More catheterizations would make me happy!

I received this fax today from a cardiologist seeking a position:

"I would prefer to perform as many interventions [stents, angioplasties, etc.] as possible..."

That about sums it up, doesn't it? The goal of this young man, trained in major universities including Columbia University, Harvard, and Emory, is not to pursue an avenue of investigation or healthcare that yields real answers. His goal is to perform as many procedures as possible.

This attitude is deeply ingrained in cardiologists. It's also shared by all procedural medical specialties: the drive to do more and more procedures. It's not because it does more good for the public, but it fulfills a primitive impulse to spread your influence, enlarge your territory, and--of course--make more money.

Personally, I find this impulse repulsive. The fact that this young cardiologist looking for a position is willing to make this statement out in the open demonstrates how widely accepted this attitude is. Imagine your cancer surgeon, looking for a new job, said, "I'm looking to remove as many tumors as I can."

My colleagues have lost sight of the fact that we're trying to reduce or eliminate disease, not enrich our pockets or service some primitive impulse to beat others at our game.

"I hate fish oil!"

I get this comment occasionally, usually from the fishy belching that can occur, rarely because of other crazy effects like rash, fishy body odor, etc.

In the vast majority, fish oil is a benign but wonderfully effective agent. Track Your Plaque followers know that fish oil, starting at 4000 mg per day of a standard 1000 mg capsule preparation, dramatically reduces triglycerides and thereby raises HDL, partially suppresses small LDL, and is the best agent available for reducing postprandial (after eating) abnormalities like IDL and certain VLDL fractions.

However, an occasional person (about 1 in 20) just doesn't like the effects. Are there alternatives? Fish oil packs such a wallop of beneficial effects that can not be replaced by any other single agent or lifestyle practice. For this reason, we have a number of easy strategies to enhance your tolerance for fish oil. (Of course, if your and/or you doctor determine that you're allergic to fish oil, then you should indeed avoid it; thankfully, this is rare.)

Helpful strategies include:

--Refrigerate fish oil capsules--this cuts back on fish belching.
--Take only with meals. This also may increase fish oil's benefits on suppressing after-eating lipoprotein abnormalities.
--Take an enteric-coated preparation--this delays breakdown of the tablet/capsule, making fishy belching less of an issue. Sam's Club has an inexpensive preparation.
--Take liquid fish oil. Usually orange or lemon flavored, liquid fish oil may be a faint fishy taste and odor, but usually not as prominent as the capsules. There's also less stomach upset.
--Coromega--a paste form of fish oil available at health food stores or through Coromega tastes fruity and comes in little squeeze envelopes.
--Frutol--Pharmax, a British company, makes another fruity fish oil that is non-oily and tastes like apricot. It's actually fairly reasonably priced, too. However, it is hard to find. The only way I know to get is to go online at You may have to actually order through a health care provider.

When using any preparation of fish oil, the best way to determine your dose is to add up the EPA and DHA content. For instance, if you use a fish oil liquid that contains 320 mg EPA and 240 mg DHA per teaspoon, you will need two teaspoons a day to achieve the equivalent of our starting dose of 1200 mg of EPA+DHA, usually provided by 4000 mg total in 4 capsules. Note that some lipid and lipoprotein disorders will require higher doses, e.g., 1800 mg EPA+DHA for high triglycerides (>200 mg/dl) or high IDL.

Sudden death in athletes

A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association details how a group in the Veneto region of Italy cut back on the incidence of sudden cardiac death in athletes by a simple screening program.

You can read the abstract of the article at

Although sudden death in athletes is still a rare event, it is especially tragic when it happens. In this population, the incidence was 3.6 deaths per 100,000 athletes aged 12 to 35 years. By implementing a simple screening program that involved only a physical examination and an EKG, an astounding 89% reduction in sudden death was documented.

What lessons does this hold for those of us interested in coronary plaque reversal? Beyond the obvious lesson of pointing out the great benefit of simple screening of athletes, I believe that it tells us the value of simple screening tools for heart disease in general. It is my strong belief that, if we were to implement CT heart scans among the broad population of men 40 years and over, women 50 years and over--without regard to cholesterol or other relatively lame risk identifiers--we could slash the risk for heart attack and death 90% or more. Putting CT heart scans into the hands of the public makes your coronary risk obvious. It takes the guesswork out of risk predictors like cholesterol and high blood pressure.

