Stents, defibrillators, and other profit-making opportunities

As a practicing cardiologst, every day I receive a dozen or more magazines or newspapers targeting practicing physicians, not to mention the hundreds of letters, postcards, invitations to "talks", etc. that I receive. All of these materials share one common goal: To get the practicing cardiologist/physician to insert more of a manufacturer's stents, defibrillators, prescribe more of their drugs, etc.

This is a highly effective and profitable area. Pfizer's Lipitor, for instance, generated $12.2 billion just last year alone. This kind of money will fund an extraordinary amount of marketing.

I'm on the mailing list, a website for cardiologists. I'd estimate that 90% or more of their content is device-related: discussions of situations in which to insert stents, the expanding world of implantable devices, the ups and downs of various drugs. Rarely are discussions of healthy lifestyles, exercise, nutritional supplements, part of the dialogue.

How can you protect yourself from the brainwashed physician, flooded with visions of all the devices he can put in you, all the drugs that can "cure" your disease? Simple: information. Be better informed. Ask pointed questions. The idiotic lay press tells you to ask a doctor about his education. That's not generally the problem. Some of the best educated doc's I know are also the most flagrantly guilty of profiteering medicine.

Ask your doctor about his/her philosphy about the use of medications, devices, etc. If their word is God, take it or leave it, run the other way.

Will radiation kill you?

Several people have asked me lately if radiation is truly dangerous. These conversations were sparked by an editorial comment made on a column I wrote for Life Extension Magazine's April, 2006 issue on "Three ways to detect hidden heart disease".

Among the methods that were discussed in this piece was, of course, CT heart scanning. Anyone who is involved with CT heart scans Quickly recognizes the spectacular power of this test to uncover hidden, unsuspected heart disease, literally within seconds. In 2006, there's really nothing like it for the every day person to have hidden heart disease detected and precisely quantified.

Yet, the "rebuttal" to my article claimed that the broad use of heart scans was only my personal view and that, in truth, radiation kills people.

NONSENSE! If an ovarian cancer is discovered by a CT scan of the abdomen, is that unwise use of radiation? If pneumonia or lung cancer is discovered on a chest x-ray with minimal radiation exposure, have we performed a disservice. Of course not. In fact, these are often lifesaving applications of radiation.

Can radiation be used unwisely with excessive exposure? Of course. The 64 slice CT angiograms are just an example of this. Dr. Mehmet Oz announced on Oprah recently that this was a test to be used for broad screening of women for heart disease. This is wrong. The radiation required for a full 64 slice CT angiogram test is truly excessive for a screening application. You wouln't want to get breast cancer from your mammogram, would you? The radiation from a 64-slice CT angiogram is similar to that of a heart catheterization in the hospital--too much for screening. This is not to be confused with a CT heart scan for a calcium score performed on a 64 slice device. I think this can be performed with acceptable radiation exposure.

Think about what would happen, for instance, if you had your heart disease undetected, had a heart attack, and went to the hospital? During your hospitalization, you'd likely get five chest x-rays, a heart catheterization, perhaps one or more nuclear imaging tests, maybe even a full CT scan (with far more radiation than a screening heart scan). The amount of radiation of a heart scan is trivial compared to what you obtain in a hospital.

So take it all in perspective. The low level of radiation required for a simple heart scan (not an angiogram) does not by itself substantially add to your lifetime risk of radiation exposure. It may, in fact, save your life or reduce your life long exposure to radiation.

Are you using bogus supplements?

I consider nutritional supplements an important, many times a critical,part of a coronary plaque control program.

But use the wrong brand or use it in the wrong way, and you can obtain no benefit. Occasionally, you can even suffer adverse effects.

Take coenzyme Q10, for instance. (Track Your Plaque Members: A full, in-depth Special Report on coenzyme Q10 will be on the website in the next couple of weeks.) Take the wrong brand to minimize the likelihood of statin-related muscle aches, and you may find taking Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor, etc. intolerable or impossible. However, take a 100 mg preparation from a trusted manufacturer in an oil-based capsule, and you are far more likely to avoid the inevitable muscle aches. (Though, of course, consult with your doctor, for all it's worth, if you develop muscle aches on any of these prescription agents.)

