Women and Heart Scans

Seeing as 64 percent of women who died suddenly due to coronary heart disease showed no symptoms of the disease beforehand, you'd think that the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology would be imploring women to get heart scans, which can detect blockages and calcium buildup in people with heart disease who have exhibited no signs whether through actual symptoms, blood tests, echocardiograms, or otherwise. But both organizations have been cautious to categorically embrace the technology, and they do not recommend its routine use on people whose age, family history, and/or personal habits would make them poor candidates for developing heart disease. In the 20-odd years since the heart scan's invention, it has been surrounded by as much controversy over its possible perils and occasional overuse as it has been given praise for the amazingly detailed images it produces. On the one hand, one electron beam computerized tomography (EBCT) scan contains about the same amount of radiation that you would be exposed to after having 25 to 30 chest X-rays, and the near $2 million price tag for the heart scan equipment might prompt less scrupulous individuals to goad healthy people to subject themselves to an unnecessary scan. On the other hand, heart scans can save the lives of people who were unaware of the compromised state of their cardiovascular system. So what are heart scans and who should get one? Read on to find out.

  • Lowdown: There are several different types of heart scans available to cardiologists and radiologists. A coronary calcium scan takes just a few minutes and requires that you lie on a table that slides you into a CT scanner, which creates cross-sectional images of your heart often by using an electron beam. Any bright white spots on the scan can signify calcium deposits in your arteries. Other types of CT heart scans use radioactive dyes injected into your vein to identify blockages in the arteries surrounding your heart.

  • Best candidates: People who are 55 years or older, have a family history of heart disease, and/or have engaged in behaviors that might foster heart disease—smoking, heavy drinking, drug use, poor diet—should consider a heart scan after consulting with their primary care physician. Your doctor may want to perform other tests that could determine whether you have heart disease before prescribing a heart scan. Women who are pregnant should not have a heart scan as well as people who have already suffered a heart attack, since they are already aware of their heart disease. The exception to the latter exclusion is if your doctor prescribes a nuclear heart scan, which is a two-day procedure that provides a clear-cut picture of how your heart perform under stress and while resting.