Tag Archives: coronary calcium

What Can We Learn About Heart-Healthy Lifestyle From The Tsimane People of the Amazon Rainforest ?

The skeptical cardiologist has been in Washington, DC attending the Scientific Sessions of the American College of Cardiology for the last three days in an attempt to upgrade his cardiology knowledge and obtain CMEs for all the various areas he needs CME (echo/nuclear/CT/vascular).

I’ve written some posts for SERMO, a physician social media site,  on interesting presentations from the meeting.

Here’s my take on one paper (published simultaneously in The Lancet) that is of general interest:

I’m a big advocate of coronary artery calcium (CAC) scans for helping make decisions on individual patients with intemediate risk for CAD. Several speakers at this year’s American College of Cardiology Meetings presented convincing data supporting this approach, providing more information to get patients off the fence about taking statins.

However, CAC apparently would be a useless test in the Tsimane (pronounced chee-MAH-nay) people according to a study presented at  the ACC meeting and published simultaneously in The Lancet.

Researchers performed CT scans on 700 of  these “forager-horticulturalist”  people, indigenous to the Bolivian Amazon Rainforest and found very little calcium suggesting that they have an amazingly low rate of atherosclerosis compared to we who have to live in the industrialized world.

Obviously CT scanners are not portable so the Tsimane traveled by river and jeep from the Amazon rainforest to Trinidad, a city in Bolivia and the nearest city with a CT scanner. It took tribe members one to two days to reach the nearest market town by river, and then another six hours driving to reach Trinidad.

85% of the Tsimane people studied had CAC scores of 0. In those over age 75 years, 65% had CAC scores of 0, and just four individuals in their 80s had moderately elevated CAC (> 100). The incidence of CAC > 100 in the entire Tsimane population was 3%, which is about one tenth the prevalence in a matched industrialized population. In addition, incidences of obesity, hypertension, high glucose concentrations, and cigarette smoking were rare overall.

The Tsimane live a subsistence lifestyle that includes hunting, gathering, fishing, and farming. They don’t eat at McDonalds and the men spend almost 7 hours pers day on physical labor. Their diet consists mostly of unprocessed fiber-rich carbohydrates with rice, plantain, manioc, corn, wild nuts, and fruit composing their staples. Fat consumption is 9% of calories versus 23% in the U.S.

Supporters of plant-based diets, of course, seized on these data to support the unsubstantiated claim that meat and dairy consumption is the main cause of atherosclerosis in western civilization.

Hillard Kaplan, one of the authors and a Professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico said:

 “Their lifestyle suggests that a diet low in saturated fats and high in non-processed fibre-rich carbohydrates, along with wild game and fish, not smoking and being active throughout the day could help prevent hardening in the arteries of the heart. The loss of subsistence diets and lifestyles could be classed as a new risk factor for vascular aging and we believe that components of this way of life could benefit contemporary sedentary populations.”

However, the real cause of the low levels of coronary artery calcification in the Tsimane remains a mystery because this kind of observational study cannot establish causality. Perhaps it is the 17,000 steps a day that they walk  engaging in foraging and horticulturalism. Could it be due to the absence of processed food and added sugar? The Tsimane have high levels of parasitic infections: perhaps that is protecting them.

Of two things I am certain:

-The Tsimane don’t need statins.

-I prefer my lifestyle to munching on manioc and foraging all day.

Semihorticulturally Yours,



The Widowmaker: Stents versus Calcium Scans

I’ve just finished watching a documentary on Netflix called The Widowmaker which alternately had me fascinated, disgusted, bored, excited, and angry.

This movie is about the treatment of coronary artery disease and what we can do about the large number of people who drop dead from heart attacks, some 4 million in the last 30 years.

The documentary, as all medical documentaries tend to do, simplifies, dumbs down and hyperbolizes a very important medical condition. Despite that it makes some really important points and I’m going to recommend it to all my patients.

At the very least it gets people thinking about their risk of dying from heart disease which remains the #1 killer of men and women in the United States.

Perhaps it will have more patients question the value of stents outside the setting of an acute heart attack. This is a good thing.

Perhaps it will stimulate individuals to be more proactive about their risk of heart attack. This is a good thing.

Take a look. Think about it. If you decide you might benefit from a coronary calcium scan of your heart let me know.

