If you have coronary artery disease . . . do you know why?

This conversation is aimed primarily at non-followers of the Track Your Plaque program, because if you were a follower, you’d already know the answer!

I saw a woman in the hospital today. She’d just survived her second heart attack one week earlier. At 51 years old, she was understandably shaken, perhaps terrified. She felt that her future was uncertain and, in fact, had discussed with her husband what he should do to prepare for a future without her.

One week earlier, she’d received three stents that successfully aborted her heart attack. But, as is always the case, the modest delays of ambulance transport, the emergency room preliminaries, then of mobilizing an available cardiologist and catheterization laboratory team, totaled nearly two hours before her stent procedure. Inevitably, a moderate amount of damage had been done to her heart.

Her first “event” had been very similar: very little warning, then 911 and the flurry of activity. Both times, the cardiologists (two different physicians) complimented the patient on her prompt action. Both also called her heart attacks “close calls”.

She defied the odds with two near-death events. So, when I met her a week after her last heart attack, I asked an obvious question: “Has anyone told you why you’re having these heart attacks?”

She looked completely puzzled at first. She then said, “No, not really. I just assumed it was genetic. My mother went through the same thing when she was my age. But she didn’t get as far as I have, since they didn’t have these procedures back then.”

To me, this seems inexcusable: This woman had experienced two brushes with death and no doctor had established a cause. Could this woman’s belief be true, that it’s just genetic?

While there are, indeed, genetic causes for heart disease, the vast majority of these genetic causes are 1) identifiable, and 2) correctable. Genetic does not necessarily mean hopeless. It just means that the usual equation of heart disease risk management (heart disease = LDL cholesterol = need for Lipitor) has limited value. It would be like giving penicillin to people for any and all infections. It will work occasionally, but it will fail miserably in a great many cases. Treating LDL cholesterol with statin drugs is just like that.

Perhaps this woman has lipoprotein(a), a serious genetic trait that predicts heart disease at a young age and is largely unaffected by statin drugs. Or, she may have a severe excess of small LDL, only partially suppressed by statins. If she has the combined pattern of lipoprotein(a) and small LDL, that means she has two statin-unresponsive and significant genetic traits. But they respond to niacin, specific nutritional strategies, and several other agents.

The message: If you have coronary disease, you need to insist on knowing why. “It’s genetic” is not an acceptable answer. “There’s no proof of any heart disease causes beyond cholesterol” is also nonsense. “Everyone gets heart disease, or “hardening of the arteries”, eventually. You just got it a little before everyone else” is also patently ridiculous.

Identifying the causes of your coronary disease (or coronary plaque if you’ve had a CT heart scan) is the first step in developing a program of treatment that provides you with control over this disease.