The myth of small LDL

Annie's doctor was puzzled.

Despite an HDL cholesterol of 76 mg (spectacular!) and LDL of 82 mg, her CT heart scan showed a score of 135. At age 51, this placed her in the 90th percentile.

Not as bad, perhaps, as her Dad might have had, since he died at age 54 of a heart attack.

So we submitted blood for lipoprotein testing. Surprise! over 90% of all her LDL particles were small. (By NMR, they're called "small". By gel electropheresis, or the Berkeley Lab test, or VAP (Atherotech) technique, they're called "HDL3".)

What gives? Traditional teaching in the lipid world is that if HDL equals or exceeds 40 mg/dl, then small LDL will simply not be present.

Well, as you can see from Annie's experience, this is plain wrong. Yes, there is a graded, population-based effect--the lower your HDL, the greater the likelihood of small LDL. But small LDL is remarkably persistent and prevalent--regardless of your HDL.

We've seen small LDL even with HDLs in the 90's! I call small LDL the "cockroach" of lipids. If you think you have it, you probably do. Getting rid of small LDL requires a specific bug killer. (Track Your Plaque Members: Read Dr. Tara Dall's interview on small LDL.)

Don't let anybody blow off your request for lipoprotein testing just because your HDL is high. That's just not acceptable. Loads can be wrong even with a favorable HDL.

My stress test was normal. I don't need a heart scan!

Katy had undergone a stress test while being seen in an emergency room, where she'd gone one weekend because of a dull pain on the right side of her chest. After her stress test proved normal, she was diagnosed (I believe correctly) with esophageal reflux, or regurgitation of stomach acid up the esophagus. She was prescrbed an acid-suppressing medication with complete relief.

But Katy also had coronary plaque. Three years ago, her CT heart scan score was 157. She'd made efforts to correct the multiple causes, though she still struggled with keeping weight down to gain full control over her small LDL particle pattern.

I felt it was time for a reassessment: another heart scan. After three years, without any preventive efforts, Katy's score would be expected to have reached 345! (That's 30% per year plaque growth.) It's a good idea to get feedback on just how much slowing you've accomplished.

But Katy declared, "But I didn't think another heart scan was necessary. My stress test was normal!"

What Katy was struggling to understand was that even at the time of her first scan, a stress test would have been normal. Plaque can be present with a normal stress test.

Plaque can even show explosive growth all while stress tests remain normal. Just ask former President, Bill Clinton, how much he should have relied on stress tests. (Mr. Clinton underwent annual stress nuclear tests. All were normal and he had no symptoms--all the way up 'til the time he needed urgent bypass surgery!)

Of course, at some point even a crude stress test will reveal abnormal results. But that's years into your disease and a lot closer to needing procedures and experiencing heart attack.

So, yes, Katy would benefit from another heart scan despite her normal stress test.

The message: Don't rely on stress tests to gauge whether or not plaque has grown, stabilized, or reversed. Stress tests can be used to gauge the safety of exercise, blood pressure response, and the potential for abnormal heart rhythms. Stress tests can be used as a method to determine whether blood flow in your coronary arteries is normal through an area with plaque.

But a stress test cannot be used to gauge whether plaque has grown. It's as simple as that. Gauging plaque growth requires a heart scan.

Patient-napping: Yet another reason to stay clear of hospitals!

When I started practicing medicine around 20 years ago, it was common practice to alert a physician when their patient was seen in an emergency room.

If John Smith, for example, went to the emergency room with chest pain, the physician who had an established relationship with the patient--knew their history, had managed their health and illnesses, etc.--was notified, even if the hospital ER had no relationship with the physician. It was not uncommon for the patient to then be transferred to the hospital where their own doctor practiced.

Though cumbersome at times, it preserved the relationship of the patient with their doctor.

Over the past few years, this practice has crumbled. Nowadays, hospitals and their employed physicians (and other unscrupulous physicians acting in the name of profit) "fail" to notify the physician with an established relationship.

Guess what happens? The patient all too often ends up being put through the gamut of testing and procedures.

Why? For hospital profit, of course. If failure to notify a doctor who's had a 10-year long relationship with the patient is "overlooked" or, even more commonly, it's "unsafe" to transfer the patient because the patient is too "unstable" to be transferred, then this patient becomes ripe for picking--heart catheterization, stents, bypass surgery, etc. Ten's, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars can be reaped by this deception. I call it "patient-napping".

