Take a walking vacation

If you're planning a vacation, why not consider a walking vacation?

The concept is really taking off. All you need is a pair of comfortable shoes and an interesting locale. More and more services are popping up to help you plan fun and interesting destinations and itineraries. One such catalog can be found at http://walking.about.com/od/tours/a/walkingvacation_3.htm

Lengthier walks may require some advance planning and toting some supplies. Don't forget the water!

From a health viewpoint, a walking vacation sure beats the heck out of a cruise that packs on 12 pounds of extra weight from the 24-hour a day buffet. If you're in the midst of a weight loss effort, several hours of walking through interesting locales and scenery can make it effortless.

There's loads of neat places to visit from a walker's perspective. One interesting website is www.waterfallwalks.com that lists trails that provide spectacular views of waterfalls.

Another variation on this theme is biking vacations. My wife and I are trying to set the time aside for a biking tour of wineries in the French countryside. That's our kind of multi-tasking!

"Expanded indications for implantable defibrillators"

So reads the headline on a magazine I received recently (along with thousands of my colleagues) from a major hospital system.

It goes on to say: "In January 2005, indications for implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) were substantially broadened [emphasis ours] to include most patients with a left ventricular ejection fraction (EF) of 35% or less. This change translates into a 2- to 3-fold increase in the number of Medicare beneficiariries eligible for ICDs."

Ka-ching!!! Hear the money piling up in the bank?

The device manufacturers are constantly churning data and lobbying for reimbursement to expand the use of their devices to more and more people. Defibrillators in particularly are generally a $25,000 to $50,000 opportunity for the device manufacturer alone, not counting the costs incurred at the hospital for implantation.

Beware. As reimbursement for stents and other procedures diminishes, expect a sudden "demand" for more and more people to get implantable defibrillators. Better yet, stay away from the whole issue by preventing your heart attack.

Get a heart scan--but then don't delay taking action!

I just came from one of the local hospitals after having performed a heart catheterization on a patient I met earlier this week.

Jack had gotten a heart scan a year ago with a score of 246, placing him in the 76th percentile. The "event" rate with this percentile rank is around 3% per year--not very high but enough to pose risk over a long period.

Jack chose to ignore his score. After all, the pressures of work at the University, maintaining his home and yard, etc. consumed all his energies. He came to my office--now one year after his scan--and told me about the chest pressure he was getting. Initially, his chest pains occurred with extended walking. In the past week, however, Jack was experiencing chest pressure with just walking 30 feet.

This pattern of increasing symptoms is called "accelerated angina", meaning that Jack was rapidly heading towards a heart attack. So I advised a heart catheterization in near future.

Jack's catheterization showed extensive plaque including a 50% blockage in the mainstem artery and 90% in the artery to the front of the heart (left anterior descending artery). Jack is going to have a bypass operation tomorrow.

What if Jack hadn't ignored his heart scan from a year ago? Well, I'd be very confident in saying that he would not be undergoing bypass surgery tomorrow.

The lesson: Don't dilly-dally on taking action to keep your plaque from growing. While it's not an emergency, it can easily become one if you choose to ignore your scan.

Feel that nudge in your back?

You feel that nudge in your back? That's your local hospitals competing for your bypass surgery business.

Just this morning while watching a morning news show, I saw three advertisements for hospital bypass surgery programs. One ad featured a man in his 50s telling his story:"The cardiologist determined immediately that I needed a triple bypass operation. My family and I are very grateful to _____ hospital!"

In what other field is failure celebrated so prominently? When I see these ads, I hear "My doctors failed to provide early detection and then prevent what became a life-threatening condition, even though heart disease is a chronic process that requires decades to develop." What if our man said instead,"I had a heart scan and my score was high. So I was shown why I had so much plaque. They then showed me how to control and even reduce the amount of plaque I had. I'm living safely and symptom-free without need for surgery or procedures."

Of course, the hospital is out $60,000-100,000 for the surgery. How else could they afford ad campaigns costing several million dollars a year? See these advertisements for what they are: Marketing generated by profit-seeking businesses competing for your dollars--lots of them.

Throw away total cholesterol!

Richard's total cholesterol without treatment was 186 mg/dl. "That's great!" his doctor declared, referring to the conventional dictum that total cholesterols less than 200 carry low risk. Several fingersticks in a mall kiosk set up by a local hospital to check total cholesterols confirmed Richard's low number.

