Tag Archives: statin therapy

The Ultimate Guide To The Coronary Artery Calcium Scan (Score) Circa 2019

The skeptical cardiologist’s first post on coronary artery calcium (CAC) scan was posted in 2014 and had the wordy title “Searching for Subclinical Atherosclerosis: Coronary Calcium Score-How Old Is My Heart?”

This post still serves as a good introduction to the test (rationale, procedure, risks) but in the 5 years since it was published there has been a substantial body of data published on CAC and in 2018 it was embraced by major organizations.

Overall, I’ve written 20 posts in which CAC plays a predominant role since then and I feels it’s time to put the most important changes and concepts  in one spot.


Detection Of Subclinical Atherosclerosis: What’s Your Risk of Dropping Dead?

First, the rationale for using CAC (also known as a coronary calcium score or heart scan) is detection of “subclinical atherosclerosis”, a non-catchy but hugely important process which I describe in an early post on who should take aspirin to prevent heart attack or stroke:

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.

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 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).


Help In Deciding Who Needs Aggressive Treatment

Second, CAC is an outstanding tool for further refining risk of heart attack and stroke and helping better determine who needs to take statins or undergo aggressive lifestyle reduction, something I described in detail in my post “Should All Men Over Sixty Take a Statin Drug”.

The updated AHA/ACC Cardiovascular Prevention Guidelines came out in 2013.

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.

By identifying subclinical atherosclerosis, CAC scoring identifies those who do or don’t need statins.


This is particularly important for patients who have many reservations about statins or who are “on the fence” about taking them when standard risk factor calculations suggest they would benefit.


The Widowmaker

In 2015 I wrote about a documentary entitled “The Widowmaker” (see here and here) which is about the treatment and prevention  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.

Although CAC has some similarities to mammography (both utilize low dose radiation, 0.5 mSV) I concluded that CAC was not “the mammography of the heart” as the documentary proclaims.

What We Can Learn From Donald Trump’s CAC?

In 2018 I noted that “Donald Trump Has Moderate Coronary Plaque: This Is Normal For His Age And We Already Knew It.”

In October, 2016 the skeptical cardiologist predicted that Donald Trump’s coronary calcium score, if remeasured, would be >100 .  At that time I pointed out that this score is consistent with moderate coronary plaque build up and implies a moderate risk of heart attack and stroke.

Trumps’ score gave him a seven-fold increase risk of a cardiovascular event in comparison to Hilary Clinton (who had a zero coronary calcium score) .

Yesterday it was revealed by the White House doctor , Ronny Jackson, that Trump’s repeat score  was 133.

I was able to predict this score because we knew that Trump’s coronary calcium was 98 in 2013 and that on average calcium scores increase by about 10% per year.

What is most notable about the Trump CAC incident is that Trump, like all recent presidents and all astronauts underwent the screening. If the test is routine for presidents why is it not routine for Mr and Mrs Joe Q Public?

At a mininum we should consider what is recommended for aircrew to the general public:

A three-phased approach to coronary artery disease (CAD) risk assessment is recommended, beginning with initial risk-stratification using a population-appropriate risk calculator and resting ECG. For aircrew identified as being at increased risk, enhanced screening is recommended by means of Coronary Artery Calcium Score alone or combined with a CT coronary angiography investigation.

The 2018 guidelines Take A Giant Step Forward

In late 2018 I noted that CAC had been embraced by major guidelines:

I was very pleased to read that the newly updated AHA/ACC lipid guidelines (full PDF available here) emphasize the use of CAC for decision-making in intermediate risk patients.

 

 

 

For those patients aged 40-75 without known ASCVD whose 10 year risk of stroke and heart attack is between 7.5% and 20% (intermediate, see here on using risk estimator) the guidelines recommend “consider measuring CAC”.

If the score is zero, for most consider no statin. If score >100 and/or >75th percentile, statin therapy should be started.

A Few Final Points On CAC

First, it’s never too early to start thinking about your risk of cardiovascular disease. I have been using CAC more frequently in the last few years in  individuals <40 years with a strong family of early sudden death or heart attack and often we find very abnormal values (see here for my discussion on CAC in the youngish.)

coronary calcium scan with post-processing on a 45 year old white male with very strong history of premature heart attacks in mother and father. The pink indicates the bony structures of the spine (bottom) and the sternum (top). Extensive calcium in the LAD coronary artery is highlighted in yellow and in the circumflex coronary artery in ?teal. His score was 201, higher than 99% of white male his age.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Importance of Proactivity

In “The MESA App-Estimating Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease With And Without Coronary Calcium Score” I recently wrote that:

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.

