Category Archives: Atherosclerosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease

Are You Doing Enough Push Ups To Save Your Life?

The skeptical cardiologist has always had a fondness for push-ups. Therefore I read with interest a recent study published in JAMAOpen which looked at how many push-ups a group of 30 and 40-something male firefighters from Indiana could do and how that related to cardiovascular outcomes over the next ten years.

The article was published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Network Open, and is freely available to access online.

The British National Health Service pointed out that “The UK media has rather over exaggerated these findings:”

Both the Metro and the Daily Mirror highlighted the result of 40 push-ups being “the magic number” for preventing heart disease, but in fact being able to do 10 or more push-ups was also associated with lower heart disease risk.

What Was Studied?

The study involved 1,104 male firefighters (average age 39.6) from 10 fire departments in Indiana who underwent regular medical checks between 2000 and 2010. 

At baseline the participants underwent a physical fitness assessment which included push-up capacity (hereafter referred to as the push-up number (PUN))and treadmill exercise tolerance tests conducted per standardized protocols.

For push-ups, the firefighter was instructed to begin push-ups in time with a metronome set at 80 beats per minute. Clinic staff counted the number of push-ups completed until the participant reached 80, missed 3 or more beats of the metronome, or stopped owing to exhaustion or other symptoms (dizziness, lightheadedness, chest pain, or shortness of breath). Numbers of push-ups were arbitrarily divided into 5 categories in increments of 10 push-ups for each category. Exercise tolerance tests were performed on a treadmill using a modified Bruce protocol until participants reached at least 85% of their maximal predicted heart rates, requested early termination, or experienced a clinical indication for early termination according to the American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines (maximum oxygen consumption [V̇ O2max]).

The main outcomes assessed were new diagnoses of heart disease from enrollment up to 2010. 

Cardiovascular events were verified by periodic examinations at the same clinic or by clinically verified return-to-work forms. Cardiovascular disease–related events (CVD) were defined as incident diagnosis of coronary artery disease or other major CVD event (eg, heart failure, sudden cardiac death)

Here’s the graph of the probability of being free of a CVD event on the y-axis with time on x-axis.

The black line represents those 75 firefighters who couldn’t make it into double digits, the green those 155 who did more than 40 pushups.

Participants able to complete more than 40 push-ups had a significant 96% lower rate of CVD events compared with those completing fewer than 10 push-ups.

It is surprising that the push up number seemed a better predictor of outcomes than the exercise test, This should be taken with a grain of salt because although the investigators report out “VO2 max” the stress tests were not maximal tests.

The firefighters with lower push up numbers were fatter, more likely to smoke and had higher blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol levels.

What useful information can one take from this study?

You definitely cannot say that being able to do more than 40 pushups will somehow prevent heart disease. The PUN is neither causing nor preventing anything.

The PUN is a marker for the overall physical shape of these firefighters. It’s a marker for how these men were taking care of themselves. If you are a 39 year old fireman from Indiana and can’t do 11 push-ups you are in very sorry condition and it is likely evident in numerous other ways.

The <11 PUN crew were a bunch of fat, diabetic, insulin resistant, hyperlipidemic, out-of-shape hypertensives who were heart attacks in the waiting.

Push-ups Are A Great Exercise

Despite the meaningless of this study you should consider adding push-ups to your exercise routine. Doing them won’t save your life but it will contribute to mitigating the weakness and frailty of aging. Don’t obsess about your PUN.

I’ve always liked push-ups and highly recommend them. They require no special equipment or preparation. It’s a quick exercise that builds upper body muscle strength, adds to my core strength and gets my heart rate up a bit. For some reason my office in O’Fallon is always cold so several times during the day when I’m there I’ll do 100 jumping jacks and drop on the carpet and do some push-ups in an effort to get warm.

I don’t do them every day but the last time I tried I could do 50 in less than a minute and that has me convinced I will live forever!

Calisthenically Yours,

-ACP

N.B. In my post on mitigating sarcopenia in the elderly I talked about the importance of resistance exercise:

Americans spend billions on useless supplements and vitamins in their search for better health but exercise is a superior drug, being free  and without drug-related side effects

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog emphasizing the importance of aerobic exercise for cardiovascular health but I also am a believer in strength and flexibility training for overall health and longevity.

As we age we suffer more and more from sarcopenia-a gradual decrease in muscle mass.

Scientific reviews note that loss of muscle mass and muscle strengh is quite common in individuals over age 65 and is associated with increased dependence, frailty and mortality

Push-ups are a great resistance exercise. For a description of the perfect form for a push up see here.

Should All Patients With A High Coronary Calcium Score Undergo Stress Testing?

Coronary artery calcium (CAC) scans are an excellent tool for better defining coronary heart disease risk in many individuals. In light of the recent ACC/AHA guidelines endorsement of CAC, the skeptical cardiologist anticipates that primary care physicians will be ordering more and will often be faced with the question of what to do with abnormally high results.

There are two, diametrically opposed viewpoints which have been taken on this issue.

The Argument For Stress Testing

The majority of cardiologists are likely to fall into the camp of “more testing is good” which was summarized in a  State of The Art article that Dr. Harvey Hecht wrote in JACC recently.

The argument appears logical and is as follows:

  1. There is a high yield of abnormal results from stress testing when done on patients with high CAC.

The appropriateness of stress testing after CAC scanning in asymptomatic patients is directly related to the CAC score. The incidence of abnormal nuclear stress testing is 1.3%, 11.3%, and 35.2% for CAC scores 400, respectively .

2. The higher yield for ischemia/abnormal tests in patients with >400 CAC implies the ability to further risk stratify patients thus leading to guideline recommendations:

It is only in the >400 group that the pretest likelihood is sufficiently high to warrant further evaluation with myocardial perfusion imaging, for which there is a IIb recommendation

Hecht references a 2010 guideline issued by ACC/AHA (2010 ACCF/AHA Guideline for Assessment of Cardiovascular Risk in Asymptomatic Adults) which states

1. Stress myocardial perfusion imaging (MPI) may be considered for advanced cardiovascular risk assessment in asymptomatic adults with diabetes or asymptomatic adults with a strong family history of CHD or when previous risk assessment testing suggests a high risk of CHD, such as a coronary artery calcium (CAC) score of 400 or greater. (Level of Evidence: C)

Stress MPI testing is more sensitive than stress ECG testing alone but in clinical practice I see a very high rate of false positive stress MPI results. Stress MPI is also much more expensive than stress ECG testing and delivers significant radiation exposure to patients.

Thus if stress MPI is performed on all individuals with CAC>400 we are likely to generate lots of abnormal tests followed by lots of unnecessary down-stream testing.

Further support for the stress test approach comes from a 2013 report on appropriate use issued by an alphabet soup of cardiovascular professional organizations

Below is the incredibly complicated chart summarizing what tests can follow another abnormal test. Interestingly, in this chart the report consider it appropriate (A) to perform stress tests on individuals with calcium scores >100

Stress Testing-Costs and Downsides

The cynic in me has to point out that the average CAC score  for white males of 67 years is 98 and that of 68 years is 115. Thus, this algorithm has the potential to recommend stress testing be performed on half of all white males with no symptoms over the age of 67.