I’ll dissect this movie in detail in subsequent posts. There are a lot of inaccuracies  but some fundamental and important points are made that patients need to now.

Stents do not prevent heart attacks.

Standard risk factors do not do well at predicting who will have a heart attack.


Dealing With The (Cardiovascular) Cards You’ve Been Dealt

The skeptical cardiologist was in Atlanta recently  visiting  his Life Coach (LCOSC). Oddly enough, the wife of the LCOSC (who I’ll call Lisa) had just undergone a coronary calcium scan  and it came back with a high score.  Most women her age (58 years old) have a zero score but hers came back at 208 .

What is the significance of a calcium score of 208 in this case?

The CT scan for calcium (discussed by me in more detail here) focuses entirely on quantifying the intense and very specific kind of x-ray absorption from calcium. The three-dimensional resolution of the scan is such that the coronary arteries which supply blood to the heart can be accurately located and the amount of calcium in them very accurately and reproducibly added up. Calcium is not in the arteries normally and only accumulates as atherosclerotic plaque builds up over time. The build up of fatty plaque (atherosclerosis) is the major cause of coronary artery disease (CAD, sometimes termed coronary heart disease (CHD)) which is what causes most heart attacks and most death in both men and women in the U.S.

We can enter Lisa’s numbers into the online MESA calculator to see how she compares to other white 59 year old women. The calculator tells us that 72% of her peers have a zero calcium score and a score of 208  is higher than 95% of her peers. Although the 95th percentile is a good place to be for SAT scores it is not for atherosclerosis. This means substantial amount of fatty atherosclerotic plaque has built up in the arteries and puts the individual at significantly greater risk for heart attack and stroke. A calcium score of 100-300 confers a 7.7 times increased risk compared to an individual with similar risk factors with a zero calcium score.

Most of the risk factors that we can measure to assess one’s risk of heart attack (blood pressure, diabetes, smoking) were absent in Lisa. Her cholesterol levels had risen in the last 10 years but when I entered her numbers (total cholesterol 221, HDL 68) into the ASCVD risk estimator her 10 year risk came back at 2.5%. This is considered low and no treatment of cholesterol would be advised by the new guidelines.

The only clue that her cardiologist would have that Lisa has advanced premature atherosclerosis is that her mother had coronary heart disease at an early age, something we call premature CAD. Her mom at the age of 62 suffered a heart attack and had a stent placed in one of her coronary arteries. The occurrence of significant premature CAD in a parent or sibling  substantially increases the chances that a patient will have premature CAD and the earlier it occurred in the parent or sibling the higher the risk.

Some of this excess risk is transmitted by measurable risk factors such as hypertension and hyperlipidemia and some through lifestyle factors but the majority of it is through genetic factors that we haven’t fully identified.

How much of an individual’s risk for heart attack  is determined by genetics versus lifestyle?

A large Swedish study found that adopted men and women with at least one biological parent with CHD were 1.5 times more likely to have CHD than adoptees without. In contrast, men and women with one adoptive parent were not at increased risk.

Since 2007 an intense project to identify genetic factors responsible for CAD has been underway at multiple academic centers. Thus far 50 genetic risk variants have been identified. According to Dr. Robert Roberts

” All of these risk variants are extremely common with more than half occurring in >50% of the general population. They increased only minimally the relative risk for coronary artery disease. The most striking finding is that 35 of the 50 risk variants act independently of known risk factors, indicating there are several pathways yet to be appreciated, contributing to the pathogenesis of coronary atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction. All of the genetic variants seem to act through atherosclerosis, except for the ABO blood groups, which show that A and B are associated with increased risk for myocardial infarction, mediated by a prolonged von Willebrand plasma half life leading to thrombosis”

 How well do the standard risk factors capture the individuals risk for heart attack?

The standard approach to estimating risk fails in about 25% of individuals as it does not accurately convey the high risk of the patient with family history and it overestimates risk in many elderly individuals who have an excellent family history.

It is in these patients that testing for the actual presence of atherosclerosis, either by vascular screening or coronary calcium is helpful.

Reducing The Excess Risk of Premature CAD

For many individuals there are clear-cut lifestyle changes that can be implemented once advanced CAD is identified: cigarette smoking cessation, weight loss through combinations of diet and exercise with resulting control of diabetes, However, many patients like Lisa, are non-smokers, living a good lifestyle, eating an excellent diet with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and healthy oils and  without obesity or diabetes. There is no evidence that modifying lifestyle in this group is going to slow down an already advanced progression of atherosclerosis.

