Self-empowerment is coming!

I've discussed this before: The coming wave of self-empowerment in health. Health that is driven by you, not a hospital, not a doctor, not by procedures, but by information and access to tools that are powerful and effective.

The seeds are being planted right now and won't take full root for many years or decades. But it's going to happen.

I previously cited several broad trends that are examples of this emerging wave:

--The nutritional supplement movement. Contrary to the media's ill-informed bashing, nutritional supplements are getting better: improved quality, better substantiation of when/how to use them, new agents that appear rapidly, since introduction is not slowed by the molasses of the FDA.

--Medications moving to over-the-counter status. Health insurers are driving this one. OTC means not paid for by insurance. That also means access to you.

--What I call "retail imaging", i.e. screening ultrasound, heart scans, full body scans, etc. that are available in most states without a doctor's order.

--The Internet. The mind-boggling rapidity and depth of information available on the Internet today is fueling the self-empowerment movement by providing sophisticated information to health care consumers. Information here is uneven at present. But, as consumer sophistication increases and the system of checks and balances evolves, internet-driven information will be often superior to what you get from a doctor or other health professional.

--High-deductible health insurance plans. If health care consumers bear more and more of the costs of health care, they will seize greater responsibility for early identification and prevention and minimize long-term costs.

This trend does not mean treating your own infection, taking out your own gall bladder, repairing your own broken leg. It means that conventional routes of health delivery will recede into providing only catastrophic care.

It means that you and your family will take a larger role in learning how to eat and exercise properly, use foods to maintain and promote health (the "designer food" and "nutraceutical" movement), take supplements that have real benefits, use medications for treatment of many everyday ailments.

It also means seizing control of diseases that previously were only treated in hospitals, like coronary heart disease. This, of course, is where our program, Track Your Plaque, is an example of how you can have a powerful and effective role in your heart health. Track Your Plaque goes so far beyond the "eat low-fat, exercise, and know your numbers" media mantra that it's like comparing a brand-new Mercedes to a rusted, run-down '87 Ford Escort. There truly is no comparison. (Sorry if you're an Escort driver!) But you get the idea.

Another option for lipoprotein testing

For those of you who have been frustrated in trying to get your lipoprotein analysis performed, here's another option.

The Life Extension Foundation at provides access to the VAP test, or Vertical Auto Profiler. This is the lipoprotein test run by the Atherotech company in Birmingham, Alabama. The name refers to the method used, a form of centrifugation, or high-speed spinning of your blood (plasma) to separate the various components by density.

This is a fine technique that works well. Though our preferred method is NMR (, Liposcience Inc.), the Atherotech VAP is a reasonable alternative.

If you go through the Life Extension process, they will direct you to blood draw sites in your area. They charge $185 for Life Extension members, $247 for non-members. (Membership in Life Extension costs $75.) Drawback: No billing for health insurance reimbursement.

A full description of the significance of lipoproteins can also be found in my article posted on-line at the website at

Weight and lipoproteins

Tom, an accountant, came into the office eager to know what his 2nd heart scan score showed.

A year ago, Tom's view of himself as a healthy, middle-aged man was shattered when he found out his heart scan score: 1236. Tom had severe coronary plaque with a heart attack risk of 25% per year (without intensive preventive action).

In the way of lipoprotein abnormalities, he had several: low HDL, deficient large HDL, small LDL, high triglycerides, IDL (the after-eating inability to clear dietary fats), and a high blood sugar in the pre-diabetic range. In addition, Tom was hypertensive, with blood pressure so high it even landed him in the emergency room last winter.

In addition to our approach to correct all these patterns, Tom was urged to lose a significant quantity of weight. Starting at 225 lb., at 5 ft 7 inches, Tom was clearly at least 40 lbs over his ideal weight.

I stressed to Tom that the entire spectrum of causes of coronary plaque were weight-related. I likened his patterns to throwing gasoline on a fire: As weight increased, his lipoprotein and other abnormalties flared dramatically.

But each time Tom came back to the office over the ensuing year, he'd gained another 3 to 6 lbs. And each time he had an explanation. "My daughter just got married. I couldn't turn down wedding cake, now could I?" Or, I just survived another tax season. I was working day and night--no time for exercise!" "It's getting too hot to walk anymore."

Well, despite multiple treatments, Tom's repeat heart scan showed a score of 1677, a 35% increase. That's a dangerous rate of growth that virtually guarantees that plaque is building up momentum to "rupture", which results in heart attack.

I therefore stressed to Tom that weight loss was crucial. Control of coronary plaque was simply not going to occur without weight loss to our target. Alternatively, we could add several new prescription medicines and hope that they could achieve the same effect, though at a price (side-effects, expense).

I tell Tom's story to highlight again just how important weight loss can be for a number of lipoprotein abnormalities.

What measures specifically are sensitive to weight? They are:

--HDL cholesterol
--Small LDL
--Blood pressure
--Blood sugar and insulin
--C-reactive protein

Weight exerts profound influence on these patterns. In Tom and people like him, weight can be a "make it or break it" issue.

If you, like Tom, have any of the above patterns, consider weight loss as a potent tool you can use to gain control of coronary plaque.

