Tag Archives: Risk Estimator

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,


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: Coronary Calcium Score-How Old Is My Heart?

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. I’ve talked about using high frequency ultrasound of the carotid arteries to the brain to look for plaque and for carotid IMT in earlier posts here and here.

There is a third method that looks directly at the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart.  It is variously called a heart scan, coronary calcium score, or cardioscan, and it is more widely utilized amongst physicians who are serious about preventing cardiovascular disease.

This technique utilizes the ionizing radiation inherent in X-rays to perform a CT examination of the chest. It does not require injection of any dye or the puncture of any arteries; thus, it is considered noninvasive and has no risk or pain associated with it.

When atherosclerosis first begins to form in the arteries, it generally takes the form of “soft” plaques. Soft plaques are initially full of lipids, but after a period of time, the plaques undergo change: calcium begins to deposit into this plaque.

There is a direct relationct_calciumship between coronary artery calcium (CAC) and the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in the coronary arteries.

CT scans are very accurate in identifying small amounts of calcium in the soft tissue of the body. Calcium score tests essentially look for blobs of calcium that are felt to be within the coronary arteries, count up the intensity and distribution of them, and calculate a total score that reflects the entire amount of calcium in the coronary arteries.

A large body of scientific literature has documented that higher calcium scores are associated with higher risk of significantly blocked coronary arteries and of heart attack.

You can read the NHLBI clinic’s info for patients here on the test.

How Is The Calcium Score Used To Help Patients?

The calcium score can be utilized (in a manner similar to the carotid IMT and plaque) to help determine whether a given individual has more advanced atherosclerosis than we would predict based on their risk factor profile. A score of zero is consistent with a very low risk of significantly blocked arteries and confers an excellent prognosis. On the other hand, scores of >400 indicate extensive atherosclerotic plaque burde , high risk of heart attack, and high likelihood of a significantly blocked coronary artery.

The calcium score (similar to the carotid IMT) increases with age and is higher in males versus females at any given age. We have very good data on age and gender normals. The average 50-59 year old woman has a zero score, whereas a man in that age range has a score of 30. The average man has developed some CAC by the fourth decade of life whereas the average woman doesn’t develop some until the sixth decade. More advanced CAC for age and gender is a poor prognostic sign. You can plug your own age, gender, race and CAC score into a calculator on the MESA (Multi-ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis) website here.

2013 ACC/AHA Guideline on the Assessment of Cardiovascular Risk says the following

 If, after quantitative risk assessment, a risk based treatment decision is uncertain, assessment of 1 or more of the following—family history, hs-CRP, CAC score, or ABI—may be considered to inform treatment decision making

This guideline recommended utilizing a  CAC score of >300 Agatson Units or >75th percentile for age, gender and ethnicity as a cut-off.

CAC Score Identifies Those At Very High  Risk

A forty-something year old man came to see me for palpitations. He had a stress echo which was normal except for the development of frequent PVCs and a brief run of non sustained ventricular tachycardia.  His risk factor profile was not particularly bad: no diabetes, hypertension, or cigarette smoking and an average lipid profile. When I calculated his 10 year risk of ASCVD using my iPhone app it came out at 7%: below the level at which statin treatment would be recommended.  Because his father had a coronary stent in his fifties (this does not qualify as a family history of heart disease according to the new guideline, by the way)  I recommended he get a CAC test done.

His CAC score came back markedly elevated, almost 1000.  .  A subsequent cardiac catheterization demonstrated a very high-grade coronary blockage iwhich was subsequently stented. I started him on high intensity statin therapy and he has done well.

CAC score identifies Those At Very Low Risk

Many individuals with high cholesterol values do not develop atherosclerosis.  A zero CAC score in a male over 50 or a woman over 65 (or non-zero CAC score that is <25th percentile for age, gender, ethnicity) indicates that they are not developing atherosclerosis and makes it less likely that they will benefit from statin therapy to lower cholesterol.

Some Caveats About CAC score testing

-Like carotid vascular screening, there is no reason to get a CAC test if you already have had problems related to blocked coronary arteries such as a heart attack or coronary stents or coronary bypass surgery.