But after Richard's unexpected hospitalization and two stents for severe coronary blockages, he demanded better answers.

Tragically, the answer was there all along: Despite a "favorable" total cholesterol, his HDL ("good") cholesterol was a miserable 32 mg (ideal >60 mg).

Total cholesterol is actually the sum total of HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, with a contribution from triglycerides. That's why a low total cholesterol can conceal a low HDL.

This situation is quite common. And low HDL is accompanied by a constellation of other undesirable causes of heart disease, most notably small LDL.

Don't accept total cholesterol as your sole measure of risk. It's nearly worthless. If you live in Bangladesh or a third world country, well perhaps that's the best you can get. But if you live in the U.S. or developed world, it's absurd to rely on total cholesterol.

Smart Start not so smart

Kellogg's has crafted a campaign to support the American Heart Association featuring acress Sela Ward. Her attractive face, familiar to many TV and movie viewers, does add a comforting face to their efforts.

What's in this cereal made by the manufacturers of Pop-Tarts, Cheez-It, Rice Krispies, and Chips Deluxe cookies?

There are, indeed, some healthy ingredients: oat bran, potassium; you can even get a version made with soy protein. But there's sugar listed as the second ingredient. High-fructose corn syrup is also listed prominently. (Remember this issue? High-fructose corn syrup causes overwhelming sugar cravings, causes your triglycerides to skyrocket, and is probably among the principal food ingredients that make you obese.)

Upon detailed questioning of my patients struggling to lose weight, this and products like it are often among the "healthy" foods they've gravitated towards. We spend a great deal of time dissuading them of this idea.

A one-cup serving of Smart Start is low in fat (1 gram) but contains 43 grams of carbohydates, of which there are 14 grams of sugar. There are a meager 3 grams of fiber. To me, this sounds like a cupcake.

The Kellogg's people are exceptionally clever marketers. Partner with the American Heart Association and movie stars? Brilliant!

You should trust food manufacturer advertising about as much as you trust drug manufacturer advertising, which is to say not at all.

Kellogg's sold $10 billion dollars of food products last year. They are the world's leading producer of breakfast cereals. They are a leading producer of convenience foods: cookies, crackers, cereal bars, and frozen waffles under the brands Keebler, Pop-Tarts, Eggo, Cheez-It, Nutri-Grain, Rice Krispies, Famous Amos, and Kashi.

Can they cash in on healthy trends? They'll certainly try.

Does anybody have a normal vitamin D level?

We now routinely check everyone's vitamin D blood level at the start of the program. (The measure to obtain is 25-OH-Vitamin D3. This is not to be confused with 1,25-OH2-vitamin D3, which is a kidney function measure.)

Of the 10 people with levels drawn today, none were even close to normal levels (which we define as 50 ng/ml)--not a single one.

The majority were in the range of severe deficiency (<20 ng/ml). Only two had levels in the 30s. None had higher. (Remember: I'm talking about people in Wisconsin, a terribly sunlight-deprived area much of the year. This might not apply quite as vigorously to Florida residents or others in sun-exposed regions.)

Curiously, I've also seen several people this week who had extraordinary quantities of coronary plaque on their heart scans (scores >1000), all of whom had extremely low vitamin D levels. One of these people had fairly unimpressive lipoproteins, with very minimal abnormalities identified. (This is quite unusual, by the way.) It makes you wonder if a profound deficiency of vitamin D is sufficient to act on its own as an instigator of coronary plaque.

The more we examine the issue of vitamin D deficiency, the more fascinating it gets. I suspect we've just scratched the surface and there's a lot more to learn about this tremendously interesting nutrient. Nonetheless, with what we're seeing in our experience, I'm urging everyone to get a blood vitamin D level.

Don't believe your LDL cholesterol!

Harry's case is typical. For years, his doctor told him his LDL cholesterol of 123 mg was okay. But a heart scan score of 490 (90th percentile at age 52) made him question just where his coronary plaque came from.

Lipoprotein analysis told a very different story: His LDL particle number was 2400 nmol, meaning his trueLDL was more like 240 mg, nearly double the value of LDL obtained through his doctor. Harry had other sources of risk, too, but the LDL particle number was a clear stand-out.

