Pre-diabetes: An explanation for explosive coronary plaque growth

Art's first CT heart scan in March, 2006 yielded a concerning score of 1336. He felt fine--no chest discomfort, no breathlessness, etc.

Art agreed to take the statin cholesterol drug his primary care doctor prescribed. He also agreed to take the fish oil, niacin, and some of the nutritional supplements that we advised. But Art just couldn't bring himself to make the commitment to lose weight.

At the start of his program, Art--at 5 ft. 8 inches--was 40 lbs overweight (212 lb). This was important since his blood sugar wavered in the pre-diabetic range, going as high as 130 mg. (The American Diabetes Assn. defines diabetes as a blood glucose of 126 mg or greater.)

One year later, Art's lipid and lipoprotein values were corrected to perfection. But he still weighed in at a hefty 209 lbs--essentially no change. His blood sugar likewise hovered in the 120's.

I felt Art need to be prodded, so I asked him to undergo another heart scan. His score: 1935--a 600 point increase, or 45%!

Only now has Art begun to comprehend to power of diabetes and pre-diabetes to fan the flames of plaque growth. Recent published data, in fact, show that the majority of recently diagnosed diabetics already have well-established coronary artery disease.

Don't let this happen to you. Do not dismiss diabetic patterns as they will catch up to you. If Art can lose the 30-40 lbs in the abdominal weight that is creating the diabetic pattern, he will likely succeed in stopping plaque growth. Otherwise, it's just a matter of time before his heart attack, stent, or bypass.

Who cares if you're pre-diabetic?

Marta is a smart lady. She's worked in hospital laboratories for the last 23 years and knows many of the ins and outs of lab tests and their implications.

After years of being told that her cholesterol was acceptable, she needed to undergo urgent bypass surgery after experiencing severe breathlessness that proved to be a small warning heart attack at age 57. But this made Marta skeptical of relying on cholesterol to identify heart disease risk.

I met Marta two years after her bypass surgery when she was seeking better answers. And, indeed, she proved to have several concealed sources of heart disease: small LDL particles, Lipoprotein(a), intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL--a very important abnormality that means she is unable to clear dietary fats from her blood), among others. But she was also mildly diabetic with a blood sugar of 131 mg (normal < or = 100 mg). This had not been previously recognized.

As I'm a cardiologist and our program focuses on reversal and control of coronary plaque, I asked Marta to return to her primary care doctor to continue the conversation about diabetes. She was a bit frightened but followed through.

"Well, you're not urinating excessively. And your long-term measure of blood sugar, hemoglobin A1C, is still normal. I wouldn't worry about it. We'll just watch it."

I guess I should know better. What the poor primary care doctor doesn't know is that pre-diabetes and mild diabetes are potent risks for heart disease. In fact, some of the most explosive rates of plaque growth occur when these patterns are present. It's well established that risk for heart attack in a diabetic is the same as that of someone who's already suffered a prior heart attack--very high risk, in other words.

Marta's primary care doctor's advice would be like inquiring about cancer and the doctor says "Let's just wait until it's metastatic--then we'll start to worry." Of course, this is insane.

Pre-diabetes and mild diabetes should not be ignored or just "watched". Even though the blood sugar itself may not be high enough to endanger you, the hidden patterns underlying your body's unresponsiveness to insulin creates a torrent of hidden coronary risk.

For better answers, Track Your Plaque members can read "Shutting Off Metabolic Syndrome" at on the website. ("Metabolic syndrome" is the name commonly given to the constellation of abnormalities associated with pre-diabetes and diabetes.)

Don't get smug!

It may sound silly, but after someone succeeds in stopping their heart scan score from increasing or reduces their score, I warn them to not get smug. Let me explain.

I'll tell you about Jack. I met Jack a few years ago after he had a heart scan at age 39. His score: 1441! A score this high at his age obviously puts him in the 99th percentile. Also recall that a score >1000 carries a 25% annual risk for heart attack.

This captured Jack's attention. At the start, his lipoproteins were disastrous with numerous abnormal patterns. Jack committed to the program. After one year, his lipoproteins were around 80-90% corrected towards perfection. He'd lost 27 lbs, was exercising six days a week, and felt great.

Jack's repeat score one year later: 1107--over a 300 point drop! A huge success. He was ecstatic.

Unfortunately, work and life in general distracted him. Jack allowed himself to drift back to old habits, indulging in fast food 2 or 3 times a week, slacking on exercise such that it became sporadic, half-hearted efforts, and regained 15 lbs. He even failed to show up for appointments and we lost contact for two years.

One day, Jack simply decided to see where he stood, so he got himself another heart scan. The score: 2473--over a doubling from his reduced score.

The message: Long-term consistency is key, even after you've achieved control over your score. Stick with your program--and don't get smug!

