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High coronary calcium score may signal increased risk of cancer, kidney and lung disease

A 10-year follow-up study of more than 6,000 people who underwent heart CT scans suggests that a high coronary artery calcium score puts people at greater risk not only for heart and vascular disease but also for cancer, chronic kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A report on the study, conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and elsewhere, is published online on March 9, 2016 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Cardiovascular Imaging.

“Plaque in the arteries is the result of cumulative damage and inflammation, and vulnerability to injury and chronic inflammation likely contributes to diseases like cancer, kidney and lung diseases, as well as cardiovascular disease. So it makes sense that the coronary calcium score — a measure of arterial aging — is predictive of noncardiovascular diseases too, “says Michael Blaha, M.D., M.P.H., director of clinical research for the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease and assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The reason the coronary calcium score may work so well at identifying vulnerability to a variety of chronic diseases is because it’s a direct measurement of the cumulative effect of all risk factors, rather than a consideration of a single risk factor, like obesity, smoking or high blood pressure.”

Blaha and his colleagues caution, however, that theirs was an “association study” that didn’t look for, measure or find a cause-and-effect relationship between coronary calcium levels and noncardiovascular diseases.

Heart CT scans quickly and automatically measure how much and how dense the levels of the mineral are in the blood vessels that nourish the heart’s arteries. Coronary artery calcium is a well-known predictor of coronary heart disease and stroke risk. The risk of these diseases is low when the calcium score is zero, and that risk balloons nearly fivefold when the score is above 400. For the current study, the research team, composed of investigators from Johns Hopkins; the University of California, Los Angeles; Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit; the Minneapolis Heart Institute; and Columbia University, used data from six centers that contributed subjects to the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, or MESA.