There are many other questions to answer with regard to CAC-should they be repeated?, how do statins influence the score?, is there information in the scan beyond just the score that is important? Is a scan helpful after a normal stress test?

I’ve touched on some of these in the past, including the really tough  question “Should All Patients With A High Coronary Calcium Score Undergo Stress Testing?

Like most things in cardiology we have a lot to learn about CAC. There are many more studies to perform. Many questions yet to be answered.

A study showing improved outcomes using CAC guided therapy versus non CAC guided therapy would be nice. However, due to the long time and thousands of patients necessary it is unlikely we will have results within a decade.

I don’t want to wait a decade to start aggressively identifying who of my patients is at high risk for sudden death. You only get one chance to stop a death.

Apothanasically Yours,

-ACP


 

Unsure About Taking A Statin For High Cholesterol? Consider A Compromise Approach

In an earlier post the skeptical cardiologist introduced Geo, a 61 year old male with no risk factors for heart attack or stroke other than a high cholesterol. His total cholesterol was 249, LDL (bad) 154, HDL (good) 72 and triglycerides 116.

His doctor had recommended that he take a statin drug but Geo balked at taking one due to concerns about side effects and requested my input. My first steps were to gather more information.

-I calculated his 10 year risk of stroke or heart attack at 8.4% (treatment with statin typically felt to benefit individuals with 10 year risk >7.5%) and as I have previously noted, this is not unusual for a man over age 60.

-I assessed him for any hidden  or subclinical atherosclerosis and found

The vascular ultrasound showed below normal carotid thickness and no plaque and his coronary calcium score was 18,  putting him at the 63rd  percentile. This is slightly higher than average white men his age.

So Geo definitely has atherosclerotic plaque in his coronary arteries. This puts him at risk for heart attack and stroke but not a lot higher risk than most men his age.

Strictly speaking, since he hasn’t already had a heart attack or stroke, treating him with a statin is a form of primary prevention. However, we know that atherosclerotic plaque has already developed in his arteries and at some point, perhaps years from now it will have consequences.

What is the best approach to reduce Geo’s risk?

It’s essential  to look closely at lifestyle changes in everyone to reduce cardiac risk.

The lifestyle components that influence risk are

  1. Cigarette Smoking (by far the strongest)
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Obesity (Obviously related to #1 and #2)
  5. Stress
  6. Sleep

Patients who try to change to what they perceive as a heart healthy diet by switching to non-fat dairy and eliminating all red meat will not substantially lower risk (see here.) Even if you are possess the rock-hard discipline to stay on a radically low fat diet like the Esselstyn diet or the Pritikin diet there are no good data supporting their  efficacy in preventing cardiac disease.

Geo was not far from theMediterranean diet I recommend but would probably benefit from increased veggie and nut consumption. He was not overweight and he doesn’t smoke. I encouraged him to engage in 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly.

Low Dose, Intermittent Rosuvastatin

I engaged in shared decision-making with Geo.  Informing him, as best I could, of the potential side effects and benefits of statin therapy.

After a long discussion we decided to try a compromise between no therapy and the guideline recommended moderate intensive dose statin therapy.

This approach utilizes a low dose of rosuvastatin taken intermittently with the goal of minimizing any statin side effect but obtaining some of the benefits of statin drugs on  cardiovascular risk reduction.

I have many patients who have been unable to tolerate other statin drugs in any dosage due to statin related muscle aches but who tolerate this particular  treatment and I  see substantial reductions in the LDL (bad) cholesterol with this approach.

Studies have shown that rosuvastatin 5–10 mg or atorvastatin 10–20 mg given every other day produce LDL-C reduction of 20–40 %

Studies have also shown that In patients with previous statin intolerance, rosuvastatin administered once or twice weekly (at a mean dose of 10 mg per week) achieved an LDL-C reduction of 23–29% and was well tolerated by 74–80 % of patients.

In a recent report from a specialized lipid clinic, 90 % of patients referred for intolerance to multiple statins were actually able to tolerate statin therapy, although the majority was at a reduced dose and less-than-daily dosing.

