Tag Archives: vascular screening

Are SSM and HealthFair Cardiovascular Screenings Promoting Wellness or Unwellness?

IMG_5657My patients and I continue to receive mailings from SSM Health Care (here in St. Louis), informing us that they have “partnered with HealthFair to deliver ultrasound tests of the heart and arteries” in our neighborhood.

If you are considering getting these, I recommend reading my  previous post on them (Shoddy Cardiovascular Screenings are more likely to cause harm than good). Also, I recommend this summary (which points out in well-referenced detail that these are not recommended by major preventive organizations) from a blogger who writes eloquently on the lack of benefit of wellness programs.

HealthFair’s financial model involves partnering with hospitals like SSM to promote these unnecessary screenings performed in mobile vans that travel to settings like Walgreen’s out in the community. The hospital system pays HealthFair (typically an “undisclosed amount”) to put the SSM name on their promotional flyers.  SSM does not provide any review of the quality of the studies performed.

SSM benefits by having its “brand” spread around and when abnormalities are detected on the exams, these patients are then provided with the names of SSM physicians.

Both SSM and HealthFair benefit in this relationship by identifying as many abnormalities as possible. It doesn’t really matter to either if the abnormalities detected are real or important. The bottom line is getting more patients into the SSM system, getting down stream referrals and testing and adding to the SSM bottom line.

Steven Weinberger, MD executive vice president and chief executive of the American College of Physicians. and two co-authors wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine journal,  calling hospital involvement without disclosing potential downsides “unethical.”

“Because of a lack of counseling by these companies about the potential risks of an “abnormal” test result, the consumer is initially unaware that this may open a Pandora’s box of referrals and additional testing to monitor or treat these abnormal findings. Our medical system and society bear the cost of poor coordination of care and additional testing and treatment to follow up on unnecessary “abnormal” screening test results (10). That most of these tests are not medically indicated in the first place is left undisclosed to the consumer, nor is there a discussion of potential adverse consequences or additional costs.”

The Particular Dangers of Screening Echocardiography

In my previous post I warned in particular of the dangers of getting a screening echocardiogram, a test which I have spent my professional lifetime studying, writing on, teaching and interpreting.

I’ve also discussed in detail how easy it is to botch an echocardiogram and what to look for to guarantee that you are getting an accurate study.

Let me provide another example of how a poorly performed and/or interpreted echocardiogram can lead to a lifetime of unnecessary anxiety and inappropriate testing.

I saw a patient in my office recently who was changing cardiologists because of dissatisfaction with communication. Reviewing records from the prior cardiologists, I saw that an echocardiogram was performed in 2012 and read as showing enlargement of the aortic root and pulmonary hypertension.

A greatly enlarged aorta or aortic aneurysm can rupture or tear resulting in sudden death. It’s a very serious condition, consequently once enlargement of the aorta is identified, we counsel patients on appropriate activities, screening of relatives, and follow them lifelong with tests to monitor the size of the aorta.

I reviewed the echocardiogram which was performed in the cardiologists’ office and it was clear that an older echocardiographic technique called M-mode had been utilized, and that the measurement was invalid. When I repeated the echocardiogram in my hospital’s echocardiography laboratory, it was normal (we have a very rigorous quality assurance program and review on a regular basis with the sonographers and physicians best practice for recording and measuring the aorta by two-dimensional recordings).

Pulmonary hypertension (elevation of the pressures on the right side of the heart) can also be a sign of very severe and life threatening cardiac or pulmonary problems. If diagnosed, it typically requires extensive testing with associated risks. Like aortic root enlargement, it must be followed carefully, lifelong.

Pulmonary hypertension can be measured reasonably accurately by a well done echocardiogram utilizing a combination of Doppler flow measurements and imaging of the inferior vena cava.  Because of the critical importance of getting these measurements right, I have devoted numerous educational conferences to reviewing them with our sonographers and reading physicians.

In the case of my patient (and I presume, numerous patients undergoing less rigorously performed screening echocardiograms) the initial echocardiogram did not truly show pulmonary hypertension and the echocardiogram I did confirmed this.

The Profit Factor

Ultimately, these types of screenings done in the name of promoting wellness, are being done for money.

HealthFair is strictly in it for profit; they want to get as many patients as possible paying for these screenings. Their bottom line is not enhanced by spending time and money on guaranteeing that good equipment, trained sonographers and experienced physician readers are involved.

SSM is only interested in getting more patients funneled into their system. They are paying HealthFair to identify abnormalities and therefore, abnormalities will be found. SSM in this relationship is going against good medical practice and recommendations of national medical organizations in order to make money.

A program that on the surface is promoting wellness, therefore, in the final analysis may be promoting unwellness.