Patients like Lisa have inherited predisposition to CAD, it is not due to their lifestyle.

Lisa’s cardiologist  suggested she get a copy of Dr. Esselstyn’s book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease”. This book, based on the author’s experience in treating 18 patients with advanced CAD espouses an ultra low fat diet. The author declares that “you may not eat anything with a face or a mother (meat/poultry/fish)” and bans  full fat dairy products and all oil (“not even a drop”)

Such “plant-based diets” (codeword for vegan or vegetarianism) lack good scientific  studies supporting efficacy and are extremely hard to maintain long term. There is nothing to suggest that Lisa’s long term risk of heart attack and stroke would be modified by following such a Spartan dietary regimen.

Her cardiologist did recommend two things proven to be beneficial in patients with documented advanced CAD: statins and aspirin.

Taking a statin drug will arrest the atherosclerotic process and reduce risk of heart attack and stroke by around 30% as I’ve discussed here and here.

An aspirin is now indicated since significant atherosclerosis has now been documented to be present as I’ve discussed here.

We can blame a lot of heart disease on lifestyle: poor diets and lack of exercise are huge factors leading to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia, but in many patients I see who develop heart disease at an early age, lifestyle is not the issue, it is the genetic cards that they have been dealt.

Until we develop reliable genetic methods for identifying those at high risk it makes sense to utilize methods such as vascular screening or coronary calcium to look for atherosclerosis in individuals with a family history of premature CAD.

Once advanced atherosclerosis is identified, we have extremely safe and effective medications that can help  individuals like Lisa deal with the cardiovascular cards they have been dealt.



Should All Men Over Sixty Take a Statin Drug?

The updated AHA/ACC Cardiovascular Prevention Guidelines (CPG) which include the   excessively wordy “The Treatment of Blood Cholesterol to Reduce Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Risk in Adults Risk” were published late last year and immediately were the center of controversy.

After working with them for 9 months and using the iPhone app to calculate my patients’ 10 year risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD, primarily heart attacks and strokes) it has become clear to me that the new guidelines will recommend statin therapy to almost all males over the age of 60 and females over the age of 70.

As critics have pointed out, this immediately adds about 10 million individuals to the 40 million or so who are currently taking statins.

Should we be starting all elderly Americans on statin drugs?

My simple answer is no. It doesn’t make sense to do this, because clearly not all elderly individuals have atherosclerosis or will ever develop its consequences of heart attack and stroke. Many have inherited the genes that allowed their parents to live free of heart disease into their 90s and will not benefit at all from long term statin therapy; they may actually suffer the expense and side effects instead.

How can we better decide who among the elderly will benefit from statin therapy?

If you have read my previous posts on searching for subclinical atherosclerosis here and here you probably know the answer. Let’s look at a specific case and apply those principles.

Robert is 69 years old. I see him because, in 2010, the posterior leaflet of his mitral valve ruptured, resulting in the mitral valve becoming severely incompetent at its job of preventing back flow from the left ventricle into the left atrium. I sent him to a cardiac surgeon who repaired the ruptured leaflet. Although he has a form of “heart disease,” this is a form that has nothing to do with cholesterol, hypertension or diabetes and is not associated with ASCVD.

However, it is my job to assess in him, like all individuals, the risk of developing coronary heart disease or ASCVD.

He has no family history of ASCVD and he feels great since the surgery, exercising aerobically 4-5 times per week.

His BMI is 23.87 which is in the normal range. His BP runs 116/80.

His total cholesterol is 210 and LDL or bad cholesterol is 142. Good or HDL cholesterol is 56 and triglycerides 59. The total and LDL cholesterol levels are considered “high,” but they could be perfectly acceptable for this man.

When I ran his 10 year ASCVD risk (risk of developing a heart attack or stroke over the next 10 years), it came back as 14%. The new guidelines would suggest having a conversation with him about starting a statin if his risk is over 7.5%. His risk is double this and statins are definitely recommended in this intermediate risk range. Interestingly, I cannot enter a cholesterol level or blood pressure for a man of this age that yields a risk less than 7.5%.

