Nutrition Action Healthletter
Diet and Exercise
The Metabolic Syndrome
Millions at High Risk
Nine Steps to a Healthier Heart
What's Your 10-Year Heart Attack Risk?

It’s a good thing being confused doesn’t raise the risk of heart attacks.

   In fact, your odds of having heart trouble have always depended on far more than one number. But last May, the government’s National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) made it easier for people to use those numbers to calculate their risk of a heart attack.

    The changes mean that more people will end up on cholesterol-lowering drugs. “Many millions of people are at much greater risk than we had known before,” says NCEP coordinator James Cleeman.

    But for many of them, drugs won’t be enough. “People are so much fatter and physically inactive than they used to be,” says Margo Denke of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “They can’t just lower cholesterol and assume that they’re fine. They have to lose weight, eat a healthier diet, and exercise, too.”

The latest guidelines don’t tell physicians precisely how to deal with the so-called “emerging” risk factors, like lipoprotein(a), homocysteine, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), and fibrinogen.

    “These risk factors aren’t ready for prime time,” says James Cleeman, coordinator of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP), which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

    Lowering a high hs-CRP level, for example, may not lower the risk of heart attacks. “We can measure these things, but we don’t know if treating them is going to make a difference,” says the University of Texas’s Margo Denke.

    In some cases, doctors don’t even know how to lower them. “If a patient has high fibrinogen levels, a physician might prescribe aspirin or an anti-clotting medicine like warfarin to prevent the clots that high fibrinogen levels can cause,” she explains. “But it wouldn’t lower fibrinogen.”

    Instead, doctors can use the emerging risk factors to decide how aggressively to treat the known risk factors. “If a doctor isn’t sure whether a patient deserves intensive treatment, the presence of an emerging risk factor like high CRP may put him over the edge,” says Cleeman.

    In contrast, there’s no question about the benefits of lowering the most powerful risk factor for heart disease: LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

    “We have lock, stock, and barrel nailed down the evidence that lowering LDL can prevent heart attacks and enable people to live longer,” says Denke. “It’s the driving force behind the guidelines because lowering LDL has a proven benefit.”

    First, the new report helps physicians decide on an “LDL goal” by determining how high the patient’s risk is. The higher the risk, the lower the LDL goal.

    Then the guidelines go beyond LDL to address a new problem—which they call the “metabolic syndrome”—that’s caused largely by obesity and lack of exercise. Here are some of the key changes in the new report:

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Diet and Exercise

The guidelines encourage physicians to start most patients on lifestyle changes. “When the guidelines came out, the headlines seized on the need for more people to take drugs, and those drugs are one of the great success stories of the decade,” says Cleeman. “But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that lifestyle changes are the primary means of preventing heart disease in most people.”
We have nailed down the evidence that lowering LDL can prevent heart attacks.

    And the government’s diet advice has gotten tougher. People who are above their LDL goal should immediately cut their saturated fat to less than seven percent of calories and their dietary cholesterol to no more than 200 milligrams a day (see “Doing It With Diet,” p. 8 of the Healthletter).

    “The diet now has more cholesterol-lowering power,” says Cleeman.

    Cutting saturated fat and cholesterol makes the biggest dent in LDL. But you can soup up the cholesterol-lowering by adding foods rich in soluble fiber—like beans, peas, corn, and oatmeal—as well as Take Control, Benecol, and other margarines that are made with plant extracts called sterol or stanol esters. Add them all together and the result is impressive.

    “If you start by lowering saturated fat and cholesterol, and add soluble fiber, stanol or sterol margarines, physical activity, and weight loss, you can get a 20 to 30 percent lowering of LDL,” says Cleeman.

    Diet and exercise are critical for slashing LDL. But they’re even more vital for people who have the metabolic syndrome.

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The Metabolic Syndrome

The new report calls it the metabolic syndrome, but it’s also called syndrome X (see March 2000, cover story).

    “We estimate that a quarter of the adult population has the metabolic syndrome,” says Cleeman. “It’s more important than before because so many people are overweight or obese.”

    Some researchers think that the metabolic syndrome is caused by insulin resistance—that is, the insulin secreted by the pancreas loses its ability to admit blood sugar into cells, where it can be stored or burned for fuel. It’s as though the body “resists” the insulin.

    If that leads blood sugar levels to soar out of control, the person is diagnosed with diabetes. But even if blood sugar never gets that high, insulin resistance still raises the risk of heart disease.

    “For the first time, the guidelines provide five criteria for the metabolic syndrome,” says Cleeman. “If you have three of the five, you’ve got it.”

    The five criteria are levels of triglycerides, HDL (“good”) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and abdominal obesity (see Step Eight). “We measure these things because we can’t easily measure insulin resistance,” says Denke.

    Even if you don’t have high blood pressure or high blood sugar, you still could have the metabolic syndrome. “All the criteria for the metabolic syndrome are only borderline-high, not high,” says Cleeman. “The blood sugar cut-off isn’t high enough to be diabetes. The blood pressure cut-off isn’t high enough to be hypertension.”

    But if you add up all of the borderline-high risks, the total is worrisome. That’s because risks don’t start and stop at each cut-off.

    “The definition of high blood pressure is 140 over 90,” explains Cleeman. “But that doesn’t mean you’re without risk if your blood pressure is 139 over 89.”

    Diet and exercise can accomplish things that drugs don't.

    The good news is that weight loss and exercise—alone or, better yet, in combination—can reverse insulin resistance. The bad news is that, if they fail, there is no wonder drug to take their place.

    “We have no one drug to fix the problems caused by obesity and inactivity,” says Denke.

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Millions At High Risk

People who already have had a heart attack, coronary bypass operation, angioplasty, angina, or other signs of heart disease have an LDL goal of 100. That’s low. According to the new guide-lines, the 16 million Americans with diabetes fall into the same high-risk category...and have the same LDL goal.

    “A person with diabetes has the same risk of heart disease as a person without diabetes who’s already had a heart attack,” says Denke.

    Diabetes also makes a heart attack more treacherous. “A person with diabetes is more likely to die during or soon after a heart attack, so the name of the game is to prevent the first one,” says Cleeman.

    Diet is the first step for knocking LDL down below 100. For those who don’t succeed, the new report recommends diet plus statins or other drugs.

    “Many of these people can get down to an LDL of 130 with lifestyle changes,” says Cleeman, “but they can’t get down to 100 without drugs.”

    And there may be nothing magic about 100. “There’s reason to suspect that the lower the LDL, the better,” says Cleeman. “Some trials have lowered LDL levels down to 70. They show a reduced risk of heart attacks, but we don’t know if getting LDL down to 80 or 95 would be just as good.”

    That would mean even more people on statin drugs. But it’s not as though we can just put drugs in the drinking water.

    “Statins have a very impressive safety and efficacy record,” says Cleeman. “But one out of 100 people will get elevated liver enzymes. Although that may not mean any real danger of liver damage, it’s reason enough to take them off the drugs.

    “And maybe one in 1,000 will have muscle problems that almost always go away when the drug is stopped. It’s important to be on the lookout for those problems.”

    It’s not just people with diabetes who may end up on drugs. For example, an HDL below 35 used to be a risk factor for heart disease. Now an HDL below 40 is considered a risk.

    “It’s incredibly important to remember that drugs should be combined with lifestyle changes, not substituted for them,” says Cleