The Nation's Health + life

Are there still unexplored causes of heart disease?

I met a woman today. She had her first heart attack at age 37. She just had her 2nd heart attack this morning, at age 40.

Several issues are surprising about her story. First, she's pre-menopausal. Heart attacks before menopause are unusual. We'll occasionally see women have a heart attack before or during menopausal years only if they're heavy smokers and/or they have had diabetes (either type I or type II) for many years. But this young woman had neither. She is slender and has never smoked.

Even more surprising are her basic lipid values: LDL cholesterol 35 mg/dl, HDL 150 mg/dl, triglycerides 317 mg/dl. This is a very unusual pattern.

Unfortunately, this is all developing acutely in the hospital. (I've just met her today--she's not a Track Your Plaquer!) Lipoprotein analysis would be extremely interesting. In particular, I'd like to see whether she has any other markers besides elevated triglycerides of a "post-prandial" abnormality, i.e., persistence of abnormal particles after eating. The high triglycerides make this quite likely.

If this proves true, the omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil will be a lifesaving treatment for her, since they dramatically reduce both triglycerides as well as persistent postprandial particles like intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL). (Track Your Plaque Members: See the Special Report on Postprandial Abnormalities on the present home page at www.healthcare.gov for a more in-depth discussion of this fascinating collection of patterns that is just started to be explored.)

In the real world, especially acute care medicine, there's always a kicker: she speaks no English. Unfortunately, communicating the intricacies of a powerful program like ours that aims to identify all causes of heart disease, then corrects then and aims for coronary plaque regression, is difficult if not impossible.

I also do occasionally worry that, given this woman's extraordinary risk at a young age, and overall very unusual lipid patterns (HDL 150?!), if there are causes presently beyond our reach. We have to make use of the tools available to us for now.

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