Calcium reflects total plaque

People frequently ask, "Why measure coronary artery calcium? My doctor said that calcium only tells you if there's hard plaque, and that hard plaque is stable. He/she says that calcium doesn't tell you anything about soft plaque."

Is that true? Is calcium only a reflection of "hard" plaque? Is hard plaque also more stable, less prone to rupture and causes heart attack?

Actually, calcium is a means of measuring total plaque, both soft and hard. That's because calcium comprises 20% of total plaque volume. Within plaque, there may be areas that are soft (labeled "lipid pool" in the diagram). There are also areas made of calcium (shown in white arcs within the plaque). Even though this is just a graphic, it's representative of what is seen when we perform intracoronary ultrasound of a live human being's coronary artery. In other words, this cross section contains both "soft" (lipid pool) as well as "hard" (calcium) elements.

Is this artery "soft" or "hard"? It's both, of course. The artery compostion can vary millimeter by millimeter, having more soft or hard elements. The artery can also change over time in either direction. Thus, "soft" plaque may indeed be soft today, only to be "hard" in 6 months, and vice versa.

The essential point is that measuring just "soft" plaque provides limited information. What the CT heart scan does is provide a gauge of total plaque, soft and hard, and it does so easily, safely, precisely. If your score increases, the lengthwise volume of total plaque has also grown. If your score decreases, the total amount of plaque has also decreased.

Don't mistake marketing for truth

We're all so inundated with marketing messages for food. Unfortunately, many people confuse the messages delivered through marketing with the truth.

For instance:

Pork: "The other white meat." Pork is a high-saturated fat food.

"Bananas: A great source of potassium." Bananas are a high glycemic index (rapid sugar release), low fiber food.

"Pretzels: A low-fat snack." A high glycemic index food made from white wheat flour. It makes you fat and skyrockets blood sugar.

Jif peanut butter: "Choosy moms choose Jif." Do they also choose hydrogenated fats?

Hi-C: Upbeat jingles like "Who put the straw in my Hi-C fruit drink, a new cool straw that wriggles and bends? Who put the straw in my Hi-C fruit drink, with Vitamin C for me and my friends? Who was that man, I'd like to shake his hand, he made my Hi-C cooler than before!" What about the 25 grams of sugar per 4 oz serving? And the high fructose corn syrup that creates an insatiable sweet tooth, raises triglycrides 30%, and exagerates pre-diabetes?

Marketing is not reliable, unbiased information. If Ford boasts that their cars are superior to GM, do you say "Well then, I need to buy a Ford?" Of course not. Take marketing for what it is: A method of persuading people to buy. It may or may not contain the truth. It's a big part of the reason Americans are the fattest people on earth and are experiencing an explosion of chronic diseases of excess.

Tattered Red Dress

"Are you taking your health to heart? Perhaps you understand the importance of eating a diet low in cholesterol or getting 30 minutes of exercise a day. But do you know your own risk of developing cardiovascular disease?

It’s time to take your heart health personally. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women — and that means it is not “someone else’s problem.” As a woman, it’s your problem.

That’s where the Go Red Heart Checkup comes in. This comprehensive evaluation of your overall heart health can help you now and in the future. By knowing your numbers and assessing your risks now, you can work with your doctor to significantly reduce your chances of getting heart disease tomorrow, next year, or 30 years from now!"

So reads some of the materials promoted by the American Heart Association Red Dress campaign to increase awareness of heart disease in women. The effort is well-intended. There is no doubt that most women are unaware of just how common coronary disease is in females.

But I've got a problem with the solutions offered. "Know your numbers"? Eat healthy, don't be overweight, be active, don't smoke. That's the gist of the program's message--nothing new. In 2006, why would some sort of screening effort for detectin of heart disease not be part of the message? Why isn't there any message about the real, truly effective means to detect hidden heart disease in women--namely, heart scanning?

Does a 58-year old woman with normal blood pressure, LDL 144, HDL 51, 20 lbs overweight have hidden heart disease? I've said it before and I'll say it again: You can't tell from the numbers. She could die of a heart attack tomorrow without warning, or maybe she'll be dancing on our graves when she's 95 and never have experienced any manifestation of heart disease. The numbers will not tell you this.

I'm glad the American Heart Association has seen fit to invest its sponsors' money in a campaign to promote prevention. I wish they hadn't fallen so far short of a truly helpful message. Perhaps the sponsors (like Pfizer, maker of Lipitor) will benefit, anyway.

Panic in the streets

Several days ago, I wrote about a local prominent judge in my neighborhood who was unexpectedly found dead in bed of a heart attack at age 49.

As expected, I've received multiple calls from patients and physicians who want heart catheterizations. For instance, an internist I know called me in a panic. He asked that I perform a heart catheterization in a patient with a heart scan score of 768. I've been seeing this patient for about a year. He's without symptoms, even with strenuous exercise; stress tests (i.e., tests of coronary bloow flow) have been normal.

I remind patients and colleagues every day, day in day out: Having a heart scan score revealing some measure of coronary plaque is not a sufficient reason by itself to proceed with procedures. Fear of suffering a fate like the unfortunate judge is also not a reason to proceed with procedures.