Unfortunately, you and I often don't truly know for a fact if a bottle from the shelf of a health food store or drugstore is accurately labeled, pure, free of contaminants, and efficacious.

One really great service for people serious about supplements is the website. They are a membership website (with dues very reasonable) started by a physician interested in ensuring supplement quality. Consumer Lab tests nutritional supplements to determine whether it 1) contains what the label claims, and 2) is free of contamination. (I have no reason to pitch this or any other site; it's just a great service.) They recently found a supplement with Dr. Andrew Weil's name on it to have excess quantities of lead!

What Consumer Lab does not do is determine efficacy. In other words, they do a responsible job of reporting on what clinical studies have been performed to support the use of a specific supplement. However, true claims of efficacy of supplement X to treat symptom or disease Y can only come with FDA approval. Supplements rarely will be put through the financial rigors of this process.

If you're not a serious supplement user, but just need a reliable source, we've had good experiences with:

--GNC--the national chain
--Vitamin Shoppe--also a national chain or great and low-priced source, but they do charge a $75 annual membership that comes with a subscription to their magazine, Life Extension (which I frequently write for) and several free supplements that you may or may not need. Again, I'm not pitching them; they are simply a good source.
--Solgar--a major manufacturer
--Vitamin World
--Nature's Bounty

There are many others, as well. Unfortunately, it's only the occasional manufacturer or distributor that permits unnacceptable contamination with lead or other poisons, or inaccurately labels their supplement (e.g., contains 1000 mg of glucosamine when it really contains 200 mg). I have not come across any manufacturer/distributor who has systemtically marketed uniformly bad products.

It really helps to have someone to lean on

Among my patients are several husband and wife teams, both of whom have heart disease by some measure. Several couples, for instance, consist of a huband who's received a stent, survived a heart attack, or has some other scar of the conventional approach. The wives generally have a substantial heart scan score in the several hundred range.

There are a few couples for which the roles are reversed: wife with bypass, heart attack, etc. and husband with a substantial quantity of coronary plaque by CT heart scan.

From them all, however, I've learned the power of teamwork. When both wife and husband (or even "significant other") are committed to the effort of controlling or reversing heart disease risk, the likelihood of success is magnified many-fold. Everything is easier: shopping for and choosing foods, incorporating supplements in the budget, taking vacations with a healthy focus, following through and sticking with your program.

Several of the couples have succeeded in obtaining regression of plaque for both man and woman. Both have reduced their heart scan scores and, as a result, dramatically reduced the potential for future heart attack and procedures.

Unfortunately, I will also see the opposite situation: One spouse committed to the program but the other indifferent. They may say such things as "You can't control what happens in the future." Or, "There's no way you can get rid of risk for heart disease. My doctor says it's hereditary." Or, "I've eaten this way since I was a kid. I'm not changing now for you or for anybody else."

Such negative commentary can't help but erode your commitment to health. Most of us recognize these sorts of comments as self-fulfulling and self-defeating.

What should you do if you have an unsupportive partner? Not easy. But it really can help to seek out a supportive partner, whether it's a friend, relative, or other significant person in your life. Of course, not everybody can find such a person. Perhaps that's another way our program can help.

I'd like to hear from anyone who does obtain substantial support of someone close, or if you are struggling to do so.

Five foods that can booby trap your heart disease prevention program

There are several foods that commonly come up on people's lists of habitual foods that are truly undesirable for a heart disease prevention program. Curiously, people choose these foods because of the mis-perception that they are healthy. My patients are often shocked when I tell them that they are not healthy and are, in fact, detrimental to their program.

I'm not talking about foods that are obviously unhealthy. You know these: fried foods, greasy cheeseburgers, French fries, bacon, sausage, etc. Nearly everyone knows that the high saturated fat content, low fiber, and low nutritional value of these foods are behind heart disease, hypertension, and a variety of cancers.

I'm talking about foods that people say they eat because they view them as healthy--but they're not.

