The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Heart scans: "I don't know what I'm doing here"

Jim came to the office at the prompting of his wife.

At age 52, Jim was semi-retired, having to work only a few hours a week to maintain his business. He'd had a high cholesterol identified about 10 years earlier and had been taking one or another statin drug ever since.

However, Jim's wife was a pretty savvy girl and understood the inadequacies of the conventional approach to heart disease prevention. Nonetheless, when Jim came in, he declared, "I feel great. I don't know what I'm doing here!"

I persuaded Jim to undergo a heart scan. His score: 2211 , in the 99th percentile (the worst 1% for men in his age group). However, it was worse than that. Any score above 1000 carries a heart attack risk of 25% per year unless prevention issues are fully addressed.

Indeed, Jim proved to have far more than a high LDL cholesterol. Among the patterns uncovered with his lipoprotein analysis were small LDL, the postprandial (after-eating) abnormality of intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL), and high triglycerides and VLDL. All would require correction if Jim is to hope to gain control of his extensive coronary plaque.

The message: Trying to discern risk for heart disease from cholesterol is complete folly. This man was going to die or have an urgent major heart procedure within the next year or two, all while taking his statin drug.

Discard the silly notion that cholesterol tells you everything you need to know about heart attack risk. It does not. It helps a little but leaves vast voids in risk determination. Fill those gaps with a heart scan, plain and simple.