The Nation's Health + [Heart disease prevention]

Heart disease prevention: Should you take Plavix?

A question I get fairly frequently nowadays is, "Should I take Plavix?"

For the few of you who've managed to miss the mass advertising campaign for this drug on TV, USA Today, etc., Plavix is a platelet-blocking drug, known chemically as clopidogrel, that "thins" the blood and helps prevent blood clot formation in coronary arteries and carotid arteries, thus potentially reducing heart attack and stroke risk.

What if you have a heart scan score of, say, 450--should you take Plavix?

In general, no. First of all, aspirin and Plavix (generally taken together, since the effect of Plavix is incremental to that of aspirin) only block blood clot formation. They have no effect whatsoever on the rate of plaque growth. Aspirin and Plavix will neither slow it or increase it.

What they do is when a plaque ruptures like a little volcano and exposes its internal contents (inflammatory cells, fat, etc.--like a raw wound), a blood clot forms on top of the ruptured surface. If the clot is big enough, it can occlude the vessel and causes heart attack. Or, if it's a carotid artery, debris from the clot can break off and find its way headward to the artery controlling your speech or memory center. Aspirin and Plavix simply help inhibit clot formation once a plaque ruptures. That's it.

Interestingly, if you view any of Sanofi Aventis' commercials for Plavix, you'd think they came up with a cure for heart disease. It ain't true.

When is Plavix helpful? It's clearly an advantage after someone receives a coronary stent, drug-coated or uncoated;, after coronary bypass, particularly if certain metal punch devices are used to create the grafts in the aorta; and during and after heart attack. These are all situations in which blood clot formation is a forceful process. Blocking it helps.

In general, in asymptomatic people with positive heart scan scores at any level, we do not recommend taking Plavix. The Plavix people are extremely aggressive pushing their drug (hang around any medical office and see!) and, I believe, have gone overboard in promoting its benefits. Rarely, in someone with a very high heart scan score, say 2000 or more, we'll use Plavix for a period of a few months until lipids/lipoproteins and other risk measures are addressed, just as an added safety measure. But, in general, the great majority of people with some heart scan score or another do not receive it and I don't believe that they should.

As always, look beyond the marketing. The purpose of marketing is to increase profits, not to educate.