If you have had one of these echocardiographic screenings and had an abnormality detected, I would be happy to review the initial recordings and provide my opinion on their accuracy.  I would do this gratis as the skeptical cardiologist in the interest of research and knowledge, not to accumulate patients or revenue.

-ACP

 

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 Age

I’ve discussed in a previous post the importance of detecting subclinical atherosclerosis.

The process of atherosclerosis (the build up of fatty plaques in all arteries) occurs silently and often the first symptom is sudden death due to a heart attack.

Examining the large arteries in the neck (the carotids) with ultrasound for early fatty  plaques helps establish whether atherosclerosis is present or not.

If there is plaque in the carotids this is a strong indicator that atherosclerosis is present throughout the large arteries of the body including the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart.

Ruptured plaques in the coronary arteries are what cause heart attacks and most cases of sudden cardiac death are due to heart attacks.

If we can identify those who have subclinical (i.e. before significant blockages and symptoms develop) atherosclerosis, we can better target aggressive therapy to those at the highest risk.

Carotid IMT: The window to your vascular age

There is a second technique which uses carotid ultrasound  available to evaluate an individual’s longer term risk of heart disease even before plaque develops.

This technique is termed carotid IMT. IMT (intimal-medial thickness ) refers to the thickness of the wall of the artery which includes the thin layer of cells lining the inside of arteries or intima and the smooth muscle in the wall of the artery (media).

The Carotid IMT has been shown to be related to all of the risk factors that medical science knows for atherosclerosis. It progressively increases with normal aging and we have data on what the normal value is for white and black  men and women between the ages of 40 and 70.

By making multiple precise and careful measurements of an individual’s CIMT we can determine where that individual stands in comparison to normal individuals of the same age, gender and race.

Individuals whose CIMT is great than that of 75% of individuals of the same age and gender are at significantly higher risk of heart attack and stroke even if no carotid plaque is discovered.

Thus, the CIMT serves somewhat as an early warning signal for unhealthy arteries.

We can also determine a so-called vascular age from this technique.

 

Carotid IMT is the distance between the lines the two arrows point at
Carotid IMT is the distance between the lines the two arrows point at

An example of this is shown to the left. . The individual was an asymptomatic young man. He had no plaque but his CIMT measured 0.770, which is significantly higher than the normal CIMT for a similarly aged white male of 0.598.  This is thicker than 80% of normal individuals of the same age and gender. It is normal for an individual who is 65 years old. Thus, this individual’s vascular age is 65 years, 20 years greater than his chronological age.

In my office I usually recommend a combination of CIMT and carotid plaque be performed in individuals in whom I am trying to assess risk of cardiovascular disease between the ages of 40 and 70.

There is no reason to do CIMT in patients who have documented coronary heart disease (heart attack/stroke/stent/bypass surgery), carotid disease (stroke/carotid surgery), or peripheral arterial disease. These patients have already passed the early warning phase of atherosclerosis.

This technique should only be done by physicians/technicians who have been adequately trained and have dedicated themselves to performing the meticulous tiny measurements required in an accurate manner.

Major cardiovascular organizations differ on recommending  CIMT for screening purposes.  Well-respected scientific papers have clearly established CIMT as reproducible and highly predictive of vascular events but there is no randomized , controlled trial which establishes that utilizing it in conjunction with treatment decisions based on the results will improve cardiovascular outcomes.

For this reason, even though it is cheap, painless, harmless and quick insurance companies do not reimburse for the costs.

Some caveats:

*We don’t have good data sets on individuals under the age of 40 years. I offer CIMT to this group and extrapolate the good data  but more studies are needed in this age range.

*We don’t have good data sets on ethnicities other than the African-americans and European and American whites.

*Multiple methods of CIMT recording and measurement  have been published.

*I don’t find CIMT useful in individuals over the age of 70. Carotid plaque is much more helpful. Most men have carotid plaque by this age. If you don’t have any carotid plaque over the age of 70 years then you are in a very low risk category and are unlikely to benefit from statin or aspirin therapy.

Next post we’ll discuss the third noninvasive tool at cardiologists disposal to assess individuals for subclinical atherosclerosis: a direct look at calcium in the coronary arteries

N.B. As noted here.

The full process underlying intimal thickening is not fully understood but is thought to be similar, though not identical, to that underlying atherosclerosis. The hypothesis that IMT represents subclinical vascular disease may be supported by the finding of graded associations between IMT and concurrent atherosclerotic change visualized in the coronary arteries during angiography. It is important to note, however, that whilst in many cases thickening of the intima–media does represent atherosclerotic change, in other cases it may represent non-atherosclerotic lesions such as hypertrophy in response to shear stress on the artery wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Should I Take Aspirin To Prevent Stroke or Heart Attack?

 

Aspirin is a unique drug, the prototypical  two-edged sword of pharmaceuticals.  It 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 statement recommending 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.

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).

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.

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.