People with higher scores need to try harder

Sam is a 69-year retired physician. He was thoroughly enjoying retirement: golf, travelling, going out to dinner two or three times a week, spending weekends with his grandchildren. His lifestyle tended towards overindulgence, but he managed to stay fit and trim. At 6 ft 1 inch, he weighed 194 lbs and could still run 3 miles without too much difficulty. Not as good as his marathon-running days, but still not too bad for 69.

Sam's heart scan score in 2003 was a concerning 1983--extensive plaque. His doctor wasn't much help in interpreting the scan and so Sam simply chose to ignore it.

A chance conversation with a physician friend 18 months later made Sam think that perhaps this shouldn't be ignored. That's when he came to my office.

I find that sometimes the best way to motivate someone to take action is to demonstrate just how fast plaque grows if action isn't taken. So I advised Sam to get another scan first, since 18 months had passed. His score: 2441, or a 23% increase.

Sam was now starting to catch on. We made several changes in his prevention program (starting from virtually nothing). He did undergo a stress nuclear (thallium type) of test, which he passed without difficulty--normal blood flow in all heart territories despite the extensive plaque.

But, for some reason, Sam simply allowed himself to drift back to old habits: poor choices in food, overindulging in hard liquor, missing his fish oil and other supplements, and his medication, sometimes up to several days a week.

Sam started having unusual feelings in his chest. He described a sort of nervousness along with skipped heart beats. So we repeated a stress test. This time, a large area of reduced blood flow in the front of his heart ("anterior left ventricle") was detected. Sam ended up receiving three stents in a difficult procedure.

The moral: If you're starting out with a lower heart scan score of, say, 100 or 200, maybe you'll get by without trying too hard--maybe. But if your score is higher, say, several hundred or in the thousands, you got to try harder.

You're starting later in the process. Your disease will allow you very little slack. Let your guard down and it will get you. Control over your plaque is, indeed, very possible--we do it all the time. Score reduction is also possible. But your effort must be more serious and consistent.