The Nation's Health + [life]

Heart disease reversal: People with higher scores need to try harder

Sam is a 69-year retired physician. He was thoroughly enjoying retirement: golf, travelling, going out to dinner two or three times a week, spending weekends with his grandchildren. His lifestyle tended towards overindulgence, but he managed to stay fit and trim. At 6 ft 1 inch, he weighed 194 lbs and could still run 3 miles without too much difficulty. Not as good as his marathon-running days, but still not too bad for 69.

Sam's heart scan score in 2003 was a concerning 1983 --extensive plaque. His doctor wasn't much help in interpreting the scan and so Sam simply chose to ignore it.

A chance conversation with a physician friend 18 months later made Sam think that perhaps this shouldn't be ignored. That's when he came to my office.

Healthcare

I find that sometimes the best way to motivate someone to take action is to demonstrate just how fast plaque grows if action isn't taken. So I advised Sam to get another scan first, since 18 months had passed. His score: 2441 , or a 23% increase.

Sam was now starting to catch on. We made several changes in his prevention program (starting from virtually nothing). He did undergo a stress nuclear (thallium type) of test, which he passed without difficulty--normal blood flow in all heart territories despite the extensive plaque.

But, for some reason, Sam simply allowed himself to drift back to old habits: poor choices in food, overindulging in hard liquor, missing his fish oil and other supplements, and his medication, sometimes up to several days a week.

Sam started having unusual feelings in his chest. He described a sort of nervousness along with skipped heart beats. So we repeated a stress test. This time, a large area of reduced blood flow in the front of his heart ("anterior left ventricle") was detected. Sam ended up receiving three stents in a difficult procedure.

The moral: If you're starting out with a lower heart scan score of, say, 100 or 200, maybe you'll get by without trying too hard--maybe. But if your score is higher, say, several hundred or in the thousands, you got to try harder .

You're starting later in the process. Your disease will allow you very little slack. Let your guard down and it will get you. Control over your plaque is, indeed, very possible--we do it all the time. Score reduction is also possible. But your effort must be more serious and consistent.