But heart scans are already available, you say! Yes, of course they are. But the lack of insurance reimbursement continues to be a restricting factor for many people, despite the number of lives that could be potentially saved and the money that would be saved in the long run by reducing need for major heart procedures. The continuing resistance to prevention by my cardiology colleagues and the persistent ignorance of primary care physicians also remain major impediments.

But it's getting better. You don't have to be chained by ignorance. Put your CT heart scan to good use.

My heart scan was wrong!

Tom came into the office ready for a confrontation.

Tom's wife insisted that he see me to discuss the implications of his CT heart scan score of 459. At age 50, this was clearly bad news that placed Tom in the 99th percentile (worst 1% of men in his age group).

But Tom had already undergone a stress test. There had apparently been a small abnormality, and a heart catheterization had been performed by another cardiologist. "They told me they didn't need to do anything. No stent, no ballon, no bypass, nothing!"

I asked, "Did they tell you that there was any plaque or blockages seen?"

"Yeah, but he said it was nothing. So the heart scan was wrong!"

I've been here many times before. I explained to Tom that, no, his heart scan was not wrong. All the tests he'd undergone siimply provided a different perspective on the same disease. You could say:

--The stress test, being a test of blood flow, may have been abnormal because of the abnormal constrictive behavior of arteries containing plaque, known as "endothelial dysfunction", because the inner lining of arteries (the endothelium) control the tone of the artery. Abnormal constriction in arteries with plaque is quite common.

--The catheterization simply showed that no plaque had collected in a configuration to block flow, thus no stent, etc., since flow was normal. But there was indeed plaque.

All three tests were right; none were wrong. They all provided a little different perspective on the same process. Of course, I favor the heart scan as the means to identify, precisely measure, and track the atherosclerotic plaque in your arteries. The stress test is too crude and only measures flow, the catheterization is not something you'd want to undergo year after year. Catheterization also is too crude a measure to precisely track plaque growth or reversal.

So I explained to Tom that, even though a stent or similar procedure was unnecessary, he remained at substantial risk for heart attack due to plaque "rupture". In fact, Tom's heart attack risk was 5% per year, or approximately 50% over the next decade. That is, indeed, substantial. In fact, you might say that, of the three tests Tom underwent, only the heart scan revealed his true risk.

Fish oil in the news

Hooray for the New York Times. They ran an article pointing out the miserable and inexcusable failure of American physicians to use fish oil after heart attack.

“It is clearly recommended in international guidelines,” said Dr. Massimo Santini, the hospital’s chief of cardiology, who added that it would be considered tantamount to malpractice in Italy to omit the drug. the United States, heart attack victims are not generally given omega-3 fatty acids, even as they are routinely offered more expensive and invasive treatments, like pills to lower cholesterol or implantable defibrillators. Prescription fish oil, sold under the brand name Omacor, is not even approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in heart patients."

The article focuses on the use of fish oil only after heart attack and doesn't tackle the larger issue of how fish oil is crucial for coronary disease in general. Of course, the article doesn't address the extraordinary effects of fish oil on lipoproteins, particularly triglyceride-containing varieties like VLDL and the postprandial (after-eating) intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL).

It also talks about prescription fish oil and just glosses over fish oil as a nutritional supplement. I know of few reasons to use the prescription form. More than 90% of the time, nutritional sources of fish oil do the trick. (That is, fish oil capsule supplements, not just eating fish which doesn't provide enough for coronary plaque reduction or control.)

Occasionally, I'll meet someone who has a severe hypertriglyceridemia (very high triglycerides), or is a Apo E 2/2 homozygote (very rare). These special instances may, indeed, do better using prescription fish oil, since it is more concentrated--one prescription capsule providing the same omega-3 fatty acid content as three conventional capsules (1000 mg fish oil, 300 mg EPA+DHA).

But for most of us, the standard fish oil supplement you buy at the health food store or department store does just fine. If you read about the impurity of fish oil supplements (likely prompted by the manufacturer of Omacor, prescription fish oil), refer to the studies by Consumer Reports and Consumer Labs, both of which found no mercury or pesticide residues in dozens of fish oil preparations tested.

