What if your lipoproteins are perfect?

Sandy is a 56-year old woman--fit, slender, physically active, with no bad habits. A retired teacher, she has time to devote to her health. She bikes several days per week, mountain bikes, walks, and takes fitness classes. In short, she's the picture of perfect health.

Her heart scan score was not terribly impressive: 41. However, at her age, this modest score placed her in the 77th percentile. This suggested a heart attack risk of around 2-3% per year.

So we measured Sandy's lipoproteins. They were shockingly normal. In fact, Sandy is among the very rare person with absolutely no small LDL particles. All other patterns were just as favorable, including an HDL in the 80s.

This may seem like good news, but I find it disturbing. People are often initially upset by seeing multiple abnormal lipoprotein patterns. But lipoprotein abnormalities are the tools that we use to gain control over coronary plaque.

So what do we do when there are no abnormalities?

There are several issues to consider:

1) Your heart scan score reflects the sum total of your life up until that point. What if you were 20 lbs heavier 10 years earlier and your lipoproteins were abnormal during that period? Or you smoked until age 45 and quit? As helpful as they are, lipoproteins and related patterns are only a snapshot in time, unlike the heart scan score.

2) You have a vitamin D deficiency. This is unusual as a sole cause of coronary plaque. Much more commonly, it is a co-conspirator.

3) The heart scan is wrong--highly unlikely. Heart scans are actually quite easy, straightforward tests. (The only time this tends to happen is when scoring that appears in the circumflex coronary artery is actually in the nearby mitral valve. This really occurs only when there's very minimal calcium in the valve.)

4) There's a yet unidentified source of risk. Probably very rare but conceivable. For instance, there's an emerging sense that phopholipid patterns may prove to be coronary risks. One clinically available measure that we've not found very useful is phospholipase A2, known by the proprietary name "PLAC" test. (See http://www.plactest.com for more information from the manufacturer/distributor of the test.) But there's probably lots of others that may prove useful in future.

How often does it happen that someone fails to show any identifiable source for their coronary plaque? I can count the number of instances on two fingers--very unusual. (Thank goodness!)

Sandy's case is therefore quite unique. How should we approach her coronary plaque? In this unusual circumstance, lacking a cause, we tend to introduce therapies that may regress plaque independent of any measurable lipoprotein parameters. But that's a whole new conversation.

Fly to India for a bypass operation?

In the June 19, 2006 issue of People Magazine, there's an article called "The Doctor is in . . .INDIA". The report talks about how, with health care costs in the U.S. spiralling out of control, more and more Americans are leaving the country to have their procedure performed.

They tell the story of Mr. Carlo Gislimberti of New Mexico and cite these numbers:

Heart Surgery
Cost in U.S.: $200,000

Cost in India: $10,000

Mr. Gislimberti opted to have his coronary bypass operation in India for cost reasons.

But the People magazine report left out one other option: The Track Your Plaque program: $39.00

Do your part to save ballooning health care costs: Engage in a truly powerful program of heart disease prevention like the Track Your Plaque program. The cost difference is laughably huge. And you won't require a 12-inch chest incision.

Follow conventional guidelines and guess what? You're going to have a heart attack. Follow the American Heart Association diet and you'll have heart disease.

Cut to the chase. The only program that is able to detect, track, and control coronary plaque better than any other process I know of is this program.

Note: I am not proposing that a heart disease prevention program like Track Your Plaque can replace a procedure like coronary bypass when a dangerous situation has developed. The Track Your Plaque program is designed to be implemented in the years before heart surgery is required. That's when you have the greatest control over your fate.

Surprise: Heart scan score reversal

Gene is a jovial, fun-loving railroad worker who didn't take anything too seriously--including his heart scan score of 767.

This score placed Gene solidly in the 99th percentile (in the worst 1%). It came as no surprise to Gene. After all, his father died at age 36 of a heart attack and Gene's brother died at 60 of a heart attack. So Gene took life as it came and long ago decided not to fret about his fate.

But Gene's wife prodded him and prodded him to get the heart scan. That's when I met him.

Of course, Gene had been prescribed Lipitor by his doctor for a somewhat high LDL cholesterol. Our assessment uncovered several additional patterns including lipoprotein (a), small LDL, a pre-diabetic tendency, and a severe deficiency of vitamin D.

At 224 lb and 5 ft 6 inches in height, I felt that Gene was at least 40 lbs overweight.

One year later and with reasonable correction of all his patterns except weight loss and Gene's heart scan score was 590--a reduction of 23%!

Gene was thrilled, as was I. But, frankly, I was also surprised. Dramatic regression of coronary plaque tends to not occur so readily as long as pre-diabetic patterns persist and weight is not controlled.

The lesson: Often the only way to tell if you've achieved control or regression of coronary plaque is to have another heart scan. The tremendous variation in human responses never ceases to amaze me.

Call me when you're having chest pain

I met a patient, Anna, yesterday. She was quite frustrated and frightened.

At age 50, Anna suffered a heart attack and received a stent to her left anterior descending coronary artery. What she found upsetting is that, because several members of her family had suffered heart attacks in their 40s (Dad--heart attack at age 45, paternal uncle--heart attack age 40, and even another uncle with heart attack in his late 20s), she had repeatedly asked her doctor whether she was okay.

She received the usual array of false assurances: "You're feeling fine, right? Then don't worry about it." "Look. Your cholesterol is in the normal range. Even your cholesterol/HDL ratio is fine." "Women don't get heart disease until later in life."

All proved absolutely false. As we talked, Anna exclaimed, "I think what I've been told all along is that we'll take you seriously when you finally have a heart attack!"

She's exactly right. The vast majority of times, heart disease is discovered by accident, usually because of an "event" like heart attack. This is like changing the oil in your car when it finally breaks down--it's too late.

CT heart scan, followed by lipoprotein testing and associated values, then correction of your specific causes. It's that simple.

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 www.lef.org 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 (www.Lipoprofile.com, 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 www.lef.org website at http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2006/may2006_report_heart_01.htm

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.