When I had my discussion with him about his risk for ASCVD, I plugged his numbers into my iPhone and showed him the results and gave him the guideline recommendation.

Lifestyle Changes to Lower Cholesterol

The new Cardiovascular Prevention Guidelines have a section devoted to Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk. Unfortunately, none of the lifestyle changes they recommend have been shown to reduce ASCVD risk in an individual like Robert. He already exercises the recommended amount, is at his ideal body weight and eats a healthy diet. If we were to tighten up on his diet by, say reducing red meat, eggs and high fat dairy, all we would accomplish would be to lower his LDL and HDL cholesterol levels and make his life and meals less satisfying. The lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol would not lower his risk of ASCVD and the calculated 10 year ASCVD risk would still be in the range where statins are recommended.

Therefore, I am not going to tell Robert that he should reduce his saturated fat consumption (he already has incorporated that into his diet since he’s been bombarded with the low fat mantra for 30 years).

Searching for Subclinical Atherosclerosis

I’m going to tell Robert that we need to know if he has atherosclerosis, the disease that we are attempting to modify.

We started with an ultrasound to look at the lining of the large arteries in his neck that supply blood to the brain, the carotid arteries (a process I describe in more detail here). Although severe atherosclerotic blockages in these arteries put one at risk of a stroke, I was much more interested in the subtle changes in the arteries that precede symptoms and are an early harbinger of atherosclerosis.

Careful ultrasound recording and measurement of the main common carotid arteries from both the left and right side showed that the IMT or thickness was lower than average for his age, gender and ethnicity. His carotid IMT was at the average for a 60 year old, therefore, his so-called vascular age was 60 years, younger than his chronological age. If I plug that age into the ASCVD risk estimator, I get an 8.2% 10 year risk, just barely above the statin treatment cut-off.

Careful scrutiny with ultrasound of the entire visible carotid system in the neck on both sides did not reveal any early fatty plaques or calcium in the lining of the carotid arteries. He had no evidence for atherosclerosis, even very subtle early forms, in this large artery, a finding which is usually predictive of what is going on in the other large arteries in the body, including the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart.

At this point, I think, we could have stopped the search for subclinical atherosclerosis and agreed that no statin therapy was warranted. However, Robert wanted further reassurance that his coronary arteries were OK, therefore we set him up with a coronary calcium study (see my full description of this test here).

Searching for Subclinical Atherosclerosis: The Calcium Score

Robert’s coronary calcium score came back at 21 (all in the LAD coronary artery) , which put him at the 26th percentile compared to normal men of his age and gender. A score of 21 is average for a 59 year old man and 82% of men aged 69 have a score greater than zero. Robert had much less calcium in his coronaries than men his age, another factor putting him in a low risk category.

Given the low risk findings from both the vascular screening and the coronary calcium, I felt comfortable recommending no statin therapy and going against the guidelines.

Statins: Better Targets for The Two-edged Sword

This is not an unusual scenario; many of my older patients without heart attacks, strokes or diabetes fall into the risk category that would warrant statin therapy and if they have no clinical or subclinical evidence of atherosclerosis, I don’t advise statin therapy. My patients are free to follow the guidelines and take statin drugs after this advice, but most are very grateful that another pill (which they likely have heard bad things about on the internet or from friends with adverse experiences) can be avoided.

Statins are wonderful drugs when utilized in the right population, but they also carry a  9% increased risk of diabetes and about a 10% real world risk of developing muscle aches and weakness (myalgia).

I think it is essential to aim these two-edged swords at the right targets if we are to maximize the overall health benefits.

Searching for Subclinical Atherosclerosis: Am I about to drop dead?

Nearly every day I see a patient in the office who has just experienced a friend or relative suddenly “dropping dead.”  Understandably, they are very concerned about this and want to know “Is this going to happen to me?”

There is very good reason to be concerned. Cardiac disease is the leading cause of death in America. Despite considerable progress, regrettably 50% of deaths occur suddenly, without any previous symptoms which would have suggested a cardiac problem. It doesn’t just hit the overweight or the smoker. It not uncommonly strikes the very fit and seemingly healthy, as in the case of the St. Louis Cardinal pitcher, Daryl Kile, who was found dead in his hotel room at the age of 34. This question of who is going to suddenly drop dead (sudden cardiac death or SCD) is one of the fundamental unsolved mysteries in current cardiology.