The costs of this approach would be astronomical.

This guideline supports stress ECG, stress MPI and stress echo as appropriate.  Stress MPI is considerably more expensive than stress ECG and carries substantial radiation burden. Stress echo in my experience,  if performed and read properly has the lowest incidence of false positives and is more appropriate therefore for screening asymptomatic individuals.

All this stress testing stands to benefit the various members of the alphabet soup above, especially those who read nuclear stress tests or stress echo or who do catheterizations with stents. (Full disclosure I am board certified in nuclear cardiology and echocardiography and read both stress MPI and stress echos. I don’t do catheterizations.)

It’s also important to point out that these appropriate usage criteria, with rare exceptions are based primarily on the expert opinion of the stakeholders who stand to benefit from the additional testing.

The unspoken third leg of the argument for stress testing is that once an abnormal stress test is found and the patient is noted to be in a higher risk category for events, therapy will be changed and this therapeutic intervention will improve outcomes.

This therapeutic intervention could be more intense management of risk factors for CAD but in most cardiologist’s and patient’s minds the next step is coronary angiography with the potential to stent blocked coronaries or to perform coronary bypass surgery.

Diabetic Patients With High CAC

Asymptomatic individuals with diabetes are recognized as intrinsically higher risk for cardiac events and commonly do not experience symptoms even with advanced CAD.

Thus, they are often the focus of more intense screening recommendations.

In 2017, The Imaging Council of the American College of Cardiology published their review of evidence regarding the use of noninvasive testing to stratify asymptomatic patients with diabetes with regard to to coronary heart disease, ultimately coming up with the algorithm below.

Their arguments were similar to Hecht’s for the general population:

Asymptomatic patients with diabetes who have high CAC scores have a high prevalence of inducible ischemia on stress imaging. In a prospective study, 48% of patients with diabetes with a CAC score of 400 had silent ischemia on SPECT imaging, and in those with a score of 1000, 71.4% had inducible ischemia . The majority of the defects were moderate to severe. Patients with diabetes with inducible ischemia have a higher annual death

Despite higher rates of ischemic stress test results in diabetics they did not recommend stress testing for all:

the data in DM suggest that routine screening with MPI of all asymptomatic patients is likely to have a low yield and have a limited effect on patient outcome. The yield of MPI can be improved by selecting a higher-risk group of patients with symptoms, peripheral vascular disease, CKD, an abnormal ECG, or a high CAC score (e.g., >400) (83,84). In such patients, intense medical therapy appears to retard progression of asymptomatic and symptomatic CAD (72).

Importantly, they noted the absence of evidence for revascularization in this population:

Whether coronary revascularization offers additive prognostic benefit to medical therapy when the ischemic burden exceeds any particular threshold is still unclear for the asymptomatic diabetic population.

The Argument Against Stress Testing

The argument for stress testing for high CAC rests on the assumption that identifying those individuals with significant ischemia due to tightly blocked coronary arteries can improve outcomes. This hypothesis has never been tested, let alone proven.

It may seem logical that those asymptomatic individuals with high risk CAC scores >400 and ischemia would benefit from an invasive strategy with coronary angiography followed by either stenting or bypass surgery but it is entirely possible that such an invasive strategy could cause more harm than good.

Harm comes from subjecting those individuals with abnormal stress tests to a potentially lethal procedure-cardiac catheterization.

David Schade, an endocrinologist, has opined persuasively on the inadvisability of either stress testing or cardiology referral in those with high CACS.

He correctly points out the limitations of coronary angiography which some cardiologists are very eager to perform

In many locations, stress testing is performed after referring the asymptomatic patient to a cardiologist. After a positive stress test, the next step is usually coronary angiography to identify obstructive lesions. A recent review of coronary angiography recommends caution in the use of this test because (1) the resolution of coronary angiography is low; (2) the obtained images are two dimensional, making it difficult to define the shape of the vessel; and (3) the assessment of obstruction does not include the presence of previously developed collateral vessels, which may provide adequate blood flow past the obstruction 

He quotes the USPSTF on the possible harm of this approach:

And he correctly points out that since the 2007 publication of the COURAGE trial we have known that catheterization followed by stenting does not improve outcomes in patients with stable CAD

Accord to the US Preventive Services Task Force: “The primary tangible harm of screening exercise tolerance testing is the potential for medical complications related to cardiac catheterization done to further evaluate a positive result. Coronary angiography is generally considered a safe procedure. Of all persons undergoing outpatient coronary angiography, however, an estimated 0.08% will die as a result of the procedure and 1.8% will experience a complication. Complications of coronary angiography include myocardial infarction, stroke, arrhythmia, dissection of the aorta and coronary artery, retroperitoneal bleeding, femoral artery aneurysm, renal dysfunction, and systemic infection”

In many locations, stress testing is performed after referring the asymptomatic patient to a cardiologist. After a positive stress test, the next step is usually coronary angiography to identify obstructive lesions. A recent review of coronary angiography recommends caution in the use of this test because (1) the resolution of coronary angiography is low; (2) the obtained images are two dimensional, making it difficult to define the shape of the vessel; and (3) the assessment of obstruction does not include the presence of previously developed collateral vessels, which may provide adequate blood flow past the obstruction 

Schade’s algorithm for management of a high CAC specifically recommends against referral to a cardiologist or performance of a stress test.

It emphasizes very intense management of risk factors with lifestyle changes and medical therapy with LDL goal <70.

As a cardiologist with a strong interest in prevention of atherosclerosis I agree with many of Schade’s points. I do, however, believe that high risk patients can benefit from seeing a cardiologist who is very focused on prevention of atherosclotic complications rather than performing procedures.

I don’t routinely recommend stress testing for my patients with high CAC but I have a low threshold for recommending stress testing in them based on worrisome symptoms, especially in those who are more sedentary or are diabetic.

A randomized trial comparing the outcomes of stress testing versus aggressive optimal medical therapy for the asymptomatic individual with high CAC is sorely needed. Until then, I remain

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

 

Is Pitavastatin (Livalo) A Better Statin For You?

The skeptical cardiologist recognizes that perhaps 10% of patients he starts on a statin drug will develop symptoms that are felt to be due to the drug.

Most often the symptom is myalgia-muscle ache.

But other symptoms may develop after the patient starts the drug and given widespread statin fear-mongering on the internet it is common for these symptoms to be attributed to the statin.

