Coronary Calcium Scan Illuminates Heart Disease Risk

In our initial meeting, I told my cardiologist that nearly every adult in my family takes a statin due to a family history of high cholesterol. He then asked if anyone had done a Coronary Calcium Scan.

I’d never heard of that test, and none of my relatives have had it done.

But I did, last month.

The reason: my cholesterol results worsened slightly versus a year ago. My latest Cardio IQ blood test* revealed a high number of LDL (bad) cholesterol particles, and that these LDL particles had shifted from the ‘safe,’ fluffy Pattern A type to the more dangerous, small Pattern B type.

Probably this is due to age (women are plagued with worsening cholesterol at/post menopause) and the fact that I’ve not been able to exercise daily due to injury.

I’m relieved to report that my Coronary Calcium Scan score was zero, which is normal. The report I received states, “A low score suggests a low likelihood of coronary artery disease but does not exclude the possibility of significant coronary artery narrowing.”

So good for now (but could get bad…hence the annual Cardio IQ testing.)

That my score was zero was both a relief and confirmed our treatment plan. I’m to continue to manage my cholesterol and heart disease risk with exercise and a heart-healthy diet (read more in my new book, now available for pre-order: The Low Cholesterol Cookbook and Action Plan: 4 Weeks to Cut Cholesterol and Improve Heart Health. More on my book launch in a later post!)

Should you have a Coronary Calcium Scan? The answer is, it depends.

The test is not for everyone. Insurance often doesn’t cover the cost (mine did not; I paid $283.) And it exposes you to radiation—about the same amount you would normally be exposed to in one year.

A terrific explanation of this test was published by Harvard Health’s article, Should you consider a coronary artery calcium scan? Their opening line says it all: “If you’re on the fence about whether to take a statin, this test might make sense.”

So if you and your doctor want more insight into your current risk of heart disease risk and/or you are trying to decide if a statin is needed, consider this test. It reveals if calcium (plaque) has built up in the walls of the heart’s arteries. A score greater than zero indicates calcification is present; as that is an early sign of cardiovascular disease, it should factor into your treatment plan.

A reminder of the Heart Disease Risk Factors: as detailed by the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute:

“Risk factors are conditions or habits that make a person more likely to develop a disease. They can also increase the chances that an existing disease will get worse. Important risk factors for heart disease that you can do something about are:

High blood pressure
High blood cholesterol
Diabetes and prediabetes
Smoking
Being overweight or obese
Being physically inactive
Having a family history of early heart disease
Having a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy
Unhealthy diet
Age (55 or older for women)”

Statin medications do lower cholesterol and have been proven effective when other risks of heart disease (see list above) are present. But when high cholesterol is your only risk factor, it just might make sense to discuss a Coronary Calcium Scan with your doctor.

* A Cardio IQ  is a more detailed test than a ‘regular’ cholesterol blood test; in addition to the regular cholesterol figures, it measures LDL Particle number and size, apo-B and Lipoprotein (a). You can read more in my posts, ApoB and Cardiovascular Risk, and Cholesterol Tests Your Doctor Hasn’t Told You About.

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Cholesterol Treatment – Guidelines Pocket Cards for Doctors

Did you know that any old person (and by ‘any old’ I mean a regular, non-doctor person, not any OLD person!) can purchase the American Heart Association’s “guidelines pocket cards” meant to keep doctors up to date on latest treatment protocols/recommendations?

On the American Heart Association website, these pocket cards are described as:

“These quick reference tools provide instant access to current AHA/ASA and ACCF/AHA guidelines in a clear, concise format – available in print and in the Guideline Central Mobile app for iPhone, iPad and Android.”

AHAlogo_lifeiswhy-logoFor months, I have been wondering whether there have been any updates or changes to the November 2013 Cholesterol Guidelines – and how doctors are following – or not – the new guidelines. (More info about the 2013 guidelines here: The NEW guidelines for cholesterol-lowering statin meds).

