Large new clinical study launched to study. . .niacin

Oxford University has issued a press release announcing plans for a new clinical trial to raise HDL cholesterol and reduce heart attack risk. 20,000 participants will be enrolled in this substantial effort. The agent? Niacin.

How is that new? Well, this time niacin comes with a new spin.

Dr. Jane Armitage, formerly with the Heart Protection Study that showed that simvastatin (Zocor) reduced heart attack risk regardless of starting LDL, is lead investigator. She hopes to prove that niacin raises HDL cholesterol and thereby reduces heart attack risk. But, this time, niacin will be combined with an inhibitor of prostaglandins that blocks the notorious "flushing" effect of niacin.

The majority of Track Your Plaque participants hoping to control or reverse coronary plaque take niacin. Recall that niacin (vitamin B3)is an extremely effect agent that raises HDL, dramatically reduces small LDL, shifts HDL particles into the effective large fraction, reduces triglycerides and triglyceride-containing particles like IDL and VLDL. Several studies have shown that niacin dramatically reduces heart attack. The HATS Study showed that niacin combined with Zocor yielded an 85-90% reduction in heart attack risk and achieved regression of coronary plaque in many participants.

In our experience, approximately 1 in 20 people will really struggle using niacin. Flushes for these occasional people will be difficult or even intolerable. Should Dr. Armitage's study demonstrate that this new combination agent does provide advantages in minimizing the hot flush effect, that will be a boon for the occasional Track Your Plaque participant who finds conventional niacin intolerable.

But you already have access to niacin, an agent with an impressive track record even without this new study. And you have a reasonably effective prostaglandin inhibitor, as well: aspirin. Good old aspirin is very useful, particularly in the first few months of your niacin initiation to blunt the flush.

Although this study is likely to further popularize niacin and allow its broader use, it's also a method for the drug companies to profit from an agent they know works but is cheap and available.

You don't have to wait. You already have niacin and aspirin available to you.

The dark side of CT heart scans

"I just got a heart scan!" declared Eric to his doctor. He handed the report to him.

"Oh my. Your score is 154." The doctor paused, then looked at Eric with a serious look on his face. "If we're going to understand whether or not you're in danger, you'll need a heart catheterization."

I've seen this happen countless times. How can I say this diplomatically? THIS IS WRONG!! In my view, it's absolutely criminal for this to happen. Physician ignorance, profiteering, whatever--it is wrong.

There's very few reasons why someone who has no symptoms should go directly to the cath lab for a procedure. (A rare exception might be an exceptional quantity of plaque in the left mainstem artery, e.g., >100. This is highly unusual.)

Even a nuclear stress test (e.g., thallium) at this level of scoring is only 10-15% likely to be abnormal. That means 85-90% likelihood of being normal. There's rare reasons to perform a heart catheterization in a person with no symptoms and an entirely normal stress test. The vast majority of people like Eric do not need a heart catheterization to discern risk.

If Eric's doctor had been up-to-date on the published literature on the prognostic value of heart scans, he could have advised Eric what the risks were--without a catheterization. Many doctors simply don't want to be bothered. Or, they opt for the more profitable method--a hospital procedure.

Always discuss your heart scan with your doctor--but be armed with information in case your doctor is uninformed or unscrupulous. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon. The Track Your Plaque program is your advocate, a source for unbiased information.

The dirty little secret about aneurysms

Jake had an abdominal aneurysm identified--by accident.

While getting a CT scan of his abdomen for unexplained abdominal pain, a 4.4 cm aneurysm was discovered. Jake's abdominal pain eventually passed without explanation, but he was left with this aneurysm.

Jake's primary care doctor referred him to a surgeon. "It's too small to require surgery right now. Wait a few years and it'll probably get bigger. When it gets to around 5.5 cm, that'll be the time to operate. Let's schedule an abdominal ultrasound or CT scan every 6 months."

Jake then got himself a heart scan. His high score of 879 then led him to my office. Lipoprotein testing, a stress test, correction of his lipoprotein patterns, changes in lifestyle followed. One year later, Jake's heart scan score was unchanged.

How about his abdominal aneurysm? 4.2 cm--a modest quantity of regression. When Jake's surgeon learned of the change, he just shrugged. "Okay, we'll just watch it from here."

Shockingly, the conversation surrounding aneurysms is just like the one Jake received: Let's just watch it grow until you need surgery.

If you've every seen anyone have abdominal aneurysm surgery, you know it is an awful, painful, barbaric process with high risk for major complications like kidney failure and loss of the legs. Waiting for an aneurysm to grow is a lousy solution. Surgeons point out that, although surgery is imperfect, it's better than the alternative: rupture, which is catastrophic with a 50% chance of dying.

But what about stopping the growth of the aneurysm? Or even reversing, or shrinking, it?

Surgeons say it can't be done. Yet we've done it--many times. And it's not that difficult.

The steps to take are very similar to that in the Track Your Plaque program for coronary plaque regression, with a few different strategies. Suppression of inflammation, for instance, plays a more important role and blood pressure must be abolutely normal, even during exercise.

