Thirty-four years ago this month, my Dad died suddenly from a heart attack, just days before his 38th birthday. So when February rolls around and I dig into my personal bag of chocolate hearts, I can’t help but think about the other hearts — our real, beating, fragile hearts.
In my early 30s, I was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse, a condition common in women that causes random heart palpitations — a feeling that my heart is fluttering in my chest. The occasional skipped beat is a constant reminder that my heart is still pumping, but it also makes me paranoid about the possibility that it could stop at a moment’s notice.
It’s that paranoia that made my ears perk up when my physician told me about a relatively new test to check the health of my heart. It’s called coronary artery calcium scoring, a simple, non-invasive screening procedure that measures calcium deposits, also called plaque, in the arteries that provide blood flow to your heart. Those fatty deposits are signs of blockages that can lead to heart disease and a heart attack.
I’ll admit I wasn’t in a big hurry to schedule the test. I wasn’t having any health issues, and frankly, it’s hard to put your own health first when you’ve got laundry to do, dinner to cook, kids to shuttle to practice, and a million other things that make scheduling an appointment for yourself a low priority. Still, I could check off a few risk factors for heart disease: my age (mid-forties), high cholesterol, and my family history.
After months of putting off the test, the holidays made me think about how my family would survive without me should my heart stop. I pictured my sons eating fast-food dinners, sleeping on dirty bed sheets, and forgetting to brush their teeth. How would my husband find anything in our house without me? I finally looked at my calendar and made time for the test.
The entire procedure took 15 minutes. After completing a simple questionnaire, I was told to lie on a bed, where I was wired up for an electrocardiogram and then put through the CT (computed tomography) scanner for a few snapshots of my heart. It was fast. It was easy. It was actually relaxing. I joked with the technician that I should have snuck in a power nap.
The same week I had my scan, a family friend died suddenly in his sleep. He was 49. Like my Dad, he had no time to say goodbye. It was probably a heart attack, but no matter the cause, tragedies like that can make you consider your own mortality. After hearing how easy my test was, my husband signed up for one too.
We received our results in the mail on the same day about a week later. The test computes a calcium score based on the amount of plaque found in your arteries and uses that score to compare your plaque build-up to other men and women of the same age. A zero score means there is no plaque. Our scores were zero’s. Whew! It’s no guarantee that we won’t have a heart attack someday, but it’s one indicator that maybe God has other plans. We could breathe a little easier, at least for now.
The fact is that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States — for men AND women. It actually kills more women each year than cancer. Since Valentine's Day puts hearts front and center in February, the American Heart Association wisely chose February for its annual Go Red for Women initiative. It aims to heighten awareness about women’s heart disease, a cause close to my heart.
This February, give your heart a Valentine. Talk to your doctor. Consider the cardiac calcium scoring test and other ways to check the health of your heart. It’s a great way to remember what’s really important this Valentine’s Day. For more information, consult the American Heart Association.