-CAC score testing is not covered by insurance (except in Texas) and costs somewhere between $125 and $300 out of pocket.

-The CT scan leads to a small amount of radiation exposure-approximately 1 – 2 milliseiverts of radiation (mSv). To puts things in perspective, the annual radiation dose we receive from natural sources is around 3 mSV per year.

Some of the other approximate radiation doses for tests commonly used in medicine are:

Chest X-ray ( )            0.1 mSV
Routine CT chest:  10 mSV
CT abdomen: 10 mSV
Nuclear stress test: 10 to 20 mSV

Searching for Subclinical Atherosclerosis: Vascular Screening

I reviewed in a previous post  the importance of detecting sublinical atherosclerosis when trying to assess someone’s risk of heart attack and of dying suddenly.  Subclinical atherosclerosis refers to the build-up of plaque in the lining of our arteries which occurs long before any symptoms of atherosclerosis occur.

Since the process tends to be diffuse, occurring in all the large arteries of the body, it makes sense that if we can easily visualize one artery this will give us a window into what is happening in other arteries (including the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle).

Vascular Screening

The vascular screening I offer in my office uses high frequency ultrasound to image the large artery, the carotid artery, that supplies blood to the brain.

normalimtNormally the lining of that artery is smooth and thin as in the example to the left. As the process of atherosclerosis works its damage on the artery lining it becomes thicker and plaque begins to develop. High frequency ultrasound is an excellent tool for identifying these early, subclinical stages of atherosclerosis because it is painless, harmless, inexpensive, and quick. 

Identifying Higher Risk Patients

Mr. M is  a 60 year old man who I was seeing for an abnormal heart rhythm. Using the ACC risk estimator I calculated his 10 year risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) as <7.5%. However, he had a brother who had cardiac stents placed in his coronary arteries (indicating coronary artery disease (CAD)). His carotid artery screening (shown below) shows a large, soft plaque

Large, relatively echo lucent (soft) plaque found in the internal carotid artery of Mr. M.

This indicates that although his known risk factors for atherosclerosis were not tremendously high, the combination of known and unknown factors (likely genetic, given his brother’s premature CAD) were damaging the lining of his arteries leaving him at a  high risk for stroke and heart attack.


A patient like Mr. M I consider to have documented atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD)and I  will strongly recommend statin therapy along with a baby aspirin

Several studies have shown in those patients who are reluctant to start statin therapy, documenting subclinical atherosclerosis serves as a strong motivational factor for lifestyle change or compliance with medications.

Identifying Lower Risk Patients

Equally important as identifying advanced subclinical atherosclerosis, imaging the carotid artery can identify those patients who are at lower risk and save them from a lifetime of unnecessary treatment.

Ms N is 64 years old whom I see h for high blood pressure and supra ventricular tachycardia (an abnormal heart rhythm). She has a total cholesterol of 219, HDL(or good) cholesterol of 74, systolic blood pressure of 130 and the ACC risk estimator gives her an 8.4% risk of ASCVD over the next 10 years. She greatly dislikes taking medications, but her mother died in her early fifties from  a “massive heart attack” .

huelsingHer carotid exam shows the carotid thickness as less than average for her age and gender, equivalent to that of a 58 year old. There is no plaque anywhere in her carotid system. I feel comfortable not recommending statins to this type of patient. In many cases, I often  stop cholesterol treatment in patients with no evidence for subclinical atherosclerosis who have marginal cholesterol levels and intermediate risk.

What vascular screening allows me is the ability to see if my patients do or do not have the disease that we are trying to prevent or mitigate: atherosclerosis.

As the skeptical cardiologist I must point out that national guidelines do not endorse vascular screening primarily because there are no randomized controlled trials showing that it influences outcomes. I’ll talk more about potential pitfalls of vascular screening when done by for profit ventures in a subsequent post  and we’ll discuss the other good way of assessing for subclinical atherosclerosis: coronary calcium.


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.

Should I Take A Statin Drug? Risks, Benefits and the New Guidelines

StatinsThe skeptical cardiologist just returned from Washington, DC where he attended the American College of Cardiology (ACC) annual conference and visited Ford’s Theatre. I was hoping to gather more information on diet and cardiovascular disease but most of the discussions on prevention of heart disease centered around the new ACC/AHA guidelines for treating cholesterol.