Recently a reader left comments on my post on statins and memory problems describing in detail what appears to be a statin side effect:

My doctor had me on a daily 40mg Lipitor. After about 1 month, I noticed that my short term memory was very bad*. (Not a nocebo effect… I had no idea at the time that statins were linked to memory effects.) I did an experiment on myself. I suspected that my memory problems were the result of the statin. (Nothing else seemed to be different besides the fact that I had started taking Lipitor the previous month.) After 2 weeks off of Lipitor, my memory problems went away. Whew. I put myself back on Lipitor (I didn’t want to die of a heart attack, and my “experiment” could have been a victim of confirmation bias + 100 other faults.) After about a month, crappy short term memory returned. Took myself off Lipitor again. AGAIN, after about 2 weeks, by memory was fine again.
Perhaps my experiment wasn’t scientific. Just one subject (me). 100% anecdotal. Perhaps statins are good for your heart. However, I don’t know about you, but I program computers for a living. Try doing that with crappy short term memory. Hint: you can’t do it.

I’ve outlined my approach to these potential statin associated symptoms (PSAS) previously (see here) and if a patient has resolution of the PSAS we typically try another statin to see if the PSAS recurs.

For my reader, it would make sense to try a statin like rosuvastatin or pitavastatin that is hydrophilic and therefore doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain.

For the more common myalgias I typically try rosuvastatin at lower dosage. If symptoms recur on rosuvastatin I try pitavastatin.

Pitavastatin (Livalo)

Pitavastatin (Livalo) is the seventh statin. It is minimally affected by the cytochrome P450 system (meaning less drug-drug interactions),  water soluble (so it doesn’t enter the brain,) and does not lower Co-enzyme Q10.  These special biochemical characteristics raise the possibility that  among patients who have not been able to tolerate other statins it might be both usable and efficacious.

It has been used in Japan since 2003 and was approved by the FDA for US use in 2010. The Medical Letter was pretty negative about it in 2010 and feels the same way about the recently approved zypitamag (pitavastatin magnesium.)

The Medical Letter’s review of pitavastatin calcium concluded that recommended doses of the drug had not been shown to decrease LDL-C more than other statins with longer safety records and there was no good reason to use it. That conclusion applies to pitavastatin magnesium as well.

Tom Dayspring, the “national treasure” and lipidologist disputes this and has written of the Medical Letter conclusions

Any statin that has been tested in an outcome trial has been successful and there is no reason why pitavastatin would not also reduce events. Most providers used every statin for years before there were outcomes! Pitavastatin was as successful in
regressing plaque volume as was atorvastatin in an IVUS trial called JAPAN-ACS ((J Am Coll Cardiol 2009;54:293–302). The claim regarding LDL lowering is erroneous as pitavastatin is actually more efficacious than fluvastatin, pravastatin, lovastatin, and 10 & 20 mg doses of simvastatin and the last sentence in the Medical Letter using the word “worrisome” is both ridiculous and 100% false – The pharmacokinetics of pitavastatin are extremely clean, better than all of the more lipophilic statins now on the market except fluvastatin (read the reference cited above which compares pitavastatin to all other statins using published data not invective). I cannot remember the last branded drug that was not first in its class to be released that the Medical Letter found any use for including Crestor which is why personally I find little use whatsoever for recommendations of the medical letter.

The Medical Letter does provide a nice summary of statins effectiveness and cost. As you can see Livalo (and any brand name statin) costs a lot more than generic rosuvastatin (276$ versus 8$) and is less effective

statins.png

 

Thus, there is no reason to use any brand name statin unless you have developed side effects on two generic statins with the second one being low dose rosuvastatin.

Anecdotal Pitavastatin Success

Four years ago I identified by vascular screening in one of my patients, a 65 year old woman a >50% blockage in the left  carotid artery.

We started her on 40 mg atorvastatin and she developed a rash. She was switched to rosuvastatin 10 mg and began waking up in the middle of the night with a headache and feeling light-headed. I thought it unlikely this symptom was due to the statin.

She requested that we go back to atorvastatin because she felt it likely the rash was from something else.one month later, complains of arms and legs are very sore and hard time getting dressed in the morning due to soreness. also constipated

We stopped the atorvastatin and a month later she called back indicating that she could feel her arteries clogging.

At this time we started Livalo at 2 mg twice weekly. LDL dropped by 50% to 71 mg/dl and she has tolerated it without side effects ever since.

Supporting Data

Beyond anecdotal support for pitavastatin in the statin intolerant patient we have one abstract presented at the ACC meetings in 2013.

A total of 40 consecutive patients with documented intolerance to any dose of at least two different statins were prospectively enrolled into a protocol whereby they received a trial of pitavastatin therapy at a dose of 2 mg per day.

Forty patients were enrolled and 27 of them (68%) were able to tolerate pitavastatin. LDL cholesterol was reduced from 147±27 mg/dL to 93±25 mg/dL, resulting in an average LDL-cholesterol reduction of 34%. Patients who could best tolerate pitavastatin tended to be males and those with no history of coronary artery disease or diabetes.



Despite what the Medical Letter says about pitavastatin I tend to agree with Tom Dayspring and I and most progressive preventive cardiologists will give pitavastatin at least a trial in our high risk patients with PSAS before giving up on statins in them.


Hydrophilicly  Yours,

-ACP

N.B. Pitavastatin was discovered in Japan by Nissan Chemical Industries and developed further by Kowa Pharmaceuticals, Tokyo. It has been extensively studied in Japanese studies.

The Livalo website tries to hint that their drug might be better/safer for those of Japanese ethnicity but the science on this is not clear. A review on the topic concludes

Pharmacokinetic investigations have noted higher plasma levels of statins in Asians compared with Caucasians, although postmarketing data for all statins have not identified any particular safety issues, even when statins are given at equivalent doses. The potential mechanisms of heightened response to statins in Asians are related to genetically based differences in the metabolism of statins at the level of hepatic enzymes and drug transporters. Studies indicate that lower statin doses achieve lipid improvements in Asian patients comparable with those observed with higher doses in Caucasians. In conclusion, prescribing lower starting doses of statins in Asians appears warranted while research on this subject continues.

The MESA App-Estimating Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease With And Without Coronary Calcium Score

Yesterday, I laid out the case for utilizing coronary artery calcium score (CACS) to further refine the assessment of youngish patients risk of developing cardiovascular disease (ASCVD). I referenced the ACC/AHA ASCVD risk estimator tool (app available here) as the starting point but if I have information on my patient’s CACS I use a new and improved tool called the MESA risk score calculator.

It is available online and through an app for Apple and Android (search in the app store on “MESA Risk Score” for the (free) download.)

The MESA tool allows you to easily calculate how the CACS effects you or your patient’s 10 year risk of ASCVD.

The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) is a study of the characteristics of subclinical cardiovascular disease (disease detected non-invasively before it has produced clinical signs and symptoms) and the risk factors that predict progression to clinically overt cardiovascular disease or progression of the subclinical disease. MESA researchers study a diverse, population-based sample of 6,814 asymptomatic men and women aged 45-84. Approximately 38 percent of the recruited participants are white, 28 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent Asian, predominantly of Chinese descent.

To use the score you will need information on the following risk factors:

age, gender, race/ethnicity, diabetes (yes/no), current smoker (yes/no), total and HDL cholesterol, use of lipid lowering medication (yes/no), systolic blood pressure (mmHg), use of anti-hypertensive medication (yes/no), any family history of heart attack in first degree relative (parent/sibling/child) (yes/no), and a coronary artery calcium score (Agatston units).

In many cases the CACS dramatically lowers or increases the risk estimate.

In this example a 64 year old man with no discernible risk factors has a CACS of 175
The 10 year risk of a CHD event almost doubles from 4.7% to 7.6% when the CACS is added to the standard risk factors and moves into a range where we need much more aggressive risk factor modification.

On the other hand if we enter in zero for this same patient the risk drops to a very low 1.9%.

It’s also instructive to adjust different variables. For example, if we change the family history of heart attack (parents, siblings, or children) from no to yes, this same patient’s risk jumps to 7.2% (2.6% with zero calcium score and to 10.4% with CACS 175.)

It can also be used to help modify risk-enhancing behaviors. For example if you click smoker instead of non-smoker the risk goes from 4.7% to 7.5%. Thus, you can tell your smoking patient that his risk is halved if he stops.

Discussions on the value of tighter BP control can also be informed by the calculator. For example, if  our 64 year old’s systolic blood pressure was 160 his risk has increased to 6.8%.

How Does Your CACS Compare To Your Peers?

A separate calculator let’s you see exactly where your score stands in comparison individuals with your same age, gender, and ethnicity

The Coronary Artery Calcium (CAC) Score Reference Values web tool will provide the estimated probability of non-zero calcium, and the 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles of the calcium score distribution for a particular age, gender and race. Additionally, if an observed calcium score is entered the program will provide the estimated percentile for this particular score. These reference values are based on participants in the MESA study who were free of clinical cardiovascular disease and treated diabetes at baseline. These participants were between 45-84 years of age, and identified themselves as White, African-American, Hispanic, or Chinese. The current tool is thus applicable only for these four race/ethnicity categories and within this age range.

The calculator tells us that 75% of 64 year old white males have a zero CACS and that the average CACS is 61.

Unlike SAT scores or Echo Board scores you don’t want your CACS percentile status to be high. Scores >75th percentile typically move you to a higher risk category, whereas scores <25th percentile move you to a lower risk category, often with significant therapeutic implications.

Scores between the 25th and 75th percentile typically don’t significantly change the risk calculation.

Exploring Gender Differences In CACS

If we change the gender from male to female on our 64 year old the risk drops considerably from 4.7% down to 3.3%. This graph demonstrates that over 20% of women between the ages of 75 and 84 years will have zero calcium scores.

The graph for men in that same range shows that only around 10% will have a zero CACS.

I’ve been asked what the upper limit is for CACS but I don’t think there is one. I’ve seen numerous patients with scores in the high two thousands and these graphs show individuals in the lowest age decile having scores over 2981.

If you want to be proactive about the cardiovascular health of yourself or a loved one, download the MESA app and evaluate your risk. Ask your doctor if a CACS will help refine that risk further.

Antiatherosclerotically Yours,

-ACP

Prevention of Heart Attack and Stroke-Early Detection Of Risk Using Coronary Artery Calcium Scans In The Youngish

Since 1/3 of Americans die from atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD, mostly heart attacks and strokes) and dropping dead is often the first symptom of ASCVD it’s incredibly important to identify early, “subclinical” ASCVD and begin measures to reduce risk.

How early to begin that process is open to debate. The recent sudden death of the 41-year old son of a patient of mine, however, has reinforced to me how crucial it is to begin risk assessment and potential treatments as early as possible, especially in individuals with a strong family history of premature ASCVD.

We use standard risk factors like lipids, smoking, age, gender and diabetes to stratify individuals according to their 10 year risk of ASCVD (using this online risk calculator) but many apparent low risk individuals (often due to inherited familial risk) drop dead from ASCVD and many apparent high risk individuals have no subclinical ASCVD and don’t need preventive therapy.

Recent studies provide compelling support for the early utilization of cardiac imaging in to identify high risk individuals.

Heart attacks and most sudden cases of sudden death are due to rupture of atherosclerotic plaques. Thus, it makes sense to seek out  such plaques, a process I call searching for subclinical atherosclerosis. There are a number of ways to search for sublinical plaques but the two most widely studied are carotid ultrasound screening and coronary artery calcification (CAC) measurement.

I’ve been utilizing CAC (also termed  heart scan, coronary calcium score, or cardioscan) to help assess my patient’s risk of ASCVD for years although the procedure is not covered by insurance and until recently was not strongly endorsed by major guidelines. (For a complete description of the test and the risks/benefits see here). As I pointed out here, in November the new ACC/AHA guidelines finally embraced CAC for

adults 40 to 75 years of age without diabetes mellitus and with LDL-C levels ≥70 mg/dL- 189 mg/dL (≥1.8-4.9 mmol/L), at a 10-year ASCVD risk of ≥7.5% to 19.9%, if a decision about statin therapy is uncertain

Typically, if we have calculated (using the ASCVD risk estimator) a 10 year risk >7.5% we have a discussion with the patient about beginning drug treatment to reduce risk.

To inform the decision and help us “get off the fence” I usually recommend a CAC. To see how this works in a typical sixty something see my posts here and here.

Significant Of CAC Score

As the new ACC/AHA guidelines state:

If CAC is zero, treatment with statin therapy may be withheld or delayed, except in cigarette smokers, those with diabetes mellitus, and those with a strong family history of premature ASCVD.

A duo of studies from Walter Reed Army Hospital have provided more support for the value of the zero CAC for risk prediction and identifying who should get treatment for prevention of both heart attacks and strokes.

Over 10,00 subjects underwent CAC and were assessed for the primary outcomes of all-cause mortality, incident MI, stroke, and the combination of major adverse cardiovascular events (MACE), defined as stroke, MI, or cardiovascular death over an average 11.4 years

Patients were classified on the basis of the presence or absence of calcium and further subdivided into CAC score groups of 0, 1 to 100, 101 to 400, and >400

Patients without a zero CAC had a very low number of events , with a 1.0% rate of mortality and 2.7% rate of MACE over a 10-year period.

On the other hand subjects without any traditional risk factors (n = 6,208; mean age 43.8 years), the presence of any CAC (>0) was associated with a 1.7 fold increased risk of MACE after adjustment for traditional risk factors.

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Patients with CAC who were prescribed a statin had a significantly reduced risk of MACE (aSHR: 0.76; 95% CI: 0.60 to 0.95; p = 0.015), whereas patients without CAC had no associated MACE reduction (aSHR: 1.00; 95% CI: 0.79 to 1.27; p = 0.99). p = 0.097 for interaction between statin treatment and CAC presence. aSHR = adjusted subhazard ratio; CAC = coronary artery calcium; CI = confidence interval; MACE = major adverse cardiovascular event(s)

The red line of the >400 score individuals has a much higher risk of death, stroke and heart attack (myocardial infarction) than the blue (CAC 1-100) or the gray line of the zero CAC scorers.

Furthermore, when these investigators looked at outcomes in those individuals who received statins versus those who didn’t, the zeros didn’t benefit from statin therapy over the 10 year follow-up.

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Benefit of statin therapy was significantly related to CAC group with benefit in patients with CAC score >100 but not in patients with CAC <100. aSHR = adjusted subhazard ratio; CAC = coronary artery calcium; CI = confidence interval; MACE = major adverse cardiovascular event(s).

But there was a tremendous reduction in bad CV events in those with scores >100 who received statin (red line) versus those who did not (blue line).

Here’s the figure which encapsulates both the risk prediction power of the CAC (and the benefits of statin treatment restricted to those with >0 (blue lines)

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Benefits of CAC Testing In The Young

So these new studies provide powerful data supporting the use of CAC in younger individuals to help us refine risk estimates and target the individual at high risk of MI and sudden death. It seems highly appropriate to consider CAC testing beginning at age 40 years as the AHA/ACC guidelines suggest.

But what about the individual who has a strong family history of premature CAD and is age say 35 or 39 years of age. Do we ignore advanced risk assessment? Very few individuals die in their 30s from ASCVD but I have a number of patients who suffered heart attacks in their forties. In addition, the earlier we can start risk modification the better as the process begins very early in life and accumulates over time.

The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study published in 2017 has demonstrated the early development of nonzero CAC score in the youngish and the predictive value of the high CAC score for mid life ASCVD events.  It was  a prospective community-based study that recruited 5115 black and white participants aged 18 to 30 years from March 25, 1985, to June 7, 1986. The cohort has been under surveillance for 30 years, with CAC measured 15 (n = 3043), 20 (n = 3141), and 25 (n = 3189) years after recruitment. The mean follow-up period for incident events was 12.5 years, from the year 15 computed tomographic scan through August 31, 2014.

The conclusions:

Any CAC in early adult life, even in those with very low scores, indicates significant risk of having and possibly dying of a myocardial infarction during the next decade beyond standard risk factors and identifies an individual at particularly elevated risk for coronary heart disease for whom aggressive prevention is likely warranted.

screen shot 2019-01-19 at 12.36.44 pmI read CAC scans every day and it is not uncommon to see a non-zero scores in individuals in their late 30s or early 40s.

The two sons of another one of my patients both in their late 50s with unremarkable risk factor profiles and both developing anginal type symptoms limiting their activities each underwent multi vessel stent procedures in the last month. If I had seen them  10 to 20 years ago we would have identified the subclinical atherosclerosis building up in their coronaries, started treatment and avoided the need for invasive, expensive procedures.

Other Risk-Enhancing Factors To Consider In The Young

The ACC/AHA guidelines list some “risk-enhancing factors” some of which I find useful.

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Clearly family history of premature ASCVD is important but the devil is in the details. What relatives count? What was the event in the family member? If it was sudden death was an autopsy done?

What about nontraditional lipid/biomarkers?  I consider an assessment of Lp(a) and some more sophisticated measurement of atherogenic dyslipidemia (apoB, LDL-P) and inflammation (CRP) essential.

Interestingly the guidelines include ABI (which I do not find helpful) but not carotid vascular screening which has frequently guided me to earlier therapy in youngish individuals with abnormal biomarkers or strong family history.

Vascular screening in young subjects may detect subclinical atherosclerosis as measured by thickening of the carotid wall (IMT) or early carotid plaque prior to the formation of calcium in the coronary arteries. Advanced IMT precedes the formation of soft plaque in arteries and only later is calcium deposited in the plaque.

It’s never too early to start thinking about your risk of cardiovascular disease. If heart disease runs in your family or you have any of the “risk-enhancing” factors listed above, consider a CAC, nontraditional lipid/biomarkers, or vascular screening to better determine were you stand and what you can do about it.

Included in my discussions with my patients with premature ASCVD is a strong recommendation to encourage their brothers, sisters and children to undergo a thoughtful assessment for ASCVD risk. With these new studies and the new ACC/AHA guideline recommendations if they are age 40-75 years there is ample support for making CAC a part of such assessment.

Hopefully very soon, CMS and the health insurance companies will begin reimbursement for CAC. As it currently stands, however, the 125$ you will spend for the test at my hospital is money well spent.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

What Can You Really Learn From Celebrity Bob Harper’s Heart Attack And Near Sudden Death?

Until recently I had never heard of Bob Harper (The Biggest Loser) but apparently he is a celebrity personal trainer and had a heart attack and nearly died.  He  is known “for his contagious energy, ruthless training tactics, and ability to transform contestants’ bodies on The Biggest Loser” (a show I’ve never seen.)

When celebrities die suddenly (see Garry Sanders, Carrie Fischer) or have a heart attack at a youngish age despite an apparent healthy lifestyle this get’s people’s attention.

The media typically pounce on the story which combines the seductive allure of both health and celebrity reporting.

It turns out Harper inherited a high Lipoprotein (a) (see here) which put him at high risk for coronary atherosclerosis (CAD) which ultimately caused the heart attack (MI)  that caused his cardiac arrest.

To his credit, Harper has talked about Lipoprotein (a) and made the public and physicians more aware of this risk factor which does not show up in standard cholesterol testing.

Since his heart attack, Mr. Harper of “The Biggest Loser” has embarked on a newfound mission to raise awareness about heart disease and to urge people to get tested for lp(a).

Harper As Brilinta Shill

Unfortunately , he has also become a shill for Brilinta, an expensive brand name anti platelet drug often prescribed in patients after heart attacks or stents.

At the end of the TV commercial he says “If you’ve had a heart attack ask your doctor if Brilinta is right for you. My heart is worth Brilinta.”

At least this video is clearly an advertisement but patients and physicians are inundated  by infomercials for expensive, profit-driving drugs like Brilinta.

This Healthline article pretends to be a legitimate piece of journalism but is a stealth ad for Brilinta combined with lots of real ads for Brilinta.

Harper As Lifestyle Coach.

Harper also changed his fitness and diet regimens after his MI reasoning that something must have been wrong with his lifestyle and it needed modification.  For the most part he talks about more “balance” in his life which is good advice for everyone. His fitness regimens pre-MI were incredibly intense and have been toned down subsequently.

After his heart attack, Bob abandoned the Paleo lifestyle for the Mediterranean diet, as it’s been proven to improve heart health and reduce the risk of a heart attack, stroke, and heart-disease-related death by about 30 percent. But recently, he’s moved closer to a vegetarian regimen.

Of course, vegans and vegetarians have seized on this change in his diet as somehow proving the superiority of their chosen diets as in this vegan propaganda video:

Unfortunately there is no evidence that changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet will lower his risk of repeat MI.  Those who promote the Esselstyn, Pritikin or Ornish type diets claim to “reverse heart disease” and to be science-based but, as I’ve pointed  out (see here) the science behind these studies is really bad.

In fact, we know that neither diet nor exercise influence lipoprotein(a) levels which Bob inherited.  Some individuals just inherit the risk and must learn to deal with the cardiovascular cards they’ve been dealt.

What Can We Really Learn From Bob Harper’s Experience?

  1. Lipoprotein (a) is a significant risk marker for early CAD/MI/sudden cardiac death. Consider having it measured if you have a a) strong family history of premature deaths/heart attack (b) if you have developed premature subclinical atherosclerosis (see here) or clinical atherosclerosis (heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease) or (c) a family member has been diagnosed with it.
  2. Everyone should learn how to do CPR and how to utilize an AED. (see here for my rant on these two incredibly important 3-letter words). Harper was working out in the gym when he collapsed. Fortunately a nearby medical student had the wherewithal to do CPR on him until he could be defibrillated back to a normal rhythm and transported to a hospital to stop his MI.
  3. Dropping dead suddenly is often the first indicator that you have advanced CAD. If you have a strong family history of sudden death or early CAD consider getting a coronary artery calcium scan to better assess your risk.

Focus on celebrities with heart disease helps bring awareness to the public about important issues but we can only learn so much about best lifestyle or medications from the experience of one individual, no matter how famous.

Brilliantly Yours,

-ACP

Has REDUCE-IT Resurrected Fish OIl Supplements (And Saved Amarin)?

The answers are no and yes.

There is still no reason to take over the counter fish oil supplements.

In fact, a study published Saturday found that fish oil supplementation (1 g per day as a fish-oil capsule containing 840 mg of n−3 fatty acids, including 460 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and 380 mg of docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]

did not result in a lower incidence than placebo of the primary end points of major cardiovascular events (a composite of myocardial infarction, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes) and invasive cancer of any type.

However, another study  published Saturday (REDUCE-IT) and presented at the annual American Heart Association Scientific Sessions to great fanfare found that an ethyl-ester formulation (icosapent ethyl) of eicosapentanoic acid (EPA, one of the two main marine n-3 fish oils)  reduced major cardiovascular events by 25% in comparison to placebo.

When I wrote about Icosapent ethyl (brand name Vascepa) in a previous blog post in 2015 there was no data supporting its use:

A fish oil preparation, VASCEPA,  available only by prescription, was approved by the FDA in 2012.

Like the first prescription fish oil available in the US, Lovaza, VASCEPA is only approved by the FDA for treatment of very high triglycerides(>500 mg/dl).

This is a very small market compared to the millions of individuals taking fish oil thinking that  it is preventing heart disease.

The company that makes Vascepa (Amrin;$AMRN)would also like to have physicians prescribe it to their patients who have mildly or moderatelyelevated triglycerides between 200 and 500 which some estimate as up to 1/3 of the population.

The company has a study that shows that Vascepa lowers triglycerides in patients with such mildly to moderately elevated triglycerides but the FDA did not approve it for that indication.

Given the huge numbers of patients with trigs slightly above normal, before approving an expensive new drug, the FDA thought, it would be nice to know that the drug is actually helping prevent heart attacks and strokes or prolonging life.

After all, we don’t really care about high triglycerides unless they are causing problems and we don’t care about lowering them unless we can show we are reducing the frequency of those problems.

Data do not exist to say that lowering triglycerides in the mild to moderate range  by any drug lowers heart attack risk.

In the past if a company promoted their drug for off-label usage they could be fined by the FDA but Amarin went to court and obtained the right to promote Vascepa to physicians for triglycerides between 200 and 500.

Consequently, you may find your doctor prescribing this drug to you. If you do, I suggest you ask him if he recently had a free lunch or dinner provided by Amarin, has stock in the company (Vascepa is the sole drug made by Amarin and its stock price fluctuates wildly depending on sales and news about Vascepa) or gives talks for Amarin.

If he answers no to all of the above then, hopefully, your triglycerides are over 500.

And although elevated triglycerides confer an elevated CV risk nearly all prior trials evaluating different kinds  of triglyceride-lowering therapies, including extended-release niacin, fibrates, cholesteryl ester transfer protein inhibitors, and omega-3 fatty acids have failed to show reductions in cardiovascular events

REDUCE-IT, Amarin trumpeted widely in September (before the actual data was published)  now provides impressive proof that it prevents cardiovascular disease. Has the skeptical cardiologist changed his mind about fish oil?

Vascepa Is Not Natural Fish Oil

Although Amarin’s marking material states “VASCEPA is obtained naturally from wild deep-water Pacific Ocean fish” the active ingredient is an ethyl ester form of eicosapentoic acid (EPA) which has been industrially processed and distilled and separated out from the other main omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil (DHA or docosohexanoieic acid).

Natural fish oil contains a balance of EPA and DHA combined with triacylglycerols (TAGS).

So even if the REDUCE-IT trial results can be believed they do not support the routine consumption of  over the counter fish oil supplements for prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Does REDUCE-IT  Prove The Benefit of Purified High Dose EPA?

REDUCE-IT was a large (8179 patients) randomized, double-blind placebo controlled trial

Eligible patients had a fasting triglyceride level of 150 to 499 mg per deciliter  and a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol level of 41 to 100 mg per deciliter  and had been receiving a stable dose of a statin for at least 4 weeks. In 2013 the protocol was changed and required a triglyceride level>200 mg/dl.

Participants were randomized to icosapent ethyl (2 g twice daily with food [total daily dose, 4 g]) or a placebo that contained mineral oil to mimic the color and consistency of icosapent ethyl and were followed for a median of 4.9 years. A primary end-point event occurred in 17.2% of the patients in the icosapent ethyl group, as compared with 22.0% of the patients in the placebo group.

More importantly, the hard end-points of CV death, nonfatal stroke and heart attack were also significantly lower in the Vascepa arm compared to the “placebo” arm.

These results are almost unbelievably good and they are far better than one would have predicted given only a 17% reduction in triglycerides.

This makes me strongly consider prescribing Vascepa (something I heretofore have never done) to my higher risk patients with triglycerides over 200 after we’ve addressed lifestyle and dietary contributors.

Perhaps the high dose of EPA (4 grams versus the 1 gram utilized in most trials) is beneficial in stabilizing cell membranes, reducing inflammation and thrombotic events as experimental data has suggested.

Lingering Concerns About The Study

Despite these great results I have some concerns:

  1. The placebo contained mineral oil which may not have been neutral in its effects. In fact, the placebo arm had a significant rise in the LDL cholesterol.
  2. Enrolled patients were predominantly male and white. No benefit was seen in women.
  3. Higher rates of serious bleeding were noted in patients taking Vascepa
  4. Atrial fibrillation developed significantly more often in Vascepa patients (3.1%) versus the mineral oil patients (2.1%)

Finally, the trial was sponsored by Amarin Pharma. This is an aggressive company that I don’t trust.  The steering committee consisted of academic physicians (see the Supplementary Appendix), and representatives of the sponsor developed the protocol,  and were responsible for the conduct and oversight of the study, as well as the interpretation of the data. The sponsor was responsible for the collection and management of the data. All the data analyses were performed by the sponsor,

After i wrote my negative piece on Vascepa in 2015 a number of Amarin investors attacked me because Vascepa is the only product Amarin has and any news on the drug dramatically influences its stock price. Here is the price of Amarin stock in the last year.

The dramatic uptick in September corresponds to the company’s announcement of the topline results of REDUCE-IT. Since the actual results have been published and analyzed the stock has dropped 20%.