Atherosclerosis and Dropping Dead

Most SCD in individuals over the age of 35 is related  to the development of fatty plaques (atherosclerosis) in the arteries that supply blood to the heart (coronary arteries) and the subsequent sudden rupture of these plaques (thrombosis).hrtatk-07 The result of this rupture is the complete blockage of the artery and the total cessation of blood flow to a portion of the heart muscle. When that heart muscle portion becomes starved for oxygen, the muscle cells start dying and a myocardial infarction (MI) or heart attack occurs. You can view an animation of this process here With any MI, the dying muscle cells can become electrically irritable and initiate an abnormal heart rhythm called ventricular tachycardia (VT) or ventricular fibrillation (VF). This abnormal rhythm is what causes people to “drop dead” suddenly. Basically, the heart cannot pump blood efficiently in VT or VF; thus, there is no blood flowing to the brain and other vital organs. This is a long, complicated chain of events, but basically it begins with the development of fatty plaques or atherosclerosis. It makes sense that we can stop people dropping dead from MI by stopping the development and progression of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis develops long before any clinical signs or symptoms of disease. You can feel totally fine and have a huge build up of plaque in all of the arteries of your body. This is termed subclinical atherosclerosis. It makes sense, and it has been scientifically proven, that those with a huge buildup of plaque (high plaque burden) are at higher risk for MI and death than those with low or no plaque burden. It also makes sense that treating those patients with high plaque burden will be most beneficial.

How Do you know if you have atherosclerosis

I discussed the standard recommended method for determining risk of MI/SCD in my last post on statins. Basically, this is simply adding up the factors we know contribute to atherosclerosis: diabetes, cigarette smoking, hypertension, age, gender and cholesterol levels. However, most heart attacks and strokes occur in people who are classified by traditional risk factor scoring as low or intermediate risk. Conversely, others are misclassified as high risk and mistakenly advised to take drugs to reduce their risk factors for the rest of their lives.

How Can We Detect Subclinical Atherosclerosis?

In my office practice I offer patients two tests which directly detect and quantify subclinical atherosclerosis. One looks for plaque  and thickening in the larger arteries of the neck, the carotid arteries, and one looks for calcium in the coronary arteries. I’ll go into detail about both of these in subsequent posts. For now, I will just say that the carotid screening technique uses harmless ultrasound while the coronary calcium technique uses ionizing radiation from a CT scan. Neither test is covered by insurance or Medicare. Both tests have been shown to improve our ability to identify those at risk for MI and stroke.

These tests are helpful in two general areas:

*The first scenario is the patient who appears to be at low or intermediate risk for atherosclerosis based on the risk estimator, but who has a strong family history of MI, sudden death or stroke. If we identify significant subclinical atherosclerosis in this patient, statin therapy is more likely to be beneficial.

*The second scenario is the patient who has been put on statins for primary prevention based on standard risk estimator but has no family history of ASCVD and is questioning the need for treatment. In this patient if we find no subclinical atherosclerosis, a strong argument can be made to stop the statin drug.

SHAPE Guidelines II Slide_Page_38
Proposed method for utilizing carotid vascular and coronary calcium tests for better identification of subclinical atherosclerosis and more appropriate utilization of treatment in order to prevent heart attacks and sudden cardiac death

There is an organization dedicated to promoting the detection of SA by these tests and an algorithm for treatment called SHAPE  (Society for Heart Attack Prevention and Education). Interestingly, after a female Texas state representative suffered an MI, in 2009, Texas Governor Ricky Perry signed off on the Texas Heart Attack Prevention Bill mandating health-benefit plans to cover screening tests for SA. No other state to my knowledge has such a law.

How to Stop Sudden Cardiac Death

The two tests I mentioned are a good second step towards identifying the individual at risk for MI and SCD but we still don’t know who among those with advanced subclinical atherosclerosis is going to experience a sudden rupture of plaque, have an MI and drop dead.

We need a way to identify those patients with vulnerable plaque (one that is about to rupture) and aggressively treat those patients. This is an area of intense research focus. You can view a fascinating video (accompanied by weirdly cool music) created by SHAPE here and another (featuring a gun shooting a heart) here emphasizing the importance of the vulnerable plaque.