstructed into 3-D views of the heart and the coronary arteries. This shows not only the narrowed areas of the blood vessels but can also help detect early disease in the vessel walls that may not yet be narrowed.
Once the scan is complete and the 3-D views constructed, a qualified physician can interpret the images to determine the amount of calcified plaque that might be clogging the arteries.
Who Is the Scan For?
The scan has been deemed appropriate for men of age 35 or older and women of age 40 or older with low or moderate risk of heart disease or those with any one of the following risk factors.
- High Blood Pressure,
- High Cholesterol,
- History of heavy tobacco use,
- History of heavy drug or alcohol abuse,
- Family history of heart disease,
- Obesity, and
- Significant emotional or job-related stress.
In certain situations, much younger individuals may also be recommended for this procedure. Also, people with a high risk of heart disease or who have already suffered from cardiovascular problems, will still need to undergo cardiac catheterization where they can not only diagnose, but also fix the problem.
How Long Does it Take?
Patients generally must arrive about an hour prior to the procedure so that radiologists can assess his or her heart rate, start an IV for the CT contrast, explain the procedure, and answer any remaining questions. The actual scan only takes about 10 to 15 minutes from start to finish and the patient is able to leave as soon as the scan is complete. The results are generally ready for the patient’s doctor the same day, thereby alleviating the stress that can be caused by having to wait a lengthy amount of time for test results.
Where is the Test Available?
That is the bad news. The $2 million piece of equipment is currently not available everywhere in the U.S. Currently, in the Hampton Roads Area this particular test is only available at Norfolk’s Sentara Heart Hospital’s Advanced Imaging Center. However, according to published reports in the Daily Press, another machine is scheduled to be installed at the Bon Secours Health Center at Harbour View in Suffolk within the next two or three months. Additionally, Riverside Health Systems plans to purchase one for its Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News sometime this summer.
For information on the availability of the scan in your area, check with local cardiologists and/or heart centers.
How Much Does it Cost?
The cost will obviously vary somewhat from area to area. Also, many insurance companies do not currently approve the use of this test under acceptable procedures. For specific information concerning the cost of this test in your situation, check with your cardiologist and insurance company.
The biggest problem facing Americans with regard to heart attack is “fear.” We fear the result that the attack will have on our lives, on our family’s lives, and our lifestyle choices. However, we cannot live in fear and it is time that finally “hear” what our doctors have been trying to tell us for decades.
Heart attack no longer has to mean loss of life. We just have to be smart, take the necessary precautions, and make the right lifestyle choices. If we do, there is no reason to believe that we cannot live a long and healthy life. That is my husband’s plan from here on out. I hope that you will also make it yours.