I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV, so what I’m about to talk about is strictly my opinion, drawn from my own experiences. But all of us have heard this story—the one about the guy (or gal) who dropped dead from a heart attack in his 40s or even younger. He didn’t smoke, wasn’t overweight, had low cholesterol, ate sensibly, and ran four miles a day. He went for regular checkups, always passed a stress test, and had absolutely no signs of heart disease. According to the 2015 film, The Widowmaker, there are 600,000 deaths per year due to sudden heart attacks in the U.S. In 25% of those cases, the victim had no signs or symptoms of heart disease.
What if I told you a simple test could determine whether you are at risk for a heart attack? Would you take it? What if I told you the average price for this test is $100 to $150 and must be paid out of pocket? Would you spend the money? I just did.
The test I’m referring to is called a CT heart scan with calcium score. It’s not new. In fact, it’s been around for decades. It’s a simple scan, where you lie down on a table with your arms over your head. The table slides you into a donut-like machine which is equipped with speakers. You’re instructed to hold your breath three separate times while various images of your heart are taken. And that’s it. (The CT heart scan shouldn’t be confused with the CT angiogram which is more invasive.)
One of the most straightforward pieces about the CT heart scan is an interview at Every Day Health with Dr Arthur Agatston, the South Beach Diet doctor. I had no idea that Dr. Agatston is a renowned cardiologist. And he was the one who invented a quantifiable way to view the results of the CT heart scan—thus, the calcium score. Dr. Agatston explains that we should be watching for signs of plaque near the heart, which is evidenced by calcification in the arteries. The more coronary calcium, the more atherosclerosis (hardening or narrowing of the arteries). The CT heart scan detects calcification (or lack thereof) and a value or score is assigned to the results. Dr. Agatston says “thousands of studies” have created a “mountain of evidence” that the calcium score is the single best predictor of a future heart attack.
So how did I do? I scored a zero, which in this case is the best possible result. Zilch, nada, none—no calcification. Ipso facto—no heart disease. And I scored a big fat zero, even when my cholesterol level, when left to its own devices (i.e. not taking meds) is above 300! And what if my calcium score had been high? Most likely I’d go back on medication to avoid a future heart attack.
Let me back up and explain why I went for this test. For over twenty years I’ve been on cholesterol medication. A cholesterol level of 300+ is extremely high. Prior to going on medication I tried various methods for lowering my numbers. I was already fit and eating well but I tried flax seed, measuring all my food, etc. but the numbers only slightly budged. After two doctors unsuccessfully attempted to get me on statins (one of the most common classifications of cholesterol lowering drugs), I was convinced by the third. And I’ve been on 10 mg of Lipitor (now the generic, atorvastatin) ever since. That is until my last physical three weeks ago, when I quit cold turkey the day before my doctor visit.
My parents, now deceased, both had high cholesterol. My brother has high cholesterol and his sons, my nephews, had high cholesterol as infants. It’s safe to say I’m genetically predisposed to it. However, there is no heart disease in my family. But my parents were of the generation that followed the doctor’s orders without question—they were on statins long term and had no qualms about it. I, on the other hand, have always been frightened of using statins. There is no rock-solid long term study on the effects of statins on the body. I never had any side effects I was aware of but I began wondering what the drug might do to my brain—because on that front, there is disease in my family. My mother had dementia and my father had Parkinson’s disease. Many experts are concerned that statins may cause cognitive impairment—even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about it. With two strikes against me I became more and more worried about remaining on atorvastatin for the rest of my life.
Mr. Groovy and I began reading about nutrition last year. In the book “The Big Fat Surprise,” investigative journalist Nina Teicholz shows why everything we thought we knew about dietary fat was totally wrong. She offers proof that foods rich in saturated fat and cholesterol are not harmful to us. She also exposes the politics behind the field of nutrition and shows how Americans were duped by federal policy, which manipulated us into believing we should be on low-fat diets—a policy move which was based on BAD SCIENCE. And the truth was withheld on purpose.
Much of what some people call the Diet Mythology, or the opinion that cholesterol and fat in the diet lead to heart disease, can be traced back to Ancel Keys (founder of the K-rations) in the 1960s. His famous “Seven Countries” studies was used as proof that there was a connection between deaths from heart disease and a high cholesterol/high saturated fat diet. But Nina Teicholz, and others who have pored over the studies and results, insist that Keys cherry-picked his evidence to validate his theories. Many Americans have changed the way they eat, based on dietary recommendations conjured up in the 1980s that were based on BAD SCIENCE.
To be fair, many people in the medical community are not proponents of the CT heart scan and calcium score. Some feel that marketing this specific test directly to consumers is dangerous. Dr. Steven Nissen of the renown Cleveland Clinic is one of them. He’s interviewed in the 2015 documentary The Widowmaker, which shows both sides of the coin—although make no mistake, the filmmaker’s point of view is very pro heart scans.
The seemingly healthy person who dies of a sudden heart attack may have low cholesterol, but may also have advanced narrowing of the arteries. For 150,000 people who die of sudden heart attacks yearly in the U.S.—that fatal heart attack is the first (and the last) sign of heart disease. The CT heart scan with calcium score might just prevent that heart attack from happening. There must be a preponderance of evidence leaning in that direction because, according to The Widowmaker, all astronauts entering the NASA space program are required to be tested and to have a zero score.
Those in favor of heart scans believe cholesterol levels are not particularly important. They also feel that cholesterol meds and other interventions are big business for the medical community. The Widowmaker shows how angiograms and “stents” are overused by heart surgeons. Stents are used in angioplasty, a procedure which opens up the arteries. An angiogram is a testing device used to detect blockages of the arteries. Angiograms are invasive and may lead to unnecessary bypass surgery. The Widowmaker claims that 50% of the angiograms given at the Mayo Clinic are unnecessary! An article in the Wall Street Journal about a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, says 62% of the patients used for the study’s data showed no sign of heart obstruction.
So why am I writing about this now and on this blog? Well if you follow Mr. Groovy and me, you know that we’re planning on retiring in six months. Our “Cadillac” health insurance will disappear and we’ll go on Obamacare. We’ve put ourselves in training for retirement: we walk two miles almost every day, Mr. Groovy does his home gym routine three times a week and his Miracle Morning every day, and I do my 15-minute shoulder routine every morning (my shoulder began to hurt badly, out of the blue, six months ago). We want to travel in retirement. We want to do physical activities around our new home, i.e. build Mr. G’s outdoor oven so he can bake his bread. And if we don’t have our health—well, then our plans will be seriously altered.
The Society for Heart Attack Prevention and Eradication (SHAPE) has a vision to free the world from the threat of heart attack and stroke. Its guidelines encourage all men 45 and older and women 55 and older to undergo the CT heart scan. Dr. Agatston advocates these guidelines as well. As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Agatston states that the CT heart scan is the single best predictor of a future heart attack.
So I ask you Groovy Freedomists—if you’re a male age 45 or older, or a woman age 55 or older, would you consider getting a CT heart scan with cardiac score? It just might be the best $100 bucks you’ve ever spent. And it also just might save your life.
Further reading and additional resources:
The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz
Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes
The Great Cholesterol Con by Anthony Colpo
Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon
Film “The Widowmaker” from 2015. Available on Netflix or for rent.
Here’s the trailer: http://widowmakerthemovie.com/
And a review http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-widowmaker-2015