To me, there’s been a startling dearth of information about how treatment of high cholesterol has changed – or not – since these guidelines were issued. So I was pleased to stumble upon these pocket guidelines for doctors – updated with the latest recommendations.  For just $8.99 I downloaded the cholesterol pocket guidelines and found them largely unchanged since the new guidelines were issued in November 2013.

Which is good, I guess.

That said, one new thing I learned from this pocket guide is that there are established goals for the more in-depth cholesterol tests like C-Reactive Protein and Coronary Artery Calcium – both tests I think I might benefit from.

While my $8.99 purchase would NOT let me print (grr), I was able to grab some text via the handy iPhone app. Love that.

So if you would like a peak at the ‘pocket guidelines’ your doctor may well use when considering how to treat your high cholesterol, read on. Fair warning: it’s, um, quite detailed and uses acronyms (it is, after all, for doctors) so I’ve included a simple glossary for some of the medical terms.

Here goes – what follows is the ‘key points’ section of the doctor ‘pocket guide’ for treating high cholesterol:

TITLE: Cholesterol Adult Management

KEY POINTS

  • Encourage adherence to a heart-healthy lifestyle. A healthy diet, regular aerobic physical activity, smoking cessation and maintenance of a healthy weight are critical components of ASCVD risk reduction. Control hypertension and diabetes, when present.
  • Statin therapy is recommended for adults in groups demonstrated to benefit. ASCVD risk reduction clearly outweighs the risk of adverse events based on a strong body of evidence in 4 groups:
    • Secondary prevention in individuals with clinical ASCVD
    • Primary prevention in individuals age ≥ 21 years with primary elevations of LDL-C ≥ 190 mg/dL
    • Primary prevention in individuals with diabetes 40 to 75 years of age who have LDL-C 70 to 189 mg/dL
    • Primary prevention in individual without diabetes and with estimated 10-year ASCVD risk ≥ 7.5%, 40 to 75 years of age who have LDL-C 70 to 189 mg/dL
  • Statins have an acceptable margin of safety when used in properly selected individuals and appropriately monitored. If no baseline abnormality, monitoring of hepatic transaminases is not routinely needed. CK should not be routinely measured unless there is a personal or family history of muscle problems. You may need to discontinue and then restart the statin to determine the cause of muscle symptoms.
  • Engage in a clinician-patient discussion before initiating statin therapy, especially for primary prevention. Discuss the potential for ASCVD event reduction, adverse effects, drug–drug interactions, and patient preferences. Additional factors may be considered when a risk-based decision is uncertain.
    • These include LDL-C ≥ 160 mg/dL, family history of premature ASCVD, hs-CRP ≥ 2.0 mg/L, CAC ≥ 300 Agatson units, ABI < 0.9; lifetime risk of ASCVD.
  • Use the newly developed Pooled Cohort Equations for estimating 10-year ASCVD risk. Calculating the estimated 10-year ASCVD risk should be the start of the clinician-patient discussion and should not automatically lead to statin initiation.
    • For other ethnic groups, use the equations for non-Hispanic whites, although these estimates may underestimate the risk for persons from some race/ethnic groups, especially American Indians, some Asian Americans (e.g., of south Asian ancestry), and some Hispanics (e.g., Puerto Ricans), and may overestimate the risk for others, including some Asian Americans (e.g., of east Asian ancestry) and some Hispanics (e.g., Mexican Americans).
  • Initiate the appropriate intensity of statin therapy to reduce ASCVD risk.
  • Evidence is inadequate to support treatment to specific LDL-C or non–HDL-C treatment goals. “Treating to goal” may result in treatment with less-than-optimum statin intensity or adding unproven nonstatin therapy.
  • Regularly monitor patients for adherence to lifestyle and appropriate intensity of statin therapy. Obtain a fasting lipid panel before and after initiating statin or other drug therapy.
  • Nonstatin drug therapy may be considered in selected individuals.”

Going Lo-Co GLOSSARY:

  • ASCVD -atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension – high blood pressure
  • Statin Therapy – treatment with statin drugs, like Lipitor
  • Individuals with clinical ASCVD  – people with cardiovascular disease or who have had a ‘cardiac event’ like a heart attack
  • LDL-C – level of LDL cholesterol in the blood
  • 10 year ASCVD risk – risk of a cardiac event in 10 years, as measured by the calculator issued with the November 2013 guidelines.  More here: Going LoCo Calculator Post
  • hs-CRP – measure of “C-Reactive Protein” which is a marker for inflammation
  • CAC – coronary artery calcium which measures the thickness of fatty accumulation in the arteries and is used to predict heart disease risk

While managing cholesterol down to a specific goal is no longer the treatment standard, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be tracking your cholesterol and managing non-dangerous/risky high cholesterol with lifestyle choices. And remember, if your LDL cholesterol is at/over 190 mg/dL or you have other risks, discuss a statin with your doctor.

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New Cholesterol Guidelines – An App For That

The American Heart Association and the America College of Cardiology released completely new, totally different guidelines for the treatment of high blood cholesterol back in November 2013.

As explained in my post, The NEW Guidelines For Cholesterol-Lowering Statin Meds, in broad strokes the new guidelines state that if you are in one of the following four groups you have elevated heart disease risk and should take statins:

  1. those who already have cardiovascular disease
  2. anyone with LDL (bad) cholesterol of 190 mg/dL or higher
  3. anyone between 40 and 75 years of age who has Type 2 diabetes
  4. people between 40 and 75 who have an estimated 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease of 7.5 percent or higher.

To determine your personal 10-year risk of cardiac disease, the new guidelines included an online calculator * … and now that a few months have passed, there’s even AN APP FOR THAT (links to the app are on the online calculator webpage – or search ‘ASCVD Risk” in iTunes store). I downloaded the app for my iPhone and it’s quite handy as it saves your data and also provides articles about key topics like ‘diet and physical activity recommendations,’ and ‘common cardiovascular terms,’ and the like – right in the app.
* NOTE – if the link does not work, check for an updated link on my RESOURCES page.

One of the more interesting topics I found inside the app (in the Patients’ Blood Cholesterol Management Recommendations tab) discussed additional blood tests. After reviewing with your doctor your ‘lifetime risk estimate’ based on the inputs in the calculator/app, the article stated there were three additional tests your doctor may want to order:  Coronary Artery Calcium (CAC), High-Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (CRP) and Ankle-Branchial Index (ABI).

The Coronary Artery Calcium test was one my doctor had talked with me about a few years ago. She asked me to find out whether anyone in my family (all of whom take a statin to manage high cholesterol) had had a Coronary Artery Calcium test done, and if so, what the results were. I failed at that. Apparently, I need to email all my cousins and aunts and uncles.  Today.

As I wrote about in Cholesterol Tests Your Doctor Hasn’t Told You About, the C-Reactive Protein test is a test (along with apo-B) that I would really like done to truly understand my cardiac risk. CRP is a measure of inflammation in the body and high levels have been associated with heart disease.  But my doctor declined to order either test for me back a year or two ago – said with my just-over-220 total cholesterol levels, I didn’t need these tests.

The Ankle-Branchial Index I’ve never heard of before. According to the ASCVD Risk app, ABI measures “the ratio of the blood pressure in the ankle compared to blood pressure in the arm, which can predict peripheral artery disease (PAD).”

So I will have to ask my doctor again about Coronary Artery Calcium, CRP, apo-B and ABI testing. I feel sure she won’t agree to this testing because my newly calculated lifetime risk is far below the 7.5% risk that indicates statin medication is needed.

That said, these tests are at least mentioned within the new guidelines, while others, like Non-HDL cholesterol are now no longer viewed as vital to determining cardiac disease risk and treatment plans. So even though my risk is low under the new guidelines and I am no longer in the group that should be taking statins, I want to ask about whether these tests might provide further insight into cardiac risk.

If you haven’t read about the new guidelines or found the new online calculator intimidating, download the new app.* Knowing your cardiac risk before you talk to your doctor will give you more confidence to ask questions about your risk of cardiac disease at your next appointment.

* You can’t use the calculator/app if you already have cardiac disease or take statins. If that’s you, best bet is to talk with your doctor about what the new guidelines mean for you and/or if a change in your statin medication is warranted.

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