Here's the list:

1) Low-fat or non-fat salad dressings--Virtually all brands we've examined have high-fructose corn syrup as one the main ingredients. What does high fructose corn syrup do? Triggers sugar cravings, makes your triglycerides skyrocket (causing formation of abnormal lipoproteins like small LDL), and causes diabetes. The average American now ingests nearly 80 lbs of this evil sweetener per year. You're far better off with olive, canol, grapeseed, or flaxseed based salad dressings.

2) Breakfast cereals--If you've been following these discussions, you know that the majority of breakfast cereals are sugar. They may not actually contain sugar, but they contain ingredients that are converted to sugar in your body. They may be cleverly disguised as healthy--Raisin Bran, Shredded Wheat, etc.

3) Pretzels--"A low-fat snack". That's right. A low-fat snack that raises blood sugar like eating table sugar from the bowl.

4) Margarine--Forget this silly argument about which is worse, butter or margarine. Which is worse, strychnine or lead? Both are poisons to the human body. Who cares which is worse? Fortunately, there are now healthy "margarines" like Smart Balance and Benecol that lack the saturated fat or hydrogenated fat of either.

4) Bananas--Bananas are not all that intrinsically unhealthy. The problem is that people will say to me, "Oh sure, I eat fruit. Two bananas a day." What I hear is "I don't really eat fruit with high nutrient value, fiber, and reduced sugar release. I reach for only bananas which yield extreme sugar rises in my blood and are low fiber." Aren't they high in potassium? Yes, but there are better sources. Cut back if you are a banana freak.

Why the mis-perceptions? A holdover from the low-fat diet days and marketing from food manufacturers are the principal reasons. Of course, foods are meant to be enjoyed, but be informed about it. Choose foods for the right reasons, not because of some cleverly-crafted marketing campaign.

Breakfast of champions?

I spend time every day educating or reminding patients that breakfast cereals are not health foods.

I see jaws drop in shock when I tell them that, in my opinion and despite the marketing claims, Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Shredded Wheat, and the like do not yield health benefits. In fact, they do the the opposite: dramatically raise blood sugar and trigger an adverse cascade of events that eventually leads to diabetes and heart disease.

Why the health claims in advertising? Because these products contain insoluble fiber, the sort that makes your bowels regular. Yes, your bowels are important to health, too. But the benefits end there.

Breakfast cereals are a highly refined, processed food that are not good for your plaque control program. What they are is a highly profitable, multi-billion dollar business, deeply entrenched in American culture ("They'rrrre grrrrrreat!"--Tony the Tiger; "There's a whole scoop of raisins in every box of Post Raisin Bran!" Bet you remember them all.)

I find it particularly upsetting when I see the stamp of approval from the American Heart Association on some products. Gee, if the Heart Association says it's good for you, it must be true! Don't you believe it. The American Heart Association relies on corporate donations, just like any other charity.

If you must eat breakfast cereals, refer to for a full database of glycemic indexes. You can look up a specific product and it will list its glycemic index, or sugar-releasing properties. You should try to keep glycemic index of the foods you choose below 50.

For a revealing discussion of the influence of food marketers on our perceptions of food, see Track Your Plaque nutrition expert, Gay Riley's discussion The Marketing of Food and Diets in America at her website,

In heart disease prevention, shoot for perfection

It really struck me today that it's the people who've chosen to compromise their prevention program who end up with trouble--heart procedures, heart attack, even heart failure.

Take Bob, for example. Bob is 73 years old and had a bypass operation in 2000. The procedure went well and Bob enjoyed 6 years of seemingly trouble-free life. Bob had a seriously low HDL cholesterol for which he as taken a modest dose of niacin, but was unwilling to do much more. His HDL cholesterol was thererefore "stalled" at around 40 mg. (We aim for 60 mg or greater.) We talked repeatedly about the options for increasing HDL but Bob was content with his results. After all, since his bypass operation, he'd felt well and could do all he wanted without physical limitation.

