The Nation's Health + life

Heart scans: Will radiation kill you?

Several people have asked me lately if radiation is truly dangerous. These conversations were sparked by an editorial comment made on a column I wrote for Life Extension Magazine's April, 2006 issue on "Three ways to detect hidden heart disease".

Among the methods that were discussed in this piece was, of course, CT heart scanning. Anyone who is involved with CT heart scans Quickly recognizes the spectacular power of this test to uncover hidden, unsuspected heart disease, literally within seconds. In 2006, there's really nothing like it for the every day person to have hidden heart disease detected and precisely quantified.

Yet, the "rebuttal" to my article claimed that the broad use of heart scans was only my personal view and that, in truth, radiation kills people.

NONSENSE! If an ovarian cancer is discovered by a CT scan of the abdomen, is that unwise use of radiation? If pneumonia or lung cancer is discovered on a chest x-ray with minimal radiation exposure, have we performed a disservice. Of course not. In fact, these are often lifesaving applications of radiation.

Can radiation be used unwisely with excessive exposure? Of course. The 64 slice CT angiograms are just an example of this. Dr. Mehmet Oz announced on Oprah recently that this was a test to be used for broad screening of women for heart disease. This is wrong. The radiation required for a full 64 slice CT angiogram test is truly excessive for a screening application. You wouln't want to get breast cancer from your mammogram, would you? The radiation from a 64-slice CT angiogram is similar to that of a heart catheterization in the hospital--too much for screening. This is not to be confused with a CT heart scan for a calcium score performed on a 64 slice device. I think this can be performed with acceptable radiation exposure.

Think about what would happen, for instance, if you had your heart disease undetected, had a heart attack, and went to the hospital? During your hospitalization, you'd likely get five chest x-rays, a heart catheterization, perhaps one or more nuclear imaging tests, maybe even a full CT scan (with far more radiation than a screening heart scan). The amount of radiation of a heart scan is trivial compared to what you obtain in a hospital.

So take it all in perspective. The low level of radiation required for a simple heart scan (not an angiogram) does not by itself substantially add to your lifetime risk of radiation exposure. It may, in fact, save your life or reduce your life long exposure to radiation.

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