Variation in vitamin D requirements

For Track Your Plaque followers, you know we are very concerned about vitamin D blood levels. My prediction is that, in 10 years, vitamin D will be regarded as an important item on the list of coronary artery disease risk factors.

In our experience of trying to stop or reverse heart scan scores, restoration of vitamin D to a blood level of 50 ng/ml appears to have increased our success rate dramatically.

As we've talked about before, on the bell curve of vitamin D dosing in a northern climate, the majority of women require 2000 units per day, men require 3000 units per day to achieve a level of 50 ng. However, there are "outliers" on this bell curve, i.e., people who require much more or much less.

This week, I saw two people who were very instructive cases of extreme requirements on the high end of vitamin D dosing. Both started with unmeasurable blood levels, i.e., essentially zero ng/ml. On 5000 units of vitamin D per day, both raised their blood levels to around 17-18 ng/ml--in the range of severe deficiency (defined as <20 ng/ml). I advised both to increase their oral dose of vitamin D to 8000 units per day.

Notably, both people avoided sunlight and lived in Wisconsin, a terribly sun-deprived locale 10 months a year. Both were also substantially overweight (around 300 lbs each).

The vitamin D issue continues to be endlessly fascinating in all its nuances and twists.

Heart attacks in your own backyard

Two men from my community just died of heart attacks. Both were in their 40s.

What bothers me most about these all too frequent stories is that it is so preventable. You can bet that both had little or no symptoms prior to their deaths. You can also bet that they've had cholesterol panels taken by their doctors.

Followers of the Track Your Plaque program know that these are sure-fire paths to failure. The absence of heart disease symptoms should provide no reassurance whatsoever. High cholesterol, in-between cholesterol, low cholesterol--none are confident indicators in a specific individual.

Stress test? How about the patient I saw today who, until I met him, had been undergoing stress test after stress test, every year--all while the quantity of coronary plaque tripled. False reassurances provided by his cardiologist led him to believe that all was well--while this stack of oily rags was just waiting for the spark to ignite.

Too little time, too much money, too far away--there's a hundred excuses for not getting a heart scan. Or, you've had a heart scan and no one can tell you what to do about it. If you're reading this, however, you've found the most intensive source of information available on how your heart scan can serve as the start of a program of heart attack prevention for a life free of dangers.

It's not that tough. But it won't just go away on its own. I just have to look around me in my own community, watch the local news, talk to friends, and I'll heart about all the people just in my neighborhood who should be learning these lessons. I rant and rave about this but some people need to hear it from a friend, colleague, neighbor, rather than some crazy doctor bucking the standard line.

You, too, should be telling anyone who will listen about how heart disease can be identified and controlled.

Pilot lands safely after heart attack, then dies

That was the disturbing headline on a report from MSNBC, also reported nationally on all the major news networks.

The story goes on:

"A pilot suffering a heart attack made an emergency landing on a highway, saving his three passengers shortly before he died...He landed the single-engine Cessna 185 on Utah 30 near Park Valley and was taken to Bear River Hospital in Tremonton, where he died."

We track these sorts of stories and it's frightening just how common they are. A school bus driver recently had a heart attack while driving 30 children; the bus crashed but no one was hurt. A 52-year old commercial bus driver suffered a heart attack while transporting 49 conference attendees; the bus plunged 400 feet down a ravine. Remarkably, 17 passengers suffered only minor injuries and there were no deaths.

There have even been incidents where the pilot of a jet liner suffered a heart attack in-flight. In 2000, the 53-year old pilot of a Northwest Airlines DC-10 died while in-flight from a heart attack while landing in Minneapolis. The 290 passengers were landed safely by co-pilot.

Most incidents where the driver or pilot has been incapacitated or died resulted in the deaths of only a handful of people. No major catastrophe has yet occured. But--mark my words--it will. These incidents just happen too frequently.

Virtually all of these and similar incidents could have been prevented. If the FAA, for instance, would insist that all pilots have a simple CT heart scan, it would become immediately obvious which pilots should be grounded and who should fly. Similar requirements could easily be applied to persons in charge of the welfare of many people, most notably school bus drivers.

It's not that tough! The FAA currently requires stress testing and cholesterol testing. Well, guess what? Followers of the Track Your Plaque program know that these tests do not effectively identify the person at risk for heart attack in the majority of individuals. Just ask former President Bill Clinton how helpful his stress tests (five in a row!) were. Or how valuable his cholesterol monitoring was--all prior to his emergency bypass surgery.

Large new clinical study launched to study. . .niacin

Oxford University has issued a press release announcing plans for a new clinical trial to raise HDL cholesterol and reduce heart attack risk. 20,000 participants will be enrolled in this substantial effort. The agent? Niacin.

How is that new? Well, this time niacin comes with a new spin.

Dr. Jane Armitage, formerly with the Heart Protection Study that showed that simvastatin (Zocor) reduced heart attack risk regardless of starting LDL, is lead investigator. She hopes to prove that niacin raises HDL cholesterol and thereby reduces heart attack risk. But, this time, niacin will be combined with an inhibitor of prostaglandins that blocks the notorious "flushing" effect of niacin.