But Bob underwent a stress test for surveillance purposes (which we routinely do 5 or more years after bypass surgery). The test was markedly abnormal with two major areas of poor blood flow to his heart (signalling potential heart attack in future). Bob ended up getting 5 stents to salvage two bypass grafts, both of which showed signs of substantial degeneration.

I've seen this scenario repeatedly: A person is unwilling to go the extra mile to obtain perfection in lipid/lipoprotein patterns, lifestyle changes, and taking the basic, required supplements. Compromises eventually catch up to you in the form of another heart attack, more procedures, heart failure, physical disability, even death.

The message: Don't draw compromises in heart disease prevention. Coronary plaque is a chronic process. It will take advantage of you if you ever let your guard down.

The epidemic of small LDL

Of the patients I saw in my office yesterday, virtually EVERYONE had small LDL.

Small LDL is emerging as an extraordinarily prevalent lipoprotein pattern that drives coronary plaque growth. Previous estimates have put small LDL as affecting only 20-30% of people with coronary disease. However, in my experience in the last few years, I would estimate that greater than 80% of people with measurable coronary plaque have small LDL.

If you have a heart scan score >zero, chances are you have it, too.

I call small LDL a "modern" disease because it has skyrocketed in prevalence recently because of the great surge in inactivity in Americans.

When's the last time you walked to the grocery store and back, lugging two bags of groceries? How many years has it been since you've push-mowed your lawn? All the small conveniences of life have permeated further and further into our activities. Most of us spend the great majority of our day right where you are now--on your duff.

On the bright side, small LDL in most people is reducable by simply getting up and going. But the old teaching of 30 minutes of activity per day is now outdated. This was true when the other hours of your life included physical activities, like housework or a moderately active job. However, if the other 23 1/2 hours of your day are sedentary, then 30 minutes a day won't do it. An hour or more of activity, whether exercise or physical labor of some variety will get you better small LDL-suppressing results.

For most people with small LDL, fish oil and niacin are also necessary to fully suppress small LDL to the Track Your Plaque goal of <10 mg/dl.

A great discussion on vitamin D

If you need better convincing that vitamin D is among the most underappreciated but crucial vitamins for health, see Russell Martin's review of vitamin D and its role in cancer prevention. You'll find it in March, 2006 Life Extension Magazine or their website at:

Our preliminary experience over the past year suggests that vitamin D may be the crucial missing link in many people's plaque control program. We've had a handful of people who, despite an otherwise perfect program (LDL<60, HDL>60, etc.; vigorous exercise, healthy food selection, etc.--I mean perfect)continued to show plaque growth. The rate of growth was slower than the natural expected rate of 30% per year, but still frightening rates of 14-18% per year--until we added vitamin D. All of a sudden, we saw dramatic regression of 7-25% in 6 months to a year.

This does not mean that vitamin D all by itself regresses plaque. I believe it means that vitamin D exerts a "permissive" effect, allowing all the other treatments (fish oil, LDL reduction, HDL raising, correction of small LDL, etc.) to exert their full benefit. So please don't stop everything and just take D. This will not work. However, adding vitamin D to your program on top of the basic Track Your Plaque approach--that's the best way I know of.

MSNBC Report: We need more heart procedures!

A recent headline from MSNBC by Robert Bazell reads:

NEW YORK - Angioplasty, bypass surgery and cholesterol-lowering medications are among the many interventions that have brought a sharp decrease in heart disease deaths in recent years. But, as Dr. Sharon Hayes of the Mayo Clinic points out, there is one big problem.

“The death rates in women have not declined as much as they have in men,” she says.

The piece goes on to suggest that women are getting short-ended in the diagnosis of heart symptoms and heart attack. The solution: More testing to assess the need for procedures like bypass.

This is typical of the device and medication-dominated media consciousness: More procedures, more medication, more devices. Who's paying for advertising, after all? The money at stake is huge. But is this what you want?

Don't be swayed by media reporters with limited understanding of the real issues (at best), consciousness of who's paying for advertising (at worst). Yes, heart disese is often underestimated or misdiagnosed in women. The answer is better detection earlier in life followed by efforts to halt the process--effective, safe treatments for people's benefit, not just profit.