Holidays are dangerous!

If you're on holiday from work today, make sure you're not on holiday from your health, too.

Too often, people come back to the office telling me that the holidays simply got out of hand--cookouts, picnics, family gatherings, etc.--and they simply couldn't avoid overeating, overdrinking, sitting around--and gaining 3-5 lbs in a weekend. (Our record is 10 lbs in a weekend!)

I don't want to harp on this issue and ruin your holiday, but I can't stress how important it is that you don't allow this to happen to you. Weight gained in a brief space of time has exceptionally destructive effects. Ever see the movie "Super Size Me"? It's an entertaining and well-done yet graphic portrayal of the damaging effects of rapid weight gain.

Enjoy your time off. Relax, enjoy your family and friends--but continue to pay attention to choosing the right foods, don't overeat, take time out to do something (or several things) physical. It'll pay off hugely in the long run.

More on carotid plaque...

Although not a perfect test, carotid ultrasound is an exceptionally easy and accessible test. Using high-frequency sound, clear images are available for most people.

I say it's not perfect because the way it's done in 2006 makes it a non-quantitative test. It is a qualitative test. In other words, you may find out that there's a 30% blockage ("stenosis"), at the far end of the common carotid artery on the right side. Unfortunately, this gives you an isolated measure of diameter of the plaque compared to the artery. What it does not tell you is what the volume of the entire plaque is. That's a far more accurate measure (and one that is incorporated into your heart scan score, by the way).

Nonetheless, carotid ultrasound is easy, very safe, and available in most hospitals and many clinics. One difficulty: most insurance companies will not allow you to go through a carotid ultrasound scan as a "screening" procedure, i.e., a test just to see if you have a carotid plaque. They will generally pay if you're having symptoms of a stroke or "mini-stroke" (transient ischemic attack, or "TIA"), have an abnormal sound in your carotid ultrasound detected by your doctor (a carotid "bruit"), or some other unusual indications. Sometimes, a resourceful physician will muster up a diagnosis based on something in your history (e.g., left arm numbness, a common and often benign complaint that can also signal stroke).

Another option are the mobile scanners or some hospital services that offer carotid screening, usually for a very modest price. Drawback: Sporadic availability, difficulty in obtaining serial scans, and imprecise reporting since it's viewed as a screening test. But it's better than nothing.

My hope is that, as screening services using safe imaging techniques like ultrasound propagate and increase in direct availability to the public, you'll be able to circumvent the obstacles imposed by your insurance company and even, sometimes, your doctor. But try your doctor first.

Carotid plaque can be shrunk

Rose, a 64-year old woman, just had a 70% carotid blockage identified by a screening ultrasound. When the result was given to her doctor, he prescribed Lipitor and told Rose that an ultrasound would be required every year. She would need carotid surgery, an "endarterectomy", if the blockage worsened.

"Can't I reduce the amount of blockage I have?" asked Rose.

"No. Once you've got it, it doesn't get any better."

Is this true? Once you've got carotid plaque, you can only expect it to get worse and it can't be reduced?

This is absolutely not true. In fact, compared to coronary plaque, carotid plaque is easier to reduce!

Of course, the Track Your Plaque program is designed to help you control or reduce coronary plaque. But, in our experience, people who have both coronary and carotid plaque will show far greater and faster reduction of carotid plaque. Dramatic reductions are sometimes seen. I've personally seen 50-70% blockages reduced to <30% on many occasions.

The requirements to achieve reduction of carotid plaque are very similar to the approach we use to reduce coronary plaque. One difference is that hypertension may play a more important role with carotid plaque and needs to be reduced confidently to the normal range before carotid plaque is controlled.

I find it shocking that the attitude like the one provided by this physician continue to prevail. Unlike coronary plaque, which has a relatively small body of scientific literature documenting how it can be reduced, carotid plaque actually enjoys a substantial clinical literature. Part of the reason is that the carotids are more easily imaged using ultrasound. (Heart structures can be seen with ultrasound, but not the coronary arteries.)

Numerous agents have been shown to contribute to reduction of carotid plaque: statin drugs, niacin, fish oil, the anti-diabetic "TZD" drugs (Actos, Avandia), several anti-hypertensive drugs, vitamin E, pomegranate juice, and several others.

It outrages me to hear stories like this. Rose is not the only one.

Don't accept the flip dismissals or the over-enthusiastic referral for carotid procedures. Insist on a conversation about plaque regression.

Note: Although I am a vigorous advocate of atherosclerotic plaque regression, this does not mean that if you have a severe (70% blockage or greater), or if there are symptoms from your carotid disease, that you should engage in a program of reversal. You must always take the advice of your doctor if your safety is in question.