A recently published analysis of the impact of these guidelines found that

As compared with the ATP-III guidelines, the new guidelines would increase the number of U.S. adults receiving or eligible for statin therapy from 43.2 million (37.5%) to 56.0 million (48.6%). Most of this increase in numbers (10.4 million of 12.8 million) would occur among adults without cardiovascular disease.

If you are a man over the age of 59 (which I just became), even without any cardiovascular disease or diabetes, there is an 87% chance the guidelines would suggest you take a statin drug.

This is a startling increase and consequently there has been a lot of criticism and questioning of the validity of these recommendations.

More importantly, for an individual patient, should you take a statin drug if your doctor recommends it? This is an especially good question if you have no evidence of any atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (so-called primary prevention). At a minimum, you should have a very detailed discussion with your doctor about the risk and benefits of taking the medication in your particular situation.

What are statin drugs?

Statins are the most powerful, safe and effective drugs available for lowering LDL or bad cholesterol levels. They inhibit 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase, involved in cholesterol biosynthesis. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol concentration is lowered by reducing its production in the liver and increasing removal from the circulation. Statins also have anti-inflammatory effects, improve endothelial function, and reduce thrombus formation.

Common examples of statin drugs are Lipitor which is now available as a generic called Atorvastatin , Pravastatin, and Crestor (Rosuvastatin), which is only available in brand name form.

What are the risks of statin drugs?

When large scale randomized trials of statin drug therapy are analyzed, rates of adverse events (17%) or stopping treatment due to adverse events (12%) are similar in the statin compared to placebo/control groups.

The incidence of cancers, liver enzyme elevations, kidney dysfunction or arthritis was the same in the two groups.

There are only two side effects from taking statins I consider significant and mention to my patients:
1. There does appear to be a 9% increase in the risk of developing diabetes. Most of the patients who develop diabetes on statins were at high risk for this to begin with and the overall benefits of lowering CV disease outweighs the development of diabetes in patients who take statins.
2. Statins definitely can cause muscle aches (myalgias) and this seems to happen in about 10% of patients over time. If these develop, we stop the statin and the myalgias go away if they are due to the drug. There are no reliable studies showing any long term residual muscle weakness or ache. A very, very small number of patients develop rhabdomyolysis, in which there is severe muscle damage. These patients are almost always taking multiple medications which interact with the statins and often have kidney failure to begin with.

Some things you don’t need to be concerned with while on statins:

1. That the drug will give you Alzheimer’s or make you stupid. There is much anecdotal misinformation on the web about this, but no solid evidence of any adverse effect on cognition.
2. That the drug will destroy your liver. A small percentage of patients will develop elevations of their liver enzymes (AST or ALT) but this does not lead to liver damage and is considered so insignificant now that the FDA now longer advises checking liver enzymes in patients on statin drugs.

What are the benefits of statins in people without known heart disease?

They lower all-cause mortality by 14%, combined fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular disease by 25%, and stroke by 22%. They lower the chances that you would need a stent or bypass surgery by 38%.
Another way of looking at the benefits of a treatment is the number needed to treat (NNT).
To save one life, you would need to treat 138 patients for 5 years with statin drugs. This means that 137 patients would have done fine without taking the drug.

The higher your risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease  (ASCVD (all the disease that occurs as a result of fatty plaque build up in the body, including heart attack and stroke)), the more likely you will benefit from taking a statin drug.
Thus, the new guidelines utilize a risk estimator that takes into account your total and good cholesterol values, your systolic blood pressure, age and whether you smoke, have diabetes or treated hypertension to calculate your risk of developing clinical ASCVD over the next ten years.

If this ten year risk is over 7.5%, statin therapy should be considered.

I’ve looked over the guidelines carefully, read a lot of the original studies and listened to the discussion and I think this is a reasonable approach. I try to present each patient with the risks and benefits and let them make the decision as to whether they want to take the drug.
Each individual has a different perspective, perhaps heavily influenced by their father having died of a heart attack in his fifties or by a close friend who feels that statins ruined his life.