I see this at least several times every month. As hospitals are becoming increasingly competitive, and as they put pressure on their physicians to churn patients for revenues, you're going to see more and more of this.

As always, what is your protection from this expanding influence of hospitals and the doctors too meek to stand up to them? Education and information. Arm yourself with an understanding of what is accomplished in hospitals, when you truly need them, and when you don't.

Take it one step further. At least from a heart disease standpoint--the #1 profit-maker for hospitals--aim to 1)identify your coronary plaque, then 2) seize control over your coronary plaque and reduce your risk for heart attack and heart procedures as much as humanly possible. That's the goal of the Track Your Plaque program.

Don't believe the negative press on fish oil

A British Medical Journal study released in March, 2006 has prompted a media flurry of reports on the worthlessness of fish oil. (Hooper L, Thompson RL, Harrison RA et al. Risks and benefits of omega 3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: a systematic review. BMJ March,2006)

Don't believe it for a second.

First of all, the study was a re-analysis of the existing published scientific literature. It was not a new study. It included a wild conglomeration of different clinical observations, as the studies examining fish oil over the years have been extraordinarily heterogeneous--in populations examined, omega-3 supplement (e.g., fish vs. capsule), period of observation, endpoints measured.

The results were skewed by inclusion of a moderate-sized British study by Burr et al in men with angina. In this study, no benefit was demonstrated and, in fact, a negative effect--more heart attack and death--was observed with fish oil. This was not news, since the study was published in 2003. It's results have been a mystery to everyone, since its unexpected negative result for fish oil was so starkly different from virtually every other study that preceded it (suggesting a study flaw or statistical fluke).

Nonetheless, the Burr study served to throw off the overall analysis. It diluted the dramatic and persuasive outcome of the GISSI-Prevenzione Study of 11,000 people in which a 28% reduction in heart attack and 45% reduction in cardiovascular death was observed. Note that the substantial numbers of the GISSI make the study's outcome nearly unassailable.

Another important fact: fish oil is among the most powerful tools available to correct elevated triglycerides. Drops of 50% are common. Recall that triglycerides are a necessary ingredient to create the nasty LDL, as well as VLDL, Intermediate-density lipoprotein, and an undesirable shift from large to ineffective small HDL. Reducing triglycerides is therefore crucial for your plaque control program.

This re-analysis serves to prove nothing. Such analyses can only pose questions for further study in a real study like GISSI: a randomized (random participant assignment), controlled (treatment vs. placebo or other treatment) study.

The weight of evidence remains heavily in favor of fish oil, not only as helpful, but fabulously beneficial, particularly for anyone aiming to reduce coronary plaque.

How important is high blood pressure?

Control of blood pressure is crucial for coronary plaque control and stopping your heart scan score from increasing.

Dr. Mehmet Oz (of Oprah fame and a cardiac transplant surgeon at Columbia University) made graphic point of this on the ABC TV news show, 20/20, last evening on an episode called "Our Bodies: Myths, Lies, and Straight Talk". (See a summary on the ABC News 20/20 website at

Although I believe he somewhat overstated the case for hypertension (proclaiming "If you're going to remember one number, if you're going to focus and fixate on one number in your entire health profile, it better be your blood pressure"), he made the point that a blood pressure of 115/75 is what you should have for optimal health.

I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, the old advice that desirable blood is 140/90 or less is absolutely wrong. At this level, we see flagrant increases in heart scan scores. We also progressive enlargement of the thoracic aorta, the large vessel that leaves the heart and branches to provide the major arteries of the body. Growth of the aorta to an aneurysm is also common at these formerly acceptable blood pressure. (The diameter of your aorta in the chest is an easily obtainable measure on your CT heart scan.)

The blood pressure you need for halting and reversing plaque growth on your heart scan is indeed 115/75 or less. (Not so low, however, that you're lightheaded.) This is the blood pressure that you were meant to have evolutionarily. It's also the blood pressure that helps tremendously in keeping your aorta from enlarging.

Watch for an upcoming exhaustive report on blood pressure and its plaque-raising effects and how to reduce it using nutritional strategies on the membership website.

