My heart scan had been finished for only a few minutes when Dr. Thomas Knickelbine, head of Preventive Cardiology at Minneapolis’ Abbott Northwestern Hospital, came by to show me the pictures.
Now, going into this, when the folks at Abbott first asked if I wanted to try the scan, I had felt a little smug. After all, since March, I had lost about 40 pounds through radically changing my diet and exercising a whole lot more than I used to -- mainly by walking and, lately, riding my bicycle.
But as the day of my scan drew closer, I felt apprehension. After all, I had been pretty gluttonous and pretty sedentary for much of the 2000s and my weight had ballooned as a result. Even with the weight loss, I could probably stand to shed another 10-20 pounds. So, my smugness sort of evaporated as I lay back on the table for the CT scan at HeartScan Minnesota. Then the Doc showed me my images.
On the images from my scan, I could see my spine show up as a section of white. So, too, Dr. Knickelbine pointed out, did my breastbone. He asked me if I wanted to see the heart.
“Sure,” I said, not so sure.
And, there it was: A tiny spot of white. There was calcium in my left anterior descending artery. It was evidence of plaque, evidence of a chance for heart disease in the future. “Pre-clinical,” Knickelbine called it.
Despite everything I had been doing, this amounted to a 10 to 15-year warning that, without changing the path I had been on, I would face a higher risk for heart attack. The Doc wasn’t trying to scare me. He even told me that what I had been doing had “changed your risk.”
But the presence of calcium means I am not done. He suggested I get my cholesterol checked and think about making more changes to my diet. If my cholesterol proved high, I might want to consider statins to reduce my risk of heart attack further.
My coronary artery calcification score was 6.7, putting me in the 59th percentile for 48-year-old men who have had the scan. Not great. Not terrible. According to the scan, I have a low, but not zero, risk of coronary artery disease.
On the following Monday, I stopped in to have my cholesterol screened and to meet with a dietician. Good news there. My total cholesterol and bad cholesterol were good. My good cholesterol and Vitamin D were a bit low.
The prognosis: Doc said to keep doing what I am doing. Add some fish oil and a baby aspirin to my routine and keep losing the weight and exercising. The hope: Another 10 or so pounds lost and another couple inches off my waist by the start of 2013 and that calcium might even start to disappear.
Am I glad I did this? Truthfully, yes. Although my lifestyle at the time of the scan would not have put me in a risk group for whom it is recommended, I look at this as an affirmation of the changes that I already have made in my life – and the fact that I should not get complacent and stop working to improve.
For some, according to Dr. Knickelbine, the scan is a wake-up call to finally start doing the things that will help them avoid a heart attack or stroke in the future. For me, it was a powerful incentive to keep on this healthier and happier road I am following.