Context: Identification of asymptomatic high-risk individuals is integral to current policies for preventing coronary heart disease, but existing methods of estimating risk lack sensitivity. To overcome this limitation increasing use is being made of non-invasive methods to detect subclinical coronary artery disease--eg, computed tomography (CT) to scan for coronary artery calcification. The location and extent of calcification correlate closely with pathological and angiographic abnormalities, but whether such calcification predicts clinical events, especially in younger individuals, is equivocal. Most data on coronary calcification have been obtained with electron-beam CT, but recently multislice CT, which is more versatile, less expensive, and available in most large hospitals, has been increasingly used.
Starting point: Leslee Shaw and colleagues (Radiology 2003; 228: 826-33) showed that the coronary calcification score predicted total mortality within subsets of patients classified at low, intermediate, or high risk according to Framingham criteria. In a cohort of over 10000 individuals, 5-year risk-adjusted survival was 95% when the score was over 1000 compared with 99% for scores of 10 or less. These results agree with other recent studies showing strong correlations between coronary calcification and coronary heart disease events. WHERE NEXT? The increasing use of multislice CT scanners should generate more data for comparison with those obtained from electron-beam CT. Radiation dose, which is higher with multislice than with electron-beam procedures, needs to be reduced, and calcification in scans needs to be quantified more accurately than with existing computer-based analyses. Further studies are needed to establish the predictive power of the coronary calcification score for clinical events and the effects of therapeutic intervention on both these outcomes. It would also be worth investigating the relation between coronary calcification and risk factors not quantified in Framingham-based estimates, including familial and racial predisposition to premature coronary heart disease.