Look on the bright side. The conversation is growing. Fish oil, whether prescription or my favorite, Sam's Club Members' Mark brand, is a fabulously effective supplement with benefits that, in nearly all cases, exceeds the benefits of drugs.

Fish oil is an absolute requirement for your Track Your Plaque program and for you to hope to achieve control or reduction of your heart scan score.

Nutritional approaches to homocysteine reduction

For an in-depth discussion of nutritional approaches to homocysteine reduction, see my new article, Nutritional Therapies for Managing Homocysteine , in the most recent issue of Life Extension magazine. You'll find it at:

The report contains a detailed discussion of how to use foods to control homocysteine levels. Though I'm not a homocysteine-crazed fanatic like Life Extension publisher, William Falloon, I still there's some interesting aspects of homocysteine metabolism that need to be explored. I also think there's some genuine benefit to reducing homocystine, preferably with foods, secondarily with supplements.

Also see our recent update on homocysteine on the website at:

In the update, we tried to make sense of what the new studies on homocysteine treatment, NORVIT and HOPE-2, tell us in light of all the other studies on homocysteine that preceded them.

The American Heart Association diet guarantees you get heart disease!

Perhaps I stated that too strongly.

But the fact remains: the diet advocated by the American Heart Association is awful. The foods endorsed by their approach have no place on a list of healthy foods. Yes, you will find vegetables and fruits, etc.. But you will also find that the 2006 American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations dance around the issue of what foods to avoid. There's no explicit mention of how, for instance, common foods like Shredded Wheat cereal, ketchup, low-fat salad dressings, etc, among thousands of others, should be avoided.

No matter how you time your meals, mix them, combine proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, etc., you simply cannot squeeze health out of products like breakfast cereals, instant mashed potatoes, dried soup mixes, wheat crackers, etc. Yet these are the sorts of foods that are implicitly allowable in the Heart Association's diet program.

You can obtain a little insight into the motivations behind the diet design by looking at the Heart Association's Annual Report list of major supporters:

--ACH Food Companies--maker of Mazola margarine and corn oil. A contributor of between $500,000 and $999,000 to the Heart Association.

--ConAgra Foods--You know them as Chef BoyArdee, Peter Pan peanut butter, Kid Cuisine (pizza, macaroni and cheese). ConAgra contributed between $500,000 and $999,000 to the Heart Association.

--Archer Daniels Midland--Huge worldwide supplier of wheat flours, high-fructose corn syrup, and basic ingredients for manufacture of soft drinks, candies, and baked foods. ADM contributed between $1-4.9 million dollars to the American Heart Association.

Of course, the Heart Association provides many hugely positive services like funding research. But, on many official statements, you need to read between the lines. The Heart Association is funded by industry: medical device makers, drug makers, food manufacturers. Yes, some is contributed in the interest of health. But you can be sure that lots of money is also contributed in the hope of protecting specific commercial interests. Many of those decisions are made behind closed doors or on the golf course.

Be skeptical. Just because the Heart Association diet is a Casper Milquetoast version of a health program, it does not mean that you have to subscribe to their watered-down, politically correct, and downright useless nutrition recommendations.

I'm just right!

Ben is an energetic 45-year old entrepreneur. He started his own security alarm company and has, with tremendous hard work and long hours, built it into a successful local business. Despite his long hours, he found time to coach his son's football team and help with raising his 3 kids.

Ben's life took a detour when he had urgent bypass surgery at age 39. Just three years later, the chest pains and fatigue he'd experienced before bypass returned. Another heart catheterization revealed that all of his bypass grafts except one had closed. Three stents were implanted to salvage his original coronary arteries.

That's when I met Ben. Shockingly (perhaps I should know by now!), Ben was taking Lipitor and had been advised to follow a low-fat diet. That was the full extent of his heart disease prevention program. The burning question that I wanted answered was "Why did a 39-year old man have heart disease?".

Our analysis uncovered a smorgasbord of hidden patterns. You name it, Ben had it: postprandial (after-eating) patterns like IDL, low HDL, and, most notably, small LDL and lipoprotein(a). That's why Ben had heart disease as a 39-year old man--plain and simple.

