Diet Coke saves father's life

Jason came to the office because of chest pain. At 34 years old, he works as manager of a (non-fast food) restaurant, but indulges in lots of the odds and ends. Among his indulgences: Diet Coke. Every time he'd have a diet Coke, he'd have chest pain. Not drinking diet Coke--no chest pain. If Jason drank coffee, no chest pain. Other foods, no chest pain. Anyway, just eliminating the diet Coke seemed to do the trick. (Aspartame?)

Anyway, that's not why I tell you Jason's story. In the midst of his evaluation, an echocardiogram showed a mildly enlarged aorta, measuring 4.0 cm in diameter. So we obtained lipoproteins. Jason showed lipoprotein(a) and small LDL particles, the dreaded duo. We talked about how to correct this pattern. Among the strategies we discussed was niacin.

But what bothered me was that neither of Jason's parents had a diagnosis of heart disease. Jason had to have gotten Lp(a) from either his mother or father, since you obtain the gene from one or the other parent. You cannot acquire Lp(a). So one of Jason's parents was sitting on a genetic time bomb of unrecognized Lp(a) and hidden heart disease.

Because Jason's paternal grandfather had a heart attack at age 62, only Jason's Dad had the heart scan (though I urged both to get one). Score: 1483. Recall that heart scan scores >1000 carry a risk of death or heart attack of 25% per year if no preventive action is taken. Now, of course, we have to persuade Jason's Dad that a program of prevention--intensive prevention is in order, including a measure of Lp(a).

So that's the curious story of how Diet Coke probably saved Jason's Dad's life. The lesson is that if you or someone you know has Lp(a), think about their children as well as their parents, each of whom carry a 50% chance of having the pattern.