Increased awareness of the gravity of heart disease is a good thing. Some good can come out of a needless tragedy like this. The lesson from the judge's unfortunate experience: he needed a CT heart scan. I'm told that the judge's doctor advised him that a heart scan was a waste of time. I hope that appropriate legal action for negligence is taken by the judge's family against this physician.

Not doing a heart scan is wrong. That's the lesson to learn. The lesson is not that everybody with coronary plaque needs a procedure. Had the judge undergone a simple heart scan, intensified prevention could have been instituted and he'd still be alive with his wife and children today.

The indications for procedures are unchanged by your heart scan. If a stress test is abnormal and indicates poor flow to a part of the heart, that would be a reason. If symptoms like chest discomfort or breathlessness appear, that's an indication. If there's evidence of poor heart muscle contraction, that's a reason to proceed with a procedure. But just having coronary plaque is not a sufficient reason.

Heart scan curiosities 1

Heart scans often reveal more than coronary plaque. From time to time, I'll show some curious findings that people have displayed during routine heart scans.

This 65-year old man had a relatively low heart scan score of 73, but showed an impressive quantity of calcification of his pericardium, the usually soft-tissue sack that encases the heart. The calcified pericardium is the white arcs that surround the heart in the center of the image.

Thankfully, because he's without any symptoms of breathlessness, excessive fatigue, or leg swelling, he won't need to have it surgically corrected. When the pericardium becomes rigid and encircles the heart, it can literally squeeze the heart, a condition called "constrictive pericarditis". The surgery is pretty awful.

This man's calcified pericardium likely resulted from one or more viral infections over his lifetime.

Annual physical

A judge who lives in my neighborhood was found dead in his bed this week from a heart attack. He was 49 years old. His teenage kids found him and performed CPR, but he was cold and long-gone by then.

A close friend of the judge told me that he'd passed an annual physical just weeks before.

This sort of tragedy shouldn't happen. It is easily--easily--preventable. Had this man undergone a heart scan, a score of at least 400 if not >1000 would have been uncovered, and appropriate preventive action could have been taken. The conversation could have centered around the strategies to correct the patterns that triggered his plaque and how he could reduce his score.

Of course, hospitals make use of stories like this to fuel fear that brings hordes to their wards for procedures. Would the judge have required a procedure to save his life, had his heart disease been diagnosed at his annual physical? Not necessarily. Hospitals and cardiologists would try to persuade you that procedures have an impact on mortality. This is simply not true. In fact, the mortality benefits of procedures are questionable except in the midst of acute illness (e.g., unstable chest pain symptoms or heart attack).

Don't be falsely reassured by passing a physical. A physical does nothing to screen you for heart disease. An EKG and stress test, if included, is a lame excuse for heart disease screening. Remember that a stress test is a test of coronary blood flow, not for the presence of coronary plaque. The unfortunate judge most likely had a 30% "blockage" that did not block flow, but ruptured and closed an artery off sometime in the night when he died. A stress test even on the day of his death would not have predicted this.

A CT heart scan would have uncovered it easily, unequivocally, safely.

A curious case of regression

Randi came to me at age 43. Before I'd met her, she'd undergone two heart scans about one year apart. The initial score was 57--not terribly high, but very high for a 41-year old, pre-menopausal female. Recall that rarely do women have any heart scan score above zero before age 50. Randi's 2nd scan had yielded a score of 72, a 27% increase.

Randi even had her lipoproteins assessed and she had the dreaded Lp(a). So when I met her, we discussed the possible choices in Lp(a) treatment: niacin and estrogens as primary treatment, along with LDL reduction to rock-bottom numbers, along with adjunctive DHEA, almonds, ground flaxseed, and fish oil. Sandi was okay with the adjunctive treatments and was already slender and active (BMI <25), and did not show Lp(a)'s evil partner, small LDL. But Randi had no interest in estrogens, even bio-identical preparations, because of the usual uncertainties associated with estrogen replacement. She also proved to be one of the people truly intolerant to anything but the most minute dose of niacin, experiencing prolonged flushing and abdominal cramps with any dose >250 mg.

Randi even attempted a trial of the Mathias Rath concoction of high-dose vitamin C, lysine, and proline as treatment for Lp(a), but we saw no effect on Lp(a).

Unfortunately, this left Randi's Lp(a) essentially uncorrected. Another scan one year later: 90, another 25% increase. 18 months after that, another scan: 120, a 30% increase.

Now 47-years old, Randi had resigned herself to not being able to control her plaque. We'd run out of options. At that point, I'd started to have everyone's vitamin D blood level assessed and then replaced with vitamin D. I did this with Randi, too.

A year after her last scan, she underwent another. The score: 92, a 23% reduction--substantial reversal following a course of unrelenting progression.

Randi and I, of course, both rejoiced with this unexpected success. But it raised some interesting questions: How important is Lp(a) when vitamin D is normalized and small LDL is not a part of the picture? How consistent with regression be with this strategy over time? Would normalization of vitamin D have stopped plaque from becoming established in the first place?

I hope these issues will clarify over time. For now, I'm thrilled with Randi's success. She remains on her present, "incomplete", though successful program.