Two important new concepts from the new guidelines

The new guidelines no longer look at the LDL or bad cholesterol level as a goal or as a level for initiating treatment (unless it is super high, above 190). Thus, the only reason to be checking follow up cholesterol panels on patients who are taking good levels of statin drugs is to verify compliance and an effective reduction in LDL from baseline. I will not try to get your LDL below 100 or 70 and you will not have to worry that it is not at that level.

The new guidelines rightly emphasize statin drugs as the only drug therapy that has good outcomes data (meaning they have been show to reduce heart attacks and strokes) supporting their use in primary prevention.
Ezitimibe (Zetia) is a commonly prescribed drug which lowers LDL cholesterol but is expensive and has never been shown to lower heart attack or stroke risk and, in my opinion, should not be prescribed.

Our goal should be prevention of heart disease, not lowering LDL levels or triglyceride levels.

I believe that we can fine tune which patients will and will not benefit from statin therapy by looking for evidence of what is called “subclinical atherosclerosis.” I plan to review this in a future post.
For now, I leave you with the humorous line from the play “Our American Cousin” that caused the distracting laughter during which John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre (which is not far from the Washington Convention Center and well worth visiting!)

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.”

Tell your cardiologist you will sockdologize him if he doesn’t give you a good discussion of the risks and benefits of the statin drug he is recommending.

Estimating Your Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke: There’s an App For That

I’ve been meaning to blog on the new ACC/AHA (ACC=American College of Cardiology, AHA=American Heart Association) guidelines for treatment of high cholesterol but have been waiting for the initial controversy to die down and to get more experience with using them.  One of the areas of controversy has been the ASCVD (atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease) risk estimator. These guidelines attempt to look at risk of both stroke and heart attack (the components of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease) and what published scientific research tells us works to reduce that risk.

They differ substantially from previous guidelines recommendations and suggest treatment with statin drugs(no other cholesterol lowering agents) for the following groups

1. Diabetics

2. Patients with known clinical ASCVD  (this includes stroke/TIA, heart attack, and peripheral arterial disease)

3. LDL or bad cholesterol over 190

4. Individuals without ASCVD whose 10 year risk of developing ASCVD (heart attack or stroke) is > 7.5%

It is the last category that has garnered the most controversy as it appears this will substantially increase the number of patients in whom statin therapy is recommended. In addition, the accuracy of the risk estimator has been questioned. When the guidelines were released the risk estimator was available as a downloadable Excel spreadsheet which was very cumbersome to use (and did not work on my Mac).


Today, the ACC announced that  an iphone/ipad app version of the risk estimator was available on itunes . You can download it for free here. (The app is now called ASCVD Plus) It’s pretty well done. You enter your age, race, gender, HDL (“good” cholesterol) and total cholesterol along with yes/no answers to whether you have diabetes, treatment for hypertension or are a smoker.

Your 10 year risk of ASCVD appears as a percentage.

In the example to the left, the individual (whose numbers are eerily similar to those of the skeptical cardiologist) has a 10 year risk of 6.2% compared to 5.2% for an individual with “ideal” risk factors. In this case, the 6.2% 10 year risk is below the proposed 7.5% cut point for treatment. (As a side note, this individual’s HDL rose from 53 to 80 when he switched from skim milk , egg-whites and low-fat processed food to full fat dairy, eggs and grass-fed beef. An HDL of 53 would raise the risk to 8.5% which would trigger a recommendation for statin therapy!)

A lifetime risk is also given for those aged 20 to 59 years but the app seems flawed because in every case I entered the lifetime risk was 50% for the individual and 5% for the ideal risk factor individual

I’ll be utilizing this on every patient I see that does not have clinical ASCVD. I would encourage everybody to download this app and find out what your risk is. The higher your risk, the more likely your are to benefit from taking a statin drug, the lower it is, the less likely the benefits of lifelong drug treatment will outweigh the risks.

Understanding your risk of ASCVD is the crucial first step to having an informed discussion with your physician about atherosclerosis and the risks and benefits of drug therapy to prevent strokes and heart attacks.