More to come on this important topic in the future, including an upcoming Special Report on the membership website.

Heart scan scores dropping like stones!!

I saw two instances of dramatic coronary plaque regression today.

John, a 53-years old mechanical lift operator, dropped his heart scan score from 479 to 323--a 32% regression of coronary plaque volume!

Eric, a 50-year consulting engineer, dropped his heart scan score from 668 to 580--a 13% reduction.

Both men did nothing special beyond the principles advocated in the Track Your Plaque program. Recall that, without preventive efforts, your heart scan score is expected to increase by 30% per year. Both men are well on their way to freedom from risk of coronary "events".

Two less people to feed the revenue-hungry hospital procedure system! We need many more like them.

Pre-diabetes: An explanation for explosive coronary plaque growth

Art's first CT heart scan in March, 2006 yielded a concerning score of 1336. He felt fine--no chest discomfort, no breathlessness, etc.

Art agreed to take the statin cholesterol drug his primary care doctor prescribed. He also agreed to take the fish oil, niacin, and some of the nutritional supplements that we advised. But Art just couldn't bring himself to make the commitment to lose weight.

At the start of his program, Art--at 5 ft. 8 inches--was 40 lbs overweight (212 lb). This was important since his blood sugar wavered in the pre-diabetic range, going as high as 130 mg. (The American Diabetes Assn. defines diabetes as a blood glucose of 126 mg or greater.)

One year later, Art's lipid and lipoprotein values were corrected to perfection. But he still weighed in at a hefty 209 lbs--essentially no change. His blood sugar likewise hovered in the 120's.

I felt Art need to be prodded, so I asked him to undergo another heart scan. His score: 1935--a 600 point increase, or 45%!

Only now has Art begun to comprehend to power of diabetes and pre-diabetes to fan the flames of plaque growth. Recent published data, in fact, show that the majority of recently diagnosed diabetics already have well-established coronary artery disease.

Don't let this happen to you. Do not dismiss diabetic patterns as they will catch up to you. If Art can lose the 30-40 lbs in the abdominal weight that is creating the diabetic pattern, he will likely succeed in stopping plaque growth. Otherwise, it's just a matter of time before his heart attack, stent, or bypass.

Who cares if you're pre-diabetic?

Marta is a smart lady. She's worked in hospital laboratories for the last 23 years and knows many of the ins and outs of lab tests and their implications.

After years of being told that her cholesterol was acceptable, she needed to undergo urgent bypass surgery after experiencing severe breathlessness that proved to be a small warning heart attack at age 57. But this made Marta skeptical of relying on cholesterol to identify heart disease risk.

I met Marta two years after her bypass surgery when she was seeking better answers. And, indeed, she proved to have several concealed sources of heart disease: small LDL particles, Lipoprotein(a), intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL--a very important abnormality that means she is unable to clear dietary fats from her blood), among others. But she was also mildly diabetic with a blood sugar of 131 mg (normal < or = 100 mg). This had not been previously recognized.

As I'm a cardiologist and our program focuses on reversal and control of coronary plaque, I asked Marta to return to her primary care doctor to continue the conversation about diabetes. She was a bit frightened but followed through.

"Well, you're not urinating excessively. And your long-term measure of blood sugar, hemoglobin A1C, is still normal. I wouldn't worry about it. We'll just watch it."

I guess I should know better. What the poor primary care doctor doesn't know is that pre-diabetes and mild diabetes are potent risks for heart disease. In fact, some of the most explosive rates of plaque growth occur when these patterns are present. It's well established that risk for heart attack in a diabetic is the same as that of someone who's already suffered a prior heart attack--very high risk, in other words.

Marta's primary care doctor's advice would be like inquiring about cancer and the doctor says "Let's just wait until it's metastatic--then we'll start to worry." Of course, this is insane.

Pre-diabetes and mild diabetes should not be ignored or just "watched". Even though the blood sugar itself may not be high enough to endanger you, the hidden patterns underlying your body's unresponsiveness to insulin creates a torrent of hidden coronary risk.

For better answers, Track Your Plaque members can read "Shutting Off Metabolic Syndrome" at on the website. ("Metabolic syndrome" is the name commonly given to the constellation of abnormalities associated with pre-diabetes and diabetes.)

Don't get smug!

It may sound silly, but after someone succeeds in stopping their heart scan score from increasing or reduces their score, I warn them to not get smug. Let me explain.

I'll tell you about Jack. I met Jack a few years ago after he had a heart scan at age 39. His score: 1441! A score this high at his age obviously puts him in the 99th percentile. Also recall that a score >1000 carries a 25% annual risk for heart attack.

This captured Jack's attention. At the start, his lipoproteins were disastrous with numerous abnormal patterns. Jack committed to the program. After one year, his lipoproteins were around 80-90% corrected towards perfection. He'd lost 27 lbs, was exercising six days a week, and felt great.

Jack's repeat score one year later: 1107--over a 300 point drop! A huge success. He was ecstatic.