Why does this happen? How can LDL cholesterol be so terribly inaccurate?

LDL cholesterols obtained in virtually all labs are not measured, they're calculated. The calculation was developed in the 1960s by Dr. Friedewald at the National Institutes of Health and therefore goes by his name (the Friedewald calculation). Dr. Friedewald derived this simple calculation to permit doctors across the U.S. to obtain LDL cholesterols, which were technically difficult to measure in those days by using measured HDL, total cholesterol and triglycerides.

Doctors were told that the only time that the Friedewald calculated LDL was inaccurate was when triglycerides exceeded 400 mg. So most family practitioners and internists still believe that calculated LDL's are, for the most part, quite accurate.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When LDL's are actually meaured, you find that LDL is rarely accurate. In fact, in our experience, inaccuracy of 30-50% is the rule, sometimes 100%. The one telltale hint that calculated LDL is wrong is when HDL is <50 mg--that's nearly everybody.

So what's your LDL? You won't really know unless it's measured. Our preferred method is NMR (LipoScience) LDL particle number, probably the most accurate of all. Second best: apoprotein B, direct measured LDL, and non-HDL. (We'll cover this issue much more extensively in an upcoming report on the www.cureality.com website in an extensive Special Report.)

Are you the exception?

I read about 40 heart scans this morning. In the stack was a 41-year old man with a heart scan score of 841.

That's terribly high for anyone, let alone a 41-year old person. He's lucky to find out about this before catastrophe strikes.

People like this worry me. In general, we advise men to consider a heart scan age 40 and older; women 50 and older. If there's anything exceptional about your family history or your own history, then you might notch these numbers down another 5-10 years. For instance, if your Dad had a heart attack at age 43, you might consider a scan at age 35. Or, if you've had diabetes for several years and you're a 42-year old woman, you might think about a scan. (Men tend to develop measurable plaque by heart scans 10 years before women.)

There are no hard and fast rules. It's unusual for a male to have a score >0 before age 40. Likewise, it's very uncommon for a woman to have a score >0 before age 50. But there are occasional exceptions--but they can be very important exceptions.

Our 41-year old man with the score of 841, for instance, probably had a high score since his mid-30s. I've seen several women without any obvious risk factors with scores in the several hundred range in their early 40s.

My rule: When in doubt, opt for safety. Every day, I still read about people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s dying of heart attacks. It shouldn't happen.

When in doubt, get the heart scan. The most you'll lose is the cost of the scan and a modest exposure to radiation. If your score is zero, you know you're safe for the next 5 or more years. But if you have an exceptional score at a young age, take preventive action.

Self-empowerment in health: The new wave in health care

Track Your Plaque is just one facet of the broad and powerful emerging wave of self-empowerment in health.

Hospitals, drug and device manufacturers, and the medical establishment don't like this idea. People managing their own health? That's ridiculous! Dangerous! But mostly unprofitable.

Self-empowerment means having easy access to simple, safe, and inexpensive diagnostic tests like heart scans, carotid scans, bone densitometry (for osteoporosis), cholesterol tests, abdominal ultrasound, even brain scans (e.g., CT or MRI) for people with a family history of brain aneurysm.

Opponents of this idea worry about the "false-positives" that come about with broad testing, i.e, detection of abnormalities that are artifactual. Our experience is that false-positives are only an occasional problem with any test. Instead, we find that most people have many true-positives. In CT heart scanning, for example, we find many unsuspected enlarged aortas (potential future aneurysms), valve disorders, and aortic calcium. These are all important in a preventive program. Unfortunately, your doctor's definition of false-positive often means that no corrective procedure or operation is required.

Other evidence that self-empowerment in health is growing:

--The nutritional supplement movement. What better example of power in managing your own health is there than the fabulous array of nutritional supplements available?

--Medications moving to over-the-counter status. Gradually, more and more medications are trickling into availability for you to obtain without a doctor's prescription.

--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 rapidity and depth of information available on the Internet today is mind-boggling. It will fuel the self-empowerment movement by providing sophisticated information to the health care consumer previously available only through your physician.

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

There are more. But the movement is powerful and broad--and unstoppable. Let the establishment with vested interests in preserving the status quo fuss and complain, just like horse and buggy manufacturers did in the early 1900's when the autmobile came along.