You've probably heard stories on the news: Heart disease is on the rise, and it's the leading killer of both men and women. It's no wonder why so many people get tests and screenings for heart disease and heart-related problems. But not every screening is right for everyone.
To Screen or Not to Screen?
Heart screening tests are important preventive and diagnostic tools in some situations. You should discuss heart screening when:
- You are having symptoms of a heart attack or other cardiac conditions
- You have a family history of heart problems
- You have certain conditions, like high blood pressure or diabetes, that can impact cardiac health
- You are, or have been, a heavy smoker
But for other people, screenings aren't always necessary. Some screening tests can cause problems like bleeding, infection, and even false-positive results. Such false alarms can lead to unnecessary worry and potentially harmful tests and treatments. That's why it's important to talk to your doctor. Together, you can decide which screenings are right for you.
What if Your Doctor Says You Need a Screening?
Here are the common first-line tests to check for heart issues:
- Electrocardiograph (EKG or ECG). If you're over 40, your annual wellness checkup likely includes this test. It's noninvasive and fast. A nurse places small electrodes on your arms, legs, and chest that detect the electrical signals at the start of every heartbeat. Wires connect the electrodes to a graphing machine or computer to record the signals' patterns.
- Exercise stress test. This can involve the same electrodes and recording equipment as a standard EKG, except you'll be walking on a treadmill or pedaling a stationary bike instead of lying down. Your doctor will use it to follow up on symptoms like chest pains, look for abnormal heart rhythms, and determine if you need more testing.
- Echocardiogram. This test is an ultrasound of your heart. A technician moves a wand-shaped device across your chest. The device uses sound waves to produce a moving image of your heart. This might be done twice while resting and after exercise, to see how your heart performs under stress.
- Cardiac CT for calcium scoring. A CT (computed tomography) scan is like a full-body X-ray taken while you lie on your back in a box-like machine. X-ray cameras rotate around the machine's interior, capturing images. This particular CT scan checks for the location and amount of calcified plaque in your coronary arteries, which can signify the potential risk of future problems.
Another thing to keep in mind — you may be able to lower your risk without screenings by exercising regularly, eating healthy, not smoking, cutting back on alcohol, and managing stress. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits heart screening might present, and together you can determine your best course of action.