ApoB and Cardiovascular Risk

In Cholesterol Tests Your Doctor Hasn’t Told You About, I briefly describe a cholesterol blood test for Apolipoprotein B (ApoB).  This simple blood test measures the number and size of LDL (bad) cholesterol: it’s an important test if you have high LDL (bad) cholesterol or are at ‘high risk’ of cardiac disease, as it provides a more finely tuned assessment of cardiovascular risk.

In fact, it might be a critical test for those with low LDL (bad) cholesterol – because it can reveal hidden cardiac risk.

While studies show ApoB is a better predictor of cardiac risk, it is not yet a test that is widely prescribed. Indeed, the American Heart Association is waiting for more studies to determine if ApoB is a test doctors should recommend. Personally, I find this frustrating (of course this means nothing as I’m not a doctor, but…) To me, it’s frustrating because this is a simple blood test that provides a detailed risk assessment.

Scientific American’s Heart Health Special Report entitled ApoB – A Better Marker For Heart Attack Risk Than LDL-Cholesterol explains why it’s an effective and important test:

“A high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol is an important risk factor for a heart attack. Yet about half of the people who develop coronary heart disease have normal or even low LDL cholesterol levels. Some research suggests that a component of LDL—called apolipoprotein B, or apo B—may be more accurate at predicting coronary heart disease.

A Limitation with LDL Cholesterol Testing
The problem with using LDL cholesterol levels to determine heart attack risk is that the test measures only the amount of cholesterol in the LDL cholesterol particles, not the number or size of these particles. Apo B measurements, on the other hand, provide information on the number of LDL cholesterol particles.

For example, people with a higher apo B value than LDL cholesterol value tend to have smaller, denser LDL cholesterol particles. Studies have shown that small, dense LDL cholesterol particles are more strongly associated with heart attack risk than large, “fluffy” LDL cholesterol particles.

The test itself is a simple blood test. It’s easy and cheap: easier, even than the standard cholesterol lipid panel as it does not require fasting.  In fact, the test can be done in conjunction with a standard lipid panel.

Finally, after I visited a cardiologist, I got the ApoB test and my results were, of course, mixed.

Ha! ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Part of the problem is that since ApoB testing isn’t a standard test there is conflicting info on what the goal ApoB levels should be. My cardiologist was happy with my results because my ApoB is lower than my LDL level, my LDL Pattern is the far healthier Type A / Fluffy LDL, and because my C-Reactive Protein was low risk (more on C-Reactive Protein and LDL patterns in another post.).

But my actual lab report shows my ApoB level of 123 as ‘high risk’ and simply references a desired range of 49-103.  So at 123, I have ‘high’ ApoB.

Ruh Roh.

Who to believe?

Well, it’s simple.  My cardiologist. After a lot of online research (again, I’m no doctor so take all this with a grain of salt), I think the reason my cardiologist is OK with my ApoB score of 123 is because of all those elements I mention above AND ALSO because  I fall into the ‘low risk’ of cardiac disease segment. It turns out that there are different ApoB goals based on a person’s general cardiac disease risk, and the lab report seems not to take this into account.

ApoB goals by risk pool is well explained in Medscape’s emedicine article entitled Apoliprotein B article, in the chart here:

Screen Shot 2015-03-14 at 5.22.44 PM

 

Since my 10 year risk factor via the cardiac disease risk calculator is low (and I also have just 1 risk factor from the ‘old’ way of calculating risk), then it’s probably OK that my ApoB is 123 as it’s lower than 130.

I’m glad I got the ApoB test done – but it’s only because I asked two doctors for it.  If you want a more detailed risk assessment, ask your internist or cardiologist about ApoB testing.

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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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Do You Have FH?

The cholesterol-watching world is filled to the brim with acronyms and easily confused verbiage.  Who can remember what LDL and HDL stand for – much less which is the good and which is the bad cholesterol?  And then there’s Apo-B and LDL particle size to boot. But today I learned one that was total news to me: FH.

Turns out, FH stands for Familial Hypercholesterolemia which, in a nutshell, is very high LDL (bad) cholesterol that is caused by genetics. A more complete definition is given on The FH Foundation website:

FHlogo“FH is short for Familial Hypercholesterolemia. It is an inherited disorder that leads to aggressive and premature cardiovascular disease. This includes problems like heart attacks, strokes, and even narrowing of our heart valves. For individuals with FH, although diet and lifestyle are important, they are not the cause of high LDL. In FH patients, genetic mutations make the liver incapable of metabolizing (or removing) excess LDL. The result is very high LDL levels which can lead to premature cardiovascular disease (CVD).”

I was amazed to find there’s a site – indeed, an entire foundation – dedicated to high cholesterol caused by genetics.  And a bit miffed – because I know my high cholesterol is genetic… so I can’t believe I didn’t know about this very useful source of information.

