The coronary artery supplies blood to the heart. If calcium builds up in the coronary artery, it can lead to coronary artery disease and increase a person’s risk of a heart attack.

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. Most of the calcium in the body is present in teeth and bone. However, small amounts are present in the bloodstream. Over time, calcium and other compounds can accumulate in the arteries. When these deposits grow large, they can impede blood flow and result in health complications.

Read on to learn more about the causes and risk factors for coronary artery calcification, as well as possible treatment options.

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Around 1% of the calcium in the body is present in the bloodstream. Calcium plays a role in heart health. It helps the heart contract and pump blood around the body. Calcium also contributes to the electrical signals that coordinate the heart.

As the human body ages, calcium can deposit in different parts of the body. Coronary artery calcification is the term for a buildup of calcium in the coronary artery. This commonly begins when people are about 40 years old.

Coronary artery calcification often begins as very small deposits that medical professionals call microcalcifications. These initial deposits tend to be between 0.5 and 15.0 micrometers (μm) in size. Over time, these deposits grow into larger fragments of calcium. The deposits can result in sheet-like calcium deposits, which can be larger than 3 millimeters (mm).

The development of calcium deposits tends to occur alongside the progression of plaque buildups in the artery. Medical professionals refer to the buildup of plaque in the arteries as atherosclerosis. This occurs when fatty deposits develop in the arteries, causing the wall of the blood vessels to thicken.

Arterial plaque often consists of:

  • cholesterol
  • fatty substances
  • cellular waste products
  • fibrin
  • calcium

When plaque builds up in a person’s arteries, it narrows the channel within the artery. This reduces blood flow, which causes less oxygen and other nutrients to reach cells within the body.

A number of factors can increase a person’s risk of coronary artery calcification, including:

A number of medical conditions can also increase a person’s risk of coronary artery calcification. These conditions include:

A person with coronary artery calcification may not experience symptoms. However, coronary artery calcification often occurs alongside atherosclerosis.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis depend on the location of the plaque buildup. Coronary atherosclerosis, which occurs in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, can manifest as angina. This refers to chest discomfort and shortness of breath that typically occurs with exercise.

Atherosclerosis can occur in arteries in other parts of the body, such as the legs, brain, neck, and abdomen. Other possible symptoms of atherosclerosis include:

  • issues with the legs when walking, including:
  • challenges with thinking and memory
  • weakness or numbness on one side of the body or face
  • vision trouble
  • severe pain after eating
  • weight loss
  • diarrhea
  • erectile dysfunction

Doctors may use a coronary artery calcium (CAC) test to diagnose coronary artery calcification. This test is a specialized CT scan of the heart that uses a multidetector CT (MDCT).

During a CAC test, the MDCT takes detailed images of the arteries that supply blood to a person’s heart muscles. These images can show the presence of calcium deposits in these arteries. This is important, as medical professionals associate higher amounts of calcium deposits with more severe disease in the heart’s arteries.

Treatment for coronary artery calcification often includes treating risk factors to slow calcification. This means treating underlying risk factors, such as:

  • hypertension
  • dyslipidemia
  • diabetes
  • advanced kidney disease

Initially, a doctor may prescribe statins. These are medications that people take to lower the level of cholesterol in their blood. They can help slow the progression of calcification.

In more severe cases, where there is a significant obstruction, a doctor can perform a coronary catheterization and angioplasty to help widen arteries with blockages.

Alternatively, they may use intravascular lithotripsy (IVL) to break up hard materials in the arteries. After either procedure, a doctor may insert a stent into the artery. This stent helps to hold the blood vessel open, allowing for optimum blood flow.

A person may be able to reduce their risk of developing coronary artery calcification by managing certain risk factors. This can include maintaining a healthy lifestyle and managing chronic health conditions that may increase a person’s risk of coronary artery calcification.

Health conditions that can increase a person’s risk of coronary artery calcification include:

  • metabolic syndrome
  • dyslipidemia
  • hypertension
  • diabetes
  • chronic kidney disease

Some frequently asked questions about coronary artery calcification may include:

Can vitamin D cause coronary artery calcification?

Vitamin D may play various roles in the development of coronary artery calcification. Some studies suggest that excessive vitamin D may lead to excessive calcification.

However, other studies report that vitamin D deficiency can also promote calcification. These reports state that long-term vitamin D supplementation may provide protective effects.

Current evidence from experimental studies suggests that either excess or deficient levels of vitamin D can potentially lead to calcification.

Can calcium supplements cause coronary artery calcification?

Calcium supplements can rapidly increase the amount of calcium that is circulating in a person’s bloodstream. This may result in a higher risk of artery calcification. However, maintaining appropriate calcium levels through the diet may be protective.

Can doctors stent calcified arteries?

A doctor can place a stent in a calcified artery. They may choose to add a stent to the artery after a person has undergone treatment such as atherectomy or IVL.

Can statins prevent calcification?

Evidence suggests that statins can reduce atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk in people with coronary calcification. While taking statins may increase the density of calcium, it slows plaque progression.

Calcium is present throughout the body. Around 1% of the calcium in the body is present in the bloodstream. As a person ages, calcium may begin to deposit in different parts of their body due to the presence of atherosclerosis.

The coronary artery supplies blood to the heart. Coronary artery calcification occurs when calcium deposits and other compounds build up in a person’s coronary artery. This can lead to coronary artery disease and increase a person’s risk of a heart attack.