The majority of Track Your Plaque participants hoping to control or reverse coronary plaque take niacin. Recall that niacin (vitamin B3)is an extremely effect agent that raises HDL, dramatically reduces small LDL, shifts HDL particles into the effective large fraction, reduces triglycerides and triglyceride-containing particles like IDL and VLDL. Several studies have shown that niacin dramatically reduces heart attack. The HATS Study showed that niacin combined with Zocor yielded an 85-90% reduction in heart attack risk and achieved regression of coronary plaque in many participants.

In our experience, approximately 1 in 20 people will really struggle using niacin. Flushes for these occasional people will be difficult or even intolerable. Should Dr. Armitage's study demonstrate that this new combination agent does provide advantages in minimizing the hot flush effect, that will be a boon for the occasional Track Your Plaque participant who finds conventional niacin intolerable.

But you already have access to niacin, an agent with an impressive track record even without this new study. And you have a reasonably effective prostaglandin inhibitor, as well: aspirin. Good old aspirin is very useful, particularly in the first few months of your niacin initiation to blunt the flush.

Although this study is likely to further popularize niacin and allow its broader use, it's also a method for the drug companies to profit from an agent they know works but is cheap and available.

You don't have to wait. You already have niacin and aspirin available to you.

The dark side of CT heart scans

"I just got a heart scan!" declared Eric to his doctor. He handed the report to him.

"Oh my. Your score is 154." The doctor paused, then looked at Eric with a serious look on his face. "If we're going to understand whether or not you're in danger, you'll need a heart catheterization."

I've seen this happen countless times. How can I say this diplomatically? THIS IS WRONG!! In my view, it's absolutely criminal for this to happen. Physician ignorance, profiteering, whatever--it is wrong.

There's very few reasons why someone who has no symptoms should go directly to the cath lab for a procedure. (A rare exception might be an exceptional quantity of plaque in the left mainstem artery, e.g., >100. This is highly unusual.)

Even a nuclear stress test (e.g., thallium) at this level of scoring is only 10-15% likely to be abnormal. That means 85-90% likelihood of being normal. There's rare reasons to perform a heart catheterization in a person with no symptoms and an entirely normal stress test. The vast majority of people like Eric do not need a heart catheterization to discern risk.

If Eric's doctor had been up-to-date on the published literature on the prognostic value of heart scans, he could have advised Eric what the risks were--without a catheterization. Many doctors simply don't want to be bothered. Or, they opt for the more profitable method--a hospital procedure.

Always discuss your heart scan with your doctor--but be armed with information in case your doctor is uninformed or unscrupulous. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon. The Track Your Plaque program is your advocate, a source for unbiased information.

The dirty little secret about aneurysms

Jake had an abdominal aneurysm identified--by accident.

While getting a CT scan of his abdomen for unexplained abdominal pain, a 4.4 cm aneurysm was discovered. Jake's abdominal pain eventually passed without explanation, but he was left with this aneurysm.

Jake's primary care doctor referred him to a surgeon. "It's too small to require surgery right now. Wait a few years and it'll probably get bigger. When it gets to around 5.5 cm, that'll be the time to operate. Let's schedule an abdominal ultrasound or CT scan every 6 months."

Jake then got himself a heart scan. His high score of 879 then led him to my office. Lipoprotein testing, a stress test, correction of his lipoprotein patterns, changes in lifestyle followed. One year later, Jake's heart scan score was unchanged.

How about his abdominal aneurysm? 4.2 cm--a modest quantity of regression. When Jake's surgeon learned of the change, he just shrugged. "Okay, we'll just watch it from here."

Shockingly, the conversation surrounding aneurysms is just like the one Jake received: Let's just watch it grow until you need surgery.

If you've every seen anyone have abdominal aneurysm surgery, you know it is an awful, painful, barbaric process with high risk for major complications like kidney failure and loss of the legs. Waiting for an aneurysm to grow is a lousy solution. Surgeons point out that, although surgery is imperfect, it's better than the alternative: rupture, which is catastrophic with a 50% chance of dying.

But what about stopping the growth of the aneurysm? Or even reversing, or shrinking, it?

Surgeons say it can't be done. Yet we've done it--many times. And it's not that difficult.

The steps to take are very similar to that in the Track Your Plaque program for coronary plaque regression, with a few different strategies. Suppression of inflammation, for instance, plays a more important role and blood pressure must be abolutely normal, even during exercise.

More to come on this important topic in the future, including an upcoming Special Report on the membership website.

Heart scan scores dropping like stones!!

I saw two instances of dramatic coronary plaque regression today.

John, a 53-years old mechanical lift operator, dropped his heart scan score from 479 to 323--a 32% regression of coronary plaque volume!

Eric, a 50-year consulting engineer, dropped his heart scan score from 668 to 580--a 13% reduction.

Both men did nothing special beyond the principles advocated in the Track Your Plaque program. Recall that, without preventive efforts, your heart scan score is expected to increase by 30% per year. Both men are well on their way to freedom from risk of coronary "events".

Two less people to feed the revenue-hungry hospital procedure system! We need many more like them.