We proceeded to correct all of his patterns. But the one aspect of his program that he struggled with: weight. At 5 ft 9 inches, Ben started at 285 lbs before bypass. He did manage to get to 270 after his surgery. I told him that, if he was going to get full control of his small LDL pattern, he needed to get to <210 lbs, perhaps even lower. Without substantial weight loss, he would never seize full control over coronary plaque.

Ben was satisfied that we had identified the hidden causes of his heart disease. But he remained skeptical that that magnitude of weight loss was necessary. Built like a football player, he looked stocky but not outright fat. He got down to 240 lbs but then he decided that he looked too skinny and just went right back up to 250-260 in weight.

At a weight of 250, this puts Ben's BMI (body mass index) at around 37, way over the cut-off of 30 for obesity. Now, the BMI can be misleading in people with larger frames and more muscle. But Ben undeniably had a generous abdomen, encasing the visceral fat that drives small LDL.

Unfortunately, Ben remained skeptical until I put three more stents into his right coronary artery last evening.

Small LDL is a powerful activator of lipoprotein(a). In other words, there's something peculiarly evil about the combination of small LDL and lipoprotein(a) that brings out the worst in both. You can't correct just one or the other. You've got to correct both. Don't learn this lesson the hard way.

I think (hope) that Ben is on track to get to around 200 lbs.

Prevention: Bad news in bits and pieces

Jan clearly did not want to talk about her heart scan. Her score of 502 came as a shock to her. After all, she'd survived breast cancer just a year earlier, having been through dozens of radiation treatments, chemotherapy, not the mention the emotional upheaval.

Now I was telling Jan that she had a very high heart scan score with a heart attack risk of 5% per year. Then we got to her lipoprotein patterns: Jan had several striking abnormalities, including a misleading LDL cholesterol that underestimated her true LDL by nearly 100% (LDL particle number), small LDL, and the dreaded lipoprotein(a).

"I can't handle this! Why did I get the stupid scan in the first place?!"

Giving her a chance to collect her emotions, I discussed how, even though this business can be frightening, it's far--FAR--better than the alternative: heart attack at 3 am, rush to the hospital, stents, bypass surgery, etc. Or, death for the >30% of people who don't make it to the hospital in time.

That's why I often tell people that prevention of disease is bad news in bits and pieces. But it's a lot more manageable this way. Coronary plaque is a controllable process. You don't have much control in the midst of a heart attack.

A second chance

Stewart had a CT heart scan in 2004. Score: 475.

As always in the Track Your Plaque program, Stewart had his lipoproteins assessed. Among his patterns were LDL 157 mg/dl, severe small LDL, and the (post-prandial, or after-eating) IDL. Stewart was also "pre-diabetic" with a blood sugar of 123 mg/dl. Blood pressure was also a major issue. Although initially concerned, life and distractions got in the way, and Stewart's attentions drifted away.

Two years of a lackadaisical effort and Stewart's heart scan score was 600, a 26% increase. Not as bad as it could have been doing nothing (i.e., 30% per year), but still far from great. But, even with the increase in score, we still really didn't get Stewart's attention. He went about his business with a very lax dietary program, overindulging in breads, crackers, goodies, hot dogs, etc., and following a virtually non-existent exercise program except for playing golf once or twice a week.

Unfortunately, Stewart started having pains in his chest with very minimal efforts like climbing a single flight of stairs. His stress test proved abnormal. Stewart then received a stent in his left anterior descending coronary and another in his circumflex. His right coronary artery had a 40-50% blockage, close to requiring a stent.

I stressed to Stewart that this had been preventable. Should motivation remain unchanged, the next step would be bypass surgery.

I think I finally succeeded in getting Stewart's attention. He found the prospect of a bypass operation a lot more concrete than the idea of progression or regression of coronary plaque. So Stewart is being given a second chance. Unfortunately, we will no longer be able to track Stewart's plaque very effectively, since two of three arteries now contain stents, and only the right coronary remains scorable.

I hope Stewart succeeds. But I sure wish he had done this earlier. He had realistic hopes of never requiring stents or bypass surgery.

Learn from Stewart's mistakes. Attention to your program requires vigilance. You can't ignore the causes of your coronary plaque for any length of time without it catching up to you. But seize your first and best chance.