High Dose Purified and Esterified EPA-Yay or Nay?

I would love to see another trial of high dose EPA that wasn’t totally under the control of Amarin and such trials are in the pipeline.

Until then, I’ll consider prescribing Amarin’s pills to appropriate patients* who can afford it and who appear to have significant residual risk after statin therapy*.

But, I will continue to tell my patients to stop paying money for useless OTC fish oil supplements.

Megaskeptically Yours,-

ACP

N.B.* Appropriate patients will fit the entry criteria for REDUCE-IT described below.

Patients could be enrolled if they were 45 years of age or older and had established cardiovascular disease or were 50 years of age or older and had diabetes mellitus and at least one additional risk factor. Eligible patients had a fasting triglyceride level of 150 to 499 mg per deciliter (1.69 to 5.63 mmol per liter) and a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol level of 41 to 100 mg per deciliter (1.06 to 2.59 mmol per liter) and had been receiving a stable dose of a statin for at least 4 weeks;

So either secondary prevention (prior heart attack or stroke) or primary prevention in patients with diabetes and another risk factor.

 

 

One Question On A Borderline Stress Test and One Comment About Me , Gundry And BIG PHARMA

A reader asks me the following question:

I’m 35 years old male and was positive for myocardial ischemia during stress test. The cardiologist said that my result was borderline. I’m not sure what does he meant by “borderline”. Also does it help if I do CAC score since my stress test already came out with positive MI?

Good questions.

First off, to understand what any stress test means we have to know the pre-test probability of disease. For example, in 35 year old males without chest pain the likelihood of any significantly blocked coronary artery is very low. This means that the vast majority of positive or borderline tests in this group are false positives, meaning the test is abnormal but there is no disease.

Even if we add exertional chest pain into the mix the probability of a tightly blocked coronary in a 35 year year old is incredibly low (but there are some congenital coronary anomalies that occur.)

The accuracy of stress tests varies depending on the type. The standard treadmill stress test with ECG monitoring is about 70% sensitive  and 70% specific. Adding on a nuclear imaging component improves the sensitivity (it makes it more likely we will pick up a blockage if it is present) to about 85% however, in the real world, the specificity (chance of a false positive) is still quite high. Accuracy varies a lot depending on how good the study is and how good the reader is.

Borderline for either the stress ECG the stress nuclear (or stress echo) means that the test wasn’t clearly abnormal but it wasn’t clearly normal. It is in a grey zone of uncertainty.

Given your low pre-test probability of disease it is highly likely your “borderline” test result is a false positive. Whether anything else needs to be done at this point depends on many factors (some from the stress test)  but most importantly, the nature of the symptoms that prompted the investigation in the first place.

If there are no symptoms and  you went for more than 9 minutes on the treadmill likely nothing needs to be done.

Would a coronary calcium scan add anything?

A very high score (>let’s say 100 for age 35) would raise substantial concerns that you have a coronary blockage.

A zero score would be expected in your age group and probably wouldn’t change recommendations .

A score of 1 up to let’s say 100  means you have a built up a lot more plaque than normal and should look at aggressive modification of risk factors but likely wouldn’t change other recommendations.

So the CAC might be helpful but most likely it would be a zero and not helpful.

A Nasty Comment.

The skeptical cardiologist gets lots of nasty comments about his post on the bad science behind Dr. Esselstyn’s diet and another post on the totally bogus Plant Paradox book/diet by Stephen Gundry. I don’t think Esselstyn is a quack but he pretends that there is scientific support for his wacky diet when all he has is anecdotes.

With Gundry, on the other hand, there is a strong smell of quackery.

With this new book he’s developed a line of ridiculous foods that he’s approved.

Gundry will sell you a 75$  piece of chocolate with resveratrol added to it. Despite the multiple health claims for this antioxidant (found in red wine) there are no proven health benefits.

 

Snake oil and supplements abound in all of his presentations and there is much promotion of useless expensive skincare products and  foods that only he sells.

I’m thinking of  adding promotion of special, super-charged olive oil to the red flags of quackery.

There’s no health  reason to get extra-virgin olive oil adulterated with anything. Just make sure you are actually getting EVOO.


Here’s one of Gundry’s supporters comments.

Thank you for your opinion and that’s exactly what it is YOUR OPINION. I suggest you try the Plant Paradox. You sound like someone from a pharmaceutical company. Why don’t you write about how BIG PHARMA is deceiving the public along with how they are keeping people sick.

People who leave nasty comments on my blog typically don’t identify themselves. I can’t tell if this is an authentic comment or someone paid by Gundry’s vast snake oil empire.

They really like using ALL CAPs.

And they like to accuse me of being from BIG PHARMA or in the pay of BIG PHARMA.

BIG PHARMA and I, apparently, have the goal of misleading the populace about the benefits of Gundry’s BS diet and useless supplements so that they will remain sick and require drugs that  gain us huge profits.

I’m still waiting for the checks from BIG PHARMA to roll in. In the meantime I am scrupulously avoiding lunch with pharmaceutical reps and drug/device sponsored boondoggles.

Pharmalargically Yours,

-ACP

N.B. If you’d like to see how much money BIG PHARMA is paying me (or any doctor) you can go to the Dollars for Docs website run by Pro Publica here.

What John Mandrola Learned About Aspirin in Munich

The skeptical cardiologist did not get to travel to Munich to attend the recent European Society of Cardiology meetings but the electrophysiologist, John Mandrola did. He summarized two big trials which showed no benefit of aspirin in the primary prevention of cardiac disease, one in patients with diabetes and one in patients with moderate risk in Ten Things I Learned About Aspirin at ESC

Of note, the lack of benefit in these studies is partially related to a much lower rate of events than predicted from standard risk models.

Why? Mandrola notes:

“societal efforts, such as lower rates of smoking and removal of trans-fats from the food supply, have led to a heart-healthier environment. In addition, greater use of preventive therapies—statins and antihypertensive meds, for instance—have also contributed to lower rates of cardiac disease. These developments increase the difficulty of running trials for primary prevention but are decidedly good news for patients.”

Similar to the ASPREE study, aspirin did not show any benefit in reducing GI cancer in these two large studies.

So aspirin may be less effective than it was decades ago because we have done a good job overall of reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

acetylsalicylic ally Yours,

-ACP

h/t Reader Francis

Revisiting Who Should Take Aspirin

Four years ago the skeptical cardiologist wrote the (in his extremely humble  and biased opinion) the definitive post on aspirin and cardiovascular disease.  Entitled “Should I take aspirin to prevent stroke or heart attack“,  it pointed out that although Dr. Oz had recently told almost all middle-aged women to take a baby aspirin and fish oil, there was, in fact no evidence to support that practice.

The publication of the ASPREE (Aspirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly) trial results in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine further strengthens the points I made in 2014.

Between 2010 and 2014 the ASPREE investigators enrolled over 19,000 community-dwelling persons in Australia and the United States who were 70 years of age or older (or ≥65 years of age among blacks and Hispanics in the United States) and did not have cardiovascular disease, dementia, or disability.