Note: I would not ordinarily advise a young woman to undergo serial heart scanning with this frequency. Randi had unusual access to a scan center through a relationship with the staff. I am nonetheless grateful for the lessons her experience have taught us.

Fortune teller

Whenever your doctor uses your cholesterol values--total, LDL, HDL, triglycerides--to judge your heart disease risk, he/she is trying to act as your fortune teller.

In some states, fortune telling is illegal, a misdemeanor. The New York State lawbooks say:

A person is guilty of fortune telling when, for a fee or compensation which he directly or indirectly solicits or receives, he claims or pretends to tell fortunes, or holds himself out as being able, by claimed or pretended use of occult powers, to answer questions or give advice on personal matters or to exorcise, influence or affect evil spirits or curses; except that this section does not apply to a person who engages in the aforedescribed conduct as part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.
(Source : Wikipedia)

Rather than occult powers, your physician claims to use "medical judgement" to tell your fortune. Except for that distinction, it might be construed as a misdemeanor.

Let's take three typical examples:

58-year old Laura has a high LDL of 195 mg/dl. Her HDL is 52 mg/dl, triglycerides 197 mg/dl. Does she have heart disease?

51-year old Jonathan has an LDL of 174 mg/dl, HDL 34 mg/dl, triglycerides 156 mg/dl. Does Jonathan have heart disease?

71-year old Marian has an LDL cholesterol of 135 mg/dl, HDL 84 mg/dl, triglycerides of 67 mg/dl.

None of the three have symptoms. They all feel well. Nobody is taking a statin cholesterol drug or other agent that would modify the numbers. Jonathan is around 30 lbs overweight. Nobody has an impressive family history of heart disease.

Can you tell who has heart disease and who doesn't? If you can, you're smarter than I am, because I certainly can't tell. But your doctor tries to divine your future by looking at these numbers.

Do they know something that we don't know? No. It's a crude odds game, a guessing game. A guessing game that frequently comes up on the losing end.

These are three real people. Laura, despite her high LDL, has no identifiable coronary heart disease. Jonathan has advanced coronary disease. These were his numbers just prior to his stent. Marian has a moderate quantity revealed by a CT heart scan score of 419.

Don't even try predicting your future from your cholesterol numbers--it simply can't be done. Every day, I see patients and physicians beating their heads over this dilemma. Telling your fortune using pretended occult powers is illegal. Telling your fortune using cholesterol numbers should be, too.

If you want to know if you have coronary plaque, that's the role of the CT heart scan. Plain and simple.

Heart scan score drops like a stone

Matt was dumbfounded when he found out about his heart scan score of 317 in the summer of 2005.

Earlier that year he'd unintentionally lost 20 lbs. in the space of two months and was feeling awful. He was diagnosed with diabetes and put on several medications. He told me that the heart scan score was just adding insult to injury.

As you'd expect in someone with diabetes, Matt had a low HDL, increased triglycerides, and small LDL. Blood pressure and inflammation (C-reactive protein) were issues as well.

Matt's primary care physician had put him on a statin cholesterol drug as soon as he heard about Matt's heart scan score, so we kept this going. What Matt's primary care physician didn't know was that his "true" LDL had been much higher than the conventional calculated LDL had suggested, so the statin agent was a reasonable solution. (Matt was also not terribly motivated to make dramatic changes in lifestyle or food choices. The statin drug was a compromise.)

We added fish oil and vitamin D to his regimen. Though recent data have cast doubt on the value of treating homocysteine levels of around 12.5, Matt's much higher value of 28 was treated with vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid, with a resultant homocysteine of 7.6.

17 months into the Track Your Plaque approach, and Matt's repeat heart scan score: 244, a 23% reduction.

How's that for an early Christmas gift?

"You don't have a uterus. You don't need progesterone"

I was talking with a hospital nurse recently who told me about her lack of energy, blue moods, and other assorted complaints. At age 49, she was exasperated. So I suggested that she ask her gynecologist about progesterone cream.

The gynecologist advised her, "You don't have a uterus. You don't need progesterone." He went on to explain that the only reason to take progesterone was to prevent uterine cancer caused by estrogen.

Then what about progesterone's weight loss benefits? It's effects on increased energy, improved mood, deeper sleep? These benefits, of course, have nothing to do with the uterus.

I've witnessed these benefits in women many times, both in the peri-menopausal period (which starts around your late 30's) and menopause.

Why talk about progesterone when our focus is heart disease and reduction of heart scan scores? Because if progesterone in a woman helps her feel better, more upbeat, and accelerates weight loss, she's more likely to succeed in her plaque-control program.

For additional comments on progesterone, read the Track Your Plaque interview with women's hormone expert, Dr. Nisha Jackson, Females, hormones, and weight control:
An interview with Dr. Nisha Jackson
found at Dr. Jackson also has a book available called "The Hormone Survival Guide to Perimenopause".

Or, read Dr. John Lee's pioneering books, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause: The Breakthrough Book on Natural Hormone Balance and What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause: Balance Your Hormones and Your Life from Thirty to Fifty . (An edition that combines the two books is available, also.)