Is your doctor in cahoots with the hospital?

I got a call from a doctor about a patient we've seen in past.

"I've got Tricia in the office. She's been having some kind of chest and abdominal pain. I think it's esophageal reflux, but just to be safe I'm sending her to the hospital."

I advised this physician that, given Tricia's low heart scan score, she was unlikely to be having a coronary "event" like heart attack or unstable symptoms. It wasn't impossible, but just highly unlikely.

As the patient was without symptoms at the moment and had driven herself to his office, I offered to perform a stress test immediately. (Though stress tests are of limited usefulness in people without symptoms, they can be useful provocative maneuvers in people with symptoms of uncertain significance.)

The doctor declined. Tricia was, after all, in his office and he was responsible for any decisions despite any objections I voiced. Well, Tricia was directed by her doctor to go to a local hospital, though one with an especially notorious reputation for putting virtually anyone they can get their hands on through as many procedures as possible.

As you might guess, this doctor was closely associated with this hospital. He and his colleagues obtain incentives (or are penalized) if they do not generate revenue-producing procedures for the hospital.

So, guess what? Tricia ended up with several procedures, all of which yielded nothing--except $30,000 in revenues from Tricia's insurance company.

I harp on this deplorable state of affairs because it is utterly, painfully, and shamefully TRUE. Just look at the hospital and you'd better brace yourself for a series of tests that could cost you the equivalent of a nice 3 bedroom home. If they were truly necessary after the failure of preventive and other simple efforts, fine. But, all too often, they are driven by profit motives.

Could I have stopped this somehow from occurring? After all, Tricia was reasonably aware of the way we do things around here. I fear that even this failed to serve Tricia well. But I remain hopeful that, as we build broader awareness of these issues, that more and more people and physicians will stand up and refuse to tolerate the status quo.

Where is the Track Your Plaque program going?

I spend a lot of time worrying about how people can be helped to navigate through this program.

Take, for instance, the man in rural Texas who, while traveling in Dallas, got a heart scan on a whim. His score was 990. When he took the report back to his doctor, he got a smirk--and that's all. When he came to the Track Your Plaque program, he lacked a physician advocate to help him.

Or the woman from Florida who sought opinions from two reputable cardiologists for her heart scan score of 377. Both advised her that she needed a heart catheterization--despite her lack of symptoms, her 5-day-a-week exercise program, and normal stress test. She also lacks a physician advocate who acts on her behalf, helping her achieve success, rather than just churning her for money from hospital procedures.

For people like this and for others, I see the Track Your Plaque program evolving in several directions:

1) An online clinic--You enter and we take your "hand" and lead you step by step through the process, not only at the beginning, but over the months and years. This would help clear up some of the confusion and zigzags that some people experience trying to navigate through the program.

2) Develop physician and non-physician partners--The woman in Florida, for instance, could be referred to a doctor nearby who understands the program and is able to assist her. At present, this is virtually impossible because of the bias towards heart procedures, drugs as the sole treatment for heart disease risk, and the superficial physician-patient relationship. The majority of practicing physicians just don't understand the program despite the fact that it is based on sound clinical and experimental data. But it will in time.

Looking back, we've come a long way. I remember first having patients undergo heart scans 10 years ago. My colleagues laughed or called it "silly". The general public didn't know what they meant.

Now we're talking about how to broadcast the most powerful heart disease prevention program available in the world to a larger audience, but making it easier and more accessible. Mass media like Oprah's two hour-long spots helped, but we need to make the next leap. Not just identifying hidden heart disease to feed the hungry cardiovascular hospital procedure monster, but to educate/inform/empower the public on what to do with the scan once they've had it.

Who cares about triglycerides?

Walter's triglycerides were 231 mg. His LDL cholesterol was "favorable" at 111 mg, HDL likewise at 49 mg.

"Everything looks good," his doctor declared.

"Do you think the triglycerides are okay, too?" Walter asked.

"Well, the guidelines do say that triglycerides should be less than 150, but I believe you're close enough. Anyway, triglycerides don't really cause heart disease."

When I met Walter, I made several comments. First of all, in light of his heart scan score of 713, none of his numbers--HDL, LDL, or triglycerides-- were acceptable. But the triglycerides were glaringly and terribly too high.