(It’s important to look closely at the precise inclusion and exclusion criteria in randomized studies  to understand fully the implications of the results (for example, what qualified as cardiovascular disease) and I’ve listed them at the end of this post.)

Study participants were randomly assigned to receive 100 mg of enteric-coated aspirin or placebo. At the end of the study about 2/3 of participants in both groups were still taking their pills.

When I wrote about aspirin in 2014 I focused on cardiovascular disease. At that time, there was some reasonable evidence that aspirin might lower the risk of colorectal cancer. But when we look at outcomes the bottom line is how the drug influences the overall mix of diseases and deaths.

The ASPREE researchers chose disability-free survival, defined as survival free from dementia or persistent physical disability (inability to perform or severe difficulty in performing at least one of the six basic activities of daily living that had persisted for at least 6 monthas their primary end-point which makes a lot of sense-patients don’t want to just live longer, they want to live longer with a good quality of life. If aspirin, to take a totally hypothetical example) is stopping people from dying from heart attacks but making them demented it’s not benefiting them overall.

After 5 years there was no difference in the rate of death, dementia or permanent physical disability between the aspirin group (21.5 events per 1000 person-years) and placebo group (21.2 per 1000).

However those taking aspirin had a significantly higher rate of major bleeding (3.8%) than those taking placebo (2.8%).

The risk of death from any cause was 12.7 events per 1000 person-years in the aspirin group and 11.1 events per 1000 person-years in the placebo group.. Cancer was the major contributor to the higher mortality in the aspirin group, accounting for 1.6 excess deaths per 1000 person-years.

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And, despite prior analyses suggesting aspirin reduces colorectal cancer the opposite was found in this study. Aspirin takers were 1.8 times more likely to die from colorectal cancer and 2.2 times more likely to die from breast cancer.nejmoa1803955_t2

 

Did Aspirin Reduce Cardiovascular Events?

No. It did not.

A separate paper analyzed cardiovascular outcomes

After a median of 4.7 years of follow-up, the rate of cardiovascular disease was 10.7 events per 1000 person-years in the aspirin group and 11.3 events per 1000 person-years in the placebo group (hazard ratio, 0.95; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.83 to 1.08). The rate of major hemorrhage was 8.6 events per 1000 person-years and 6.2 events per 1000 person-years, respectively (hazard ratio, 1.38; 95% CI, 1.18 to 1.62; P<0.001).

The ASPREE study confirms what I advised in 2014 and hopefully will further reduce the inappropriate consumption of aspirin among low risk individuals.

I’ve taken more patients off aspirin since 2014 than I’ve started on and what I wrote then remains relevant and reflects my current practice. Especially in light of the increase cancer risk noted in ASPREE patients should only take aspirin for good reasons.

Below is my 2014 post entitled “Should I Take Aspirin To Prevent Heart Attack or Stroke.”

Aspirin is a unique drug, the prototypical  two-edged sword of pharmaceuticals. It t has the capability of stopping platelets, the sticky elements in our blood, from forming clots that cause strokes and heart attacks when arterial plaques rupture, but it increases the risk of serious bleeding into the brain or from the GI tract. Despite these powerful properties, aspirin is available over the counter and is very cheap, thus anyone can take it in any dosage they want. 

Who Should Take Aspirin?

For the last five years I’ve been advising my patients who have no evidence of atherosclerotic vascular disease against taking aspirin to prevent heart attack and stroke. Several comprehensive reviews of all the randomized trials of aspirin had concluded by 2011 that

The current totality of evidence provides only modest support for a benefit of aspirin in patients without clinical cardiovascular disease, which is offset by its risk. For every 1,000 subjects treated with aspirin over a 5-year period, aspirin would prevent 2.9 MCE and cause 2.8 major bleeds.

(MCE=major cardiovascular events, e.g. stroke, heart attack, death from cardiovascular disease)

Dr. Oz, on the other hand, came to St. Louis in 2011 to have  lunch with five hundred women and advised them all to take a baby aspirin daily (and fish oil, which is not indicated for primary prevention as I have discussed here). When I saw these women subsequently in my office I had to spend a fair amount of our visit explaining why they didn’t need to take aspirin and fish oil.

After reviewing available data, the FDA this week issued a statementrecommending against aspirin use for the prevention of a first heart attack or stroke in patients with no history of cardiovascular disease (i.e. for primary prevention). The FDA pointed out that aspirin use is associated with “serious risks,” including increased risk of bleeding in the stomach and brain. As for secondary prevention for people with cardiovascular disease or those who have had a previous heart attack or stroke (secondary prevention), the available evidence continues to support aspirin use.

Subclinical Atherosclerosis and Aspirin usage

As I’ve discussed previously, however, many individuals who have not had a stroke or heart attack are walking around with a substantial burden of atherosclerosis in their arteries. Fatty plaques can become quite advanced in the arteries to the brain and heart before they obstruct blood flow and cause symptoms. In such individuals with subclinical atherosclerosis aspirin is going to be much more beneficial.

 

Guided Use of Aspirin

zerilloplaque
Large, complex atherosclerotic plaque in the carotid artery found by vascular screening in an individual with no history of stroke, heart attack, or vascular disease. This patient will definitely benefit from daily aspirin to prevent stroke or heart attack

We have the tools available to look for atherosclerotic plaques before they rupture and cause heart attacks or stroke. Ultrasound screening of the carotid artery, as I discussed here, is one such tool: vascular screening is an accurate, harmless and painless way to assess for subclinical atherosclerosis.

Coronary calcium is another, which I’ve written extensively about.

In my practice, the answer to the question of who should or should not take aspirin is based on whether my patient has or does not have significant atherosclerosis. If they have had a clinical event due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (stroke, heart attack, coronary stent, coronary bypass surgery, documented blocked arteries to the legs) I recommend they take one 81 milligram (baby) uncoated aspirin daily. If they have not had a clinical event but I have documented by either

  • vascular screening (significant carotid plaque)
  • coronary calcium score (high score (cut-off is debatable, more on this in a subsequent post)
  • Incidentally discovered significant plaque in the aorta or peripheral arteries (found by CT or ultrasound done for other reasons)

then I recommend a daily baby aspirin (assuming no high risk of bleeding).

There are no randomized trials testing this approach but in the next few years several large aspirin trials will be completed and hopefully we will get a better understanding of who benefits most from aspirin for primary prevention.

Until then remember that aspirin is a powerful drug with potential for good and bad effects on your body. Only take it if you and your health care provider have decided the benefits outweigh the risks after careful consideration of your particular situation

Acetylsalicylically Yours,

-ACP

 

The inclusion criteria for ASPREE define significant cardiovascular disease as follows

a past history of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular event or established CVD, defined as myocardial infarction (MI), heart failure, angina pectoris, stroke, transient ischemic attack, >50% carotid stenosis or previous carotid endarterectomy or stenting, coronary artery angioplasty or stenting, coronary artery bypass grafting, abdominal aortic aneurysm