Test Your Heart Health

In recognition of  Heart Month, here are the latest screening tests for plaque buildup in the blood vessels that leads to blockage and heart attacks.

Cardiovascular or heart disease is the No. 1 killer of North Americans.

Doctors can and should screen adults for heart disease – more specifically, atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in the blood vessels, that leads to blockage and heart attack.

The Risk Tests
Your doctor will ask about your level of physical activity and your diet, since smoking, low physical activity, unhealthy diet and obesity all increase the risk of a heart attack.

Those risks include high cholesterol (a blood test, starting at 40 years of age for men and 50 for women of average risk); high blood pressure (starting at age 18); diabetes (a blood test, starting at 40 years of age for men and women); smoking; and a family history of heart attack (in men under 55 years old and women under 65 years old).

The Screening Tests
The possibilities are an EKG – a tracing of the heart’s electrical activity, which can show if someone has damage to the heart; an echocardiogram – an ultra- sound of the heart, which can show if it is contracting healthily; an exercise stress test – where a person exerts themselves while an EKG or echocardiogram monitors whether the heart is being strained; a coronary calcium test – a CT scan of the heart to look at the level of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries; a radionuclide stress test involves injecting a radioactive isotope into the patient’s vein after which an image of the patient’s heart becomes visible with a special camera. Images of the heart are obtained at rest and with exertion to see whether part of the heart is not contracting properly.

The Ultimate Test
A coronary angiogram is an invasive test involving radiation, so it is only used in patients at very high risk of coronary disease. A wire is threaded into the heart, dye is injected and images taken. This shows just how narrowed the coronary arteries are. If they are, then a balloon can be used to open the arteries and a stent placed to keep it open.