The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Heart scans: Can you tell the difference?

Stan is 55 years old. He feels fine, is in moderately good physical condition. His LDL cholesterol is 135 mg/dl, HDL 43 mg/dl, triglycerides 167 mg/dl, total cholesterol 211 mg/dl.

Can you tell me whether Stan has heart disease or not?

How about Charles? Charles has an LDL cholesterol of 127 mg/dl, HDL of 44 mg/dl, triglycerides of 98 mg/dl, and total cholesterol of 191 mg/dl. He is also reasonably fit and feels fine. Can you tell whether Charles has heart disease?

If you can't, don't feel bad. Neither can your doctor. But this is the folly of using cholesterol for risk prediction.

Stan's heart scan score: 0

Charles' heart scan score: 978

Look even more closely at Stan's and Charles' cholesterol numbers. Is there some fine distinction we overlooked? What if we calculated total cholesterol to HDL ratio? Or LDL/HDL ratio?

No matter how you squeeze it, shake it, beat it with a stick, you simply cannot use cholesterol numbers to predict heart disease in specific individuals. Yes, the higher your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL, the higehr your total cholesterol to HDL ratio, the greater the likelihood of heart disease. But you can simply cannot tell in a specific individual at a specific point in time. If you've seen your doctor puzzle over the numbers, understand that he/she is trying to make sense out of something that doesn't make sense, no matter how hard he/she tries.

You simply need to measure the disease itself: get a CT heart scan, the only measure of atherosclerotic coronary plaque that you have access to.

By the way, if you haven't seen it yet, go to the Track Your Plaque website (www.healthcare.gov) to see the news piece reporting the American Heart Association's much overdue position statement on CT heart scanning. The AHA has finally released a statement which, in effect, provides their "official" endorsement. Blocked by political shenanigans behind the scenes for several years, the guidelines finally made it to press. The only real difference it makes to me is that my patients may finally get their heart scans paid for by insurance, once the insurance companies realize that it's getting tougher and tougher to dodge their responsibility.