Heart Scan May Predict Longevity

It's Not Just About Age; It's About Your Coronary Artery Calcium, Study Shows

From the WebMD Archives

June 23, 2008 -- If you're seeking increased longevity, look to your heart -- specifically, to your coronary arteries. Even after age 70, people with healthier coronary arteries live longer, a new study shows.

The coronary arteries supply blood to heart muscle. If the coronary arteries develop atherosclerosis -- hardening with plaque -- heart attacks are more likely. Coronary artery disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in the U.S.

Coronary artery plaque contains calcium. Measuring calcium inside coronary artery walls -- done with computed tomography (CT) heart scans -- is used as a surrogate for measuring plaque.

Based on those heart scans, patients get a coronary artery calcium score, also called a cardiac calcium score or an Agatston score. The lower that score is, the better.

The new study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, shows that's true even for people who are at least 70 years old.

The study included 3,570 people aged 70 and older in Nashville, Tenn., and Torrance, Calif. They got CT heart scans and coronary artery calcium scores; half of the patients were women.

During the follow-up period, which averaged nearly six years, 838 participants died. As expected, younger people outlived older people, and women outlived men.

But that wasn't the whole story. Coronary artery calcium scores predicted who died and who didn't during the follow-up period, regardless of age and other factors.

In other words, an older person with a very low coronary artery calcium score might have outlived a younger person with a high coronary artery calcium score.

The study tracked deaths from any cause, not just heart-related deaths. But "most deaths in adults are primarily linked to cardiovascular disease," write the researchers, who included Emory University cardiologist Paolo Raggi, MD.

Raggi's team suggests looking beyond age and using coronary artery calcium scores to identify high-risk seniors.

At any age, the keys to healthy coronary arteries include a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, and appropriate medical care.