Unfortunately, work and life in general distracted him. Jack allowed himself to drift back to old habits, indulging in fast food 2 or 3 times a week, slacking on exercise such that it became sporadic, half-hearted efforts, and regained 15 lbs. He even failed to show up for appointments and we lost contact for two years.

One day, Jack simply decided to see where he stood, so he got himself another heart scan. The score: 2473--over a doubling from his reduced score.

The message: Long-term consistency is key, even after you've achieved control over your score. Stick with your program--and don't get smug!

Holidays are dangerous!

If you're on holiday from work today, make sure you're not on holiday from your health, too.

Too often, people come back to the office telling me that the holidays simply got out of hand--cookouts, picnics, family gatherings, etc.--and they simply couldn't avoid overeating, overdrinking, sitting around--and gaining 3-5 lbs in a weekend. (Our record is 10 lbs in a weekend!)

I don't want to harp on this issue and ruin your holiday, but I can't stress how important it is that you don't allow this to happen to you. Weight gained in a brief space of time has exceptionally destructive effects. Ever see the movie "Super Size Me"? It's an entertaining and well-done yet graphic portrayal of the damaging effects of rapid weight gain.

Enjoy your time off. Relax, enjoy your family and friends--but continue to pay attention to choosing the right foods, don't overeat, take time out to do something (or several things) physical. It'll pay off hugely in the long run.

More on carotid plaque...

Although not a perfect test, carotid ultrasound is an exceptionally easy and accessible test. Using high-frequency sound, clear images are available for most people.

I say it's not perfect because the way it's done in 2006 makes it a non-quantitative test. It is a qualitative test. In other words, you may find out that there's a 30% blockage ("stenosis"), at the far end of the common carotid artery on the right side. Unfortunately, this gives you an isolated measure of diameter of the plaque compared to the artery. What it does not tell you is what the volume of the entire plaque is. That's a far more accurate measure (and one that is incorporated into your heart scan score, by the way).

Nonetheless, carotid ultrasound is easy, very safe, and available in most hospitals and many clinics. One difficulty: most insurance companies will not allow you to go through a carotid ultrasound scan as a "screening" procedure, i.e., a test just to see if you have a carotid plaque. They will generally pay if you're having symptoms of a stroke or "mini-stroke" (transient ischemic attack, or "TIA"), have an abnormal sound in your carotid ultrasound detected by your doctor (a carotid "bruit"), or some other unusual indications. Sometimes, a resourceful physician will muster up a diagnosis based on something in your history (e.g., left arm numbness, a common and often benign complaint that can also signal stroke).

Another option are the mobile scanners or some hospital services that offer carotid screening, usually for a very modest price. Drawback: Sporadic availability, difficulty in obtaining serial scans, and imprecise reporting since it's viewed as a screening test. But it's better than nothing.

My hope is that, as screening services using safe imaging techniques like ultrasound propagate and increase in direct availability to the public, you'll be able to circumvent the obstacles imposed by your insurance company and even, sometimes, your doctor. But try your doctor first.

Carotid plaque can be shrunk

Rose, a 64-year old woman, just had a 70% carotid blockage identified by a screening ultrasound. When the result was given to her doctor, he prescribed Lipitor and told Rose that an ultrasound would be required every year. She would need carotid surgery, an "endarterectomy", if the blockage worsened.

"Can't I reduce the amount of blockage I have?" asked Rose.

"No. Once you've got it, it doesn't get any better."

Is this true? Once you've got carotid plaque, you can only expect it to get worse and it can't be reduced?

This is absolutely not true. In fact, compared to coronary plaque, carotid plaque is easier to reduce!

Of course, the Track Your Plaque program is designed to help you control or reduce coronary plaque. But, in our experience, people who have both coronary and carotid plaque will show far greater and faster reduction of carotid plaque. Dramatic reductions are sometimes seen. I've personally seen 50-70% blockages reduced to <30% on many occasions.

The requirements to achieve reduction of carotid plaque are very similar to the approach we use to reduce coronary plaque. One difference is that hypertension may play a more important role with carotid plaque and needs to be reduced confidently to the normal range before carotid plaque is controlled.

I find it shocking that the attitude like the one provided by this physician continue to prevail. Unlike coronary plaque, which has a relatively small body of scientific literature documenting how it can be reduced, carotid plaque actually enjoys a substantial clinical literature. Part of the reason is that the carotids are more easily imaged using ultrasound. (Heart structures can be seen with ultrasound, but not the coronary arteries.)

Numerous agents have been shown to contribute to reduction of carotid plaque: statin drugs, niacin, fish oil, the anti-diabetic "TZD" drugs (Actos, Avandia), several anti-hypertensive drugs, vitamin E, pomegranate juice, and several others.

It outrages me to hear stories like this. Rose is not the only one.

Don't accept the flip dismissals or the over-enthusiastic referral for carotid procedures. Insist on a conversation about plaque regression.

Note: Although I am a vigorous advocate of atherosclerotic plaque regression, this does not mean that if you have a severe (70% blockage or greater), or if there are symptoms from your carotid disease, that you should engage in a program of reversal. You must always take the advice of your doctor if your safety is in question.