Results in Geo

After several months of taking 5 mg rosuvastatin twice weekly Geo felt fine with no discernible side effects. He obtained repeat cholesterol  levels:

His LDL had dropped 52% from 140 to 92.

Hopefully, this LDL reduction plus the non-cholesterol lowering beneficial properties of statins (see here) will substantially lower Geo’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

We need randomized studies testing long-term outcomes using this approach to make it evidence-based. But in medicine we frequently don’t have studies that apply to  specific patient situations. In these cases shared decision-making in order to find solutions that fit the individual patient’s concerns and experience becomes paramount.

Faithfully Yours,

-ACP

 

 

 

Are You On The Fence About Taking A Statin Drug?

The father of the eternal fiancee’ of the skeptical cardiologist (FOEFOSC, let’s call him “Geo”) is a typical 61 year old white male. A year ago his primary care physician informed him that he needed to start taking a statin drug because his cholesterol was high. The note accompanying this recommendation also stated “work harder on diet and exercise to get LDL<130.”  No particulars on how to change his current diet and exercise program were provided.

Neither of Geo’s parents and none of his siblings have had heart problems at an early age and Geo is very active without any symptoms. His diet is reasonably free of processed food and added sugar, he is not overweight and his blood pressures are fine. Due to concern about side effects he had read about on the internet and because he doesn’t like taking medications , Geo balked at taking the recommended statin,

Reluctance to start a new and likely life-long drug is understandable especially when combined with a constant stream of internet-based bashing of statins.

My advice was sought and I suggested a few things that would be helpful in making a more informed decision:

-Calculate Geo’s 10 year risk of heart attack and stroke using the ACC ASCVD Risk estimator app.

-Assess for early or advanced build-up of atherosclerotic or fatty plaque in the carotid arteries (vascular ultrasound) and coronary arteries (coronary calcium scan).

As I’ve pointed out before (here), the vast majority of men over the age of 60 move into a 10 year risk category >7.5%, no matter how great their lifestyle is, and Geo was no exception with a risk of 8.4%. His total cholesterol was 249, LDL (bad) 154, HDL (good) 72 and triglycerides 116.

The vascular ultrasound showed below normal carotid thickness and no plaque and his coronary calcium score was 18,  putting him at the 63rd  percentile. This is slightly higher than average white men his age.

When Geo presented these findings to his PCP, he seemed unaware of the ASCVD risk estimator (recommended by AHA/ACC guidelines first published in 2013), which no longer suggests LDL levels as goals. His PCP also seemed miffed that he had gotten the coronary calcium scan. Geo felt like the PCP’s attitude was “shut up and do what I tell you.”

Geo’s PCP’s approach exemplifies a not-uncommon traditional doctor-patient relationship, but a better approach is shared decision-making (see here). Geo, like many patients, welcomes more information on the risks and benefits of any recommended treatment so that he can participate in deciding the best course of action.

I steer patients who want more complete information towards my  evidence-based blog posts on statins (see here for discussion on statin side effects and here for statin benefits beyond cholesterol lowering.)

By giving patients more information on the risks, side effects, and benefits of the statin drugs along with a better understanding of their overall risk of heart disease and stroke, we can hopefully move more patients “off the fence” and onto the most appropriate treatment.

Stay tuned to find out what The Skeptical Cardiologist Recommended for Geo. (Read about “A compromise approach we worked out for Geo here.)(Read more about what happened with Geo here)

Decisively Yours

-ACP

For more discussion on the value of coronary artery calcification (CAC) and the value of statin in lower risk patients see this recent paper entitled “Refining Statin Prescribing in Lower-Risk Individuals: Informing Risk/Benefit Decisions”(PDF refining-statin-prescribing-in-lower-risk-individuals-informing-riskbenefit-decisions)

If you’d like to read the recently published recommendations of the US Preventive Services Task Force on statins for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease see here. Importantly this panel of unbiased experts concluded that statin therapy significantly reduced overall mortality and cardiovascular mortality. In addition, the review found no increased risk of diabetes overall with statin therapy. The only trial that identified an increased risk was using high intensity statin therapy (Crestor (rosuvastatin) >20 mg).

And,  since the internet is jammed with people who believe statins robbed them of their brain power, I would advise noting that the writers concluded  “These findings are consistent with those from a recent systematic review of randomized trials and observational studies that found no adverse associations of statins with incidence of Alzheimer disease, dementia, or decreased scores on tests of cognitive performance.”


Addendum. I ha