Vitamin D--A coronary risk factor

Look up "coronary risk factors" in any text and you'll find high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure listed. You won't find deficiency of vitamin D listed.

Ask 99% of physicians if a deficiency of vitamin D is a coronary risk factor and you'll get rolling eyes and a sigh.

Yet, in the Track Your Plaque experience, vitamin D is emerging as a very important factor in coronary plaque development. We have observed that there are a substantial number of people whose lipids and lipoproteins are not abnormal enough to fully explain their heart scan score. In other words, there seems to be something else necessary to satisfactorily explain the magnitude of coronary plaque.

I believe that severe vitamin D deficiency is at least one of the most important factors. We've seen many people with blood levels of vitamin in the range of severe deficiency (<20 ng/ml of 25-OH-Vitamin D3) yet bland lipids and lipoproteins.

Correcting vitamin D blood levels to 50 ng/ml also seems to be among the required factors in stopping coronary plaque growth, or stopping your heart scan score from increasing.

Keep your eye on this extremely important and exciting issue. Sadly, it won't be propelled into the media like the conversation about cholesterol or high-tech procedures, since no company stands to profit from it. But you and I don't have to play that game.

Cholesterol is dead!

I saw a patient in the office yesterday. He came to me for an opinion regarding his high heart scan score of 525, putting him in the 90th percentile (5% annual risk of heart attack).

His doctor had been puzzled because his LDL cholesterols had ranged from 110 to 131 mg--actually below average. (The average LDL for the U.S. is 132 mg.) Likewise, HDL was a favorable 63 mg.

Lipoprotein analysis told the story loud and clear. His LDL particle number, a far more precise measure of LDL, was 2448 nmol/l. This means that his true LDL was more like 240-250 mg! (You can get a sense for what the true LDL is from LDL particle number by dropping the last digit: 2448 becomes 244.) Conventional LDL was therefore inaccurate by over 100 mg.

He also had a severe small LDL particle pattern. The cause of his coronary plaque was a large excess of small LDL particles. LDL cholesterol (and total cholesterol, likewise) didn't even hint at this pattern. Nor did his favorable HDL.

Think of LDL particle number as an actual count of LDL particles per volume, e.g., number of particles per cc of blood. This makes it easier to conceptualize. LDL particle number is the measure you get when you have an NMR lipoprotein profile, our preferred method of lipoprotein testing. If this is unavailable to you, apoprotein B is a reasonable second choice, though not as accurate in my view. More info on NMR is available at their website,

How to make a $1 million in cardiology

Want to make a $1,000,000 as a cardiologist in the next year? It's easy. All you have to do is:

1) Perform heart catheterizations or other procedures on anybody you can, even if it's not necessary. Perform them even if the patient has no symptoms and the stress test is normal.

2) Perform heart catheterizations if the patient is too timid or ill-informed to object.

3) Insert coronary stents in blockages, even when they're minor and it's not necessary.

4) Turn every heart procedure into a revenue-producing stream by looking for other profit opportunties, such as minor kidney artery blockages.

5) Heart disease is frightening. Scare the heck out of patients by exagerrating the dangers so they'll go through testing and procedures gratefully.

Sound absurd? Well, it would be if these weren't all true.

These are real examples, as awful as it sounds. I've witnessed all these behaviors. Not just occasionally, but with regularity.

Just today, I encountered a colleague who performs heart catheterizations routinely (up to several per day) when any symptom is present and the stress test is entirely normal. This is grossly inappropriate.

Your protection is being better-informed and avoid being sucked into the vast and frightening cardiovascular machine of revenue-yielding procedures. Part of your protection is to get a CT heart scan, then engage in a program of heart disease prevention.

Doctor, do I have lipoprotein (a)?

I met Joyce today for a 2nd opinion. She told me about this conversation she'd had with her cardiologist:

"Doctor, do you think I could have lipoprotein (a)? I read about how it can cause heart attacks even when cholesterol is controlled."

"What does it matter? Even if you have it, there's nothing we can do about it. There's no treatment for it."

Joyce was understandably groping for some means to prevent her coronary disease from causing more danger. At 56, she'd already survived a heart attack that resulted in two stents to her left anterior descending. Around 9 months later, she received a 3rd stent to another artery.

Her doctor had put her on Pravachol and said that was enough. "We know that cholesterol causes heart disease and the Pravachol reduces it. Why do we need to know anything more?"

So Joyce came to me for another view. I explained to her that there are, in fact, several ways to deal with lipoprotein(a). It is, without a doubt, among the more difficult patterns to manage--but not impossible. In fact, we have a growing list of participants in the Track Your Plaque program who have stopped or reduced their heart scan scores.

I continue to be horrified at the level of ignorance that prevails among my colleagues, the cardiologists, and the primary care community. If your doctor gives you advice like this, get a new doctor.