Why? What exactly are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are a basic fat particle that, though they do not cause heart disease directly, trigger the formation of an array of abnormal lipoprotein particles in the blood that are among the most potent causes of heart disease known.

These abnormal lipoprotein particles include small LDL, VLDL, and IDL (intermediate-density lipoprotein--a really bad pattern). Excess triglycerides also cause HDL to drop. They also cause a distortion of HDL structure, causing the particles to become abnormally small. Small HDL is also useless HDL, unable to provide the protection that HDL is designed to do.

So Walter's elevated triglycerides are, in reality, a substantial red flag for an entire panel of abnormal particles that contribute to the growth of his coronary plaque.

So, if you get this kind of commentary on your triglycerides, ask for another opinion. (Track Your Plaque Members: Also see Triglycerides: Mother of meddlesome particles at

Total cholesterol and heart scans

Andy was fearful of heart disease in his life. At age 52, he'd already had four CT heart scans--one each year on or near his birthday.

Yet, when I looked at Andy's scans, his scores had been increasing 20-24% per year. Each and every score was greater by 20% or more over the previous.

So I asked Andy what steps he had taken to stop this relentless progression. "Well, I've always been real health conscious. But ever since my first scan, I really started sticking to a healthy diet, exercising nearly every day, and I take a bunch of supplements."

"What did your doctor advise?" I asked.

"Well, Dr. ---- said that nothing needed to be done, since my total cholesterol was always below 200."

Men's Health magazine's fabulous story about the folly of using total cholesterol to gauge heart disease risk.

Aaaauuuggghhh!! Wrong!

This man was, in fact, at rapidly escalating risk for heart attack. This rate of growth simply can't continue forever without igniting this bomb.

A total cholesterol below 200 is meaningless, as Andy's increasing coronary plaque proved. For instance, you can have a total cholesterol of 165 mg but with an HDL cholesterol of 27 mg. This would constitute very high risk for heart disease despite the low total cholesterol. The low HDL pattern is among the most common reasons for a misleading total cholesterol. Small LDL, high triglycerides, and lipoprotein (a) are other frequent reasons.

Andy, run the other way! Do not heed this doctor's advice! You need a solid answer to the question: Why exactly do I have coronary plaque in the first place?

Then, agree on a treatment program that corrects your specific causes.

Cardiologists out of touch

This weekend, I'm fulfilling some responsiblities I have every so often to some of the local hospitals. It gives me a chance to interact with many of my colleagues who are likewise "on call" for the weekend.

I tried to strike up several conversations with colleagues about how they were managing heart disease prevention. I received blank stares, puzzled looks, indifference. One colleague declared that 80 mg of Lipitor is all you need to know.

These same colleagues are the ones scrambling for the heart attack patients in the emergency room, climbing over one another for consultation in the hospital for patients with chest pain and heart failure. They're consumed with expanding the range of procedures they can perform.

Carotid stenting is hot. So is stenting of the leg arteries. Defibrillators have been a financial bonanza. Opportunities abound on how to add these procedures to a cardiologist's abilities.

But heart disease prevention? How about heart disease reversal?

Frankly, I'm embarassed by my colleagues' lack of interest. Imagine we had a cure for breast cancer--not a palliative therapy that just slows the disease down or prolongs life, but actually cures it once and for all. I would hope that all physicians and oncologists would learn how to accomplish this. What if instead they focused on learning new ways to remove breasts, administer new toxic chemotherapies, etc. but ignored the whole idea of cure?

This is what is happening with coronary plaque reversal. The answer is right in front of them, but the vast majority (99%) of cardiologists choose to ignore it. After all, prevention and reversal simply don't pay the bills.

That means that, in 2006, you simply cannot rely on your cardiologist to counsel you on how to achieve regression or reversal of coronary plaque. How about your internist, family physician, or primary care doctor? Well, they're busy doing pneumovax injections, Pap smears, managing knee and hip arthritis, low back pain, diarrhea, headaches, sinus infections and . . yes, dabbling in heart disease prevention.

And, for the most part, doing a miserable job of it. What you generally get echoes the drug manufacturers pitch: Take a statin drug, cut the fat in your diet.

Until the majority of doctors catch on, you're going to have to rely on sources like the Track Your Plaque program for better information.