And it’s important – because FH is a serious condition and essentially requires choleterol-lowering medication or other intervention:

“Nearly 100% of people with FH will require cholesterol-lowering medications. For some people with FH, more aggressive measures are needed, including LDL-apheresis (a very simple procedure in which LDL-C cholesterol is removed from the blood on a weekly or biweekly basis.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that if a family has a pattern of early heart attacks or heart disease defined as before age 55 for men and 65 for women, children in that family should have cholesterol testing after the age of 2 years and before age 10.”

All this very sobering information compelled me to track down the excel spreadsheet I use to track my cholesterol results over time.  I was quite pleased to discover that although my high cholesterol is largely caused by genetics, it does not look like I have FH. In my most recent test, I’d brought my LDL (bad) cholesterol down through diet and exercise to 132 (under 130 was the goal before new guidelines were established).  And according to The FH Foundation website, FH is suspected when untreated LDL is above 190 (or 160 in children).

Whew.  Good news for me on the FH front.

Not so good news for me to ‘discover’ that my last cholesterol test was in March 2013.  Um, more than a year and a half ago.  It seems I have “forgotten” to keep track of my cholesterol levels.  Probably because I spent a lot of time this past year at Shake Shack.

So next week, at my annual ob/gyn appointment, I’ll take the blood test order my doctor always gives me and use it to have my cholesterol tested.

And if you have high LDL cholesterol that has not declined with diet and exercise and/or a family history of early heart disease / heart attacks, consider learning more about FH at The FH Foundation site and discuss with your doctor.

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The NEW guidelines for cholesterol-lowering statin meds

It was another big week for cholesterol news.

Last week the FDA declared that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), a very common processed food ingredient, are now not safe. As explained in FDA: Trans Fats are not GRAS, if PHOs are indeed declared not GRAS (generally regarded as safe), FDA will have found a way to significantly reduce unhealthy trans fats from the American food supply. Which is huge.

Then this week, more enormous cholesterol news.  On November 12, 2013, the American Heart Association and the America College of Cardiology released new guidelines for the treatment of high blood cholesterol. The new guidelines will very likely result in a dramatic increase in the number of Americans taking statin medications to lower cholesterol and heart disease risk.

Both in the span of just one week

And it wasn’t even National Cholesterol Education Month.  (That was September.)

What gives? Why these two huge announcements now, within days of each other?

While I have no idea if the timing was coordinated (or not), I do know that both moves have the potential to significantly reduce cholesterol and heart disease risk. And that one move (banning PHOs) is a no-brainer while the other (the new statin guidelines) has many up in arms.

As you know, I am not statin-girl (unless clearly warranted) so it’s potentially troubling that the new guidelines will prompt millions of new statin prescriptions. So I empathize with those who are unhappy with the new guidelines. That said, I am all for the RATIONALE behind these new guidelines — which focus on heart disease risk, not on reducing a particular cholesterol number in an otherwise healthy, low-risk individual.

This makes sense to me.

And OK, so I’m not a doctor, so who cares that it makes sense to me? On the other hand, I do think a great deal about medical issues… and to me, these new guidelines are logical. And logical=good, right? In effect, the new guidelines recommend statins only for those AT RISK of heart disease. For those who have high cholesterol but low heart disease risk, statins are NOT recommended.

So, what exactly are the new guidelines? Broadly… 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. (And there’s a calculator available online ** so you can figure out if this applies to you. It’s an Excel spreadsheet download – click the red ‘Download CV Risk Calculator’ box and save it to your computer. Do it soon because they may take it down…)** NOTE – the ‘risk calculator’ is occasionally taken down, edited, etc.  If the above link doesn’t work, check my RESOURCES page as I’ll try to keep that one current.

That’s it in a nutshell (well, that and the elimination of the old guideline to get LDL to an ‘as-low-as-possible’ level — in the new guidelines, there is no set LDL goal level).

Is that all? Of course not – there was a ton of media coverage last week, and there’s a lot more in-depth understanding of the guidelines that can be had. As it’s an important (and can be confusing topic), I wanted to provide what I found to be the best primary sources in case you want to dive in and read more.

(If, on the other hand, you prefer to read one piece providing an overview of the new guidelines, how they are different from the old guidelines, and how to calculate your personal heart disease risk, you might find this article I just published on Answers.com more useful: “New Cholesterol Statin Drug Guidelines.”)

But if you want more in-depth information, here are some sources:

Perhaps the new guidelines will result in millions more Americans taking statin drugs – but perhaps, if they are the RIGHT people to take statins, that will be a good thing.  If you are wondering if you should take a statin, read up on the new guidelines, calculate your heart disease risk online, and talk to your doctor.

If you already take statins (or have heart disease already) the online calculator won’t work for you — in that case, talk to your doctor about what the new guidelines mean for you.  Maybe your doctor will recommend going off statins for a bit to see what your baseline cholesterol level is now. Or maybe your doc will want you to stay on statins, but will switch you to a different one.

Either way, the times have changed. Read up on the new guidelines and talk to your doctor about how they apply to your situation.

I know I will.

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