What to Expect: The Skinny on Heart Screenings

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More than 600,000 American die each year from heart disease. That's one out of every four deaths. It’s the leading cause of death in the U.S., but many people with heart disease don’t even know they have it because they don’t experience symptoms. Screenings can help determine your risk for heart disease. If you have heart disease, screenings can identify ways to prevent or reduce its impact on your health.

Dr. Syed Ali with Mercy Clinic Interventional Cardiology explains six types of screenings that help determine if your heart is healthy.

  1. Blood pressure. This is one of the most important screenings for your heart health. Many people don’t know they have high blood pressure (BP) until they’ve been tested for it. High BP increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. Experts recommend getting checked at least once every two years.

  2. Cholesterol. High cholesterol typically has no symptoms, so it’s important to have your cholesterol levels checked. When there’s excess cholesterol in your blood, it can build up in your arteries and cause heart disease. Levels of good and bad cholesterol can be measured with a blood test and should be done every four to six years.

  3. Body weight. Your doctor will use your height and weight to determine your body mass index (BMI), which indicates if you are normal weight, overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese puts you at an increased risk for heart disease. The more you weigh, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood to your whole body.

  4. Coronary Calcium Scan*A coronary calcium scan is a simple, painless test that involves a computed tomography (CT) scan. During the scan, you’ll lie down and a technician will attach electrodes to your chest to see if your heart is beating properly. You’ll hold your breath for about 10 seconds so the CT machine can get a clear picture of your heart. The level of calcium, or plaque, in your coronary arteries will determine your calcium score, which can range from zero to 400 or more. The higher the number, the higher the level of calcium and the chances of having a heart attack. Getting a scan only takes about 30 minutes out of your day.

  5. Cardiovascular Screening**Cardiovascular screenings, sometimes called vascular screenings, help identify plaque buildup or blockages in your major arteries before symptoms even appear, reducing your risk for heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, heart disease and other vascular diseases. Screenings include tests for abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), carotid arteries for stroke prevention and peripheral arterial disease (legs). The tests are pain-free and non-invasive. An ultrasound is used to diagnose problems with blood flow – blockages, narrowing, or plaque buildup. A technician will use a handheld device to pass lightly over the skin above a blood vessel. The device sends sound waves which are then reflected and used to make graphs or pictures that show the flow of blood through your vessels. If the results show a blockage, your doctor may recommend follow up with a cardiovascular specialist. The average screening takes about 30 minutes, but could take longer depending on the findings. 

  6. Blood sugar. High blood sugar levels increase your risk for developing diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to heart disease and stroke. If you’re overweight and at risk for heart disease, your doctor may recommend a blood glucose test.

A calcium scan and cardiovascular screening are generally recommended for people 45 or older. If you have risk factors for heart disease, you may want to consider having the screenings earlier.

If your screening test reveals heart disease, there are several treatment options. They include medication, lifestyle changes like diet and exercise, or surgical intervention.

Talk to your Mercy doctor to fully understand your risk and whether these screenings are right for you.


*Coronary calcium scan available in Ardmore, Okla.; Bella Vista, Ark.; Carthage, Mo.; Fort Scott, Kan.; Fort Smith, Ark., Joplin, Mo; Rogers, Ark.; and St. Louis, Mo.

**Cardiovascular screening available in Ardmore, Okla.; Bella Vista, Ark.; Carthage, Mo.; Fort Scott, Kan.; Fort Smith, Ark.; Joplin, Mo.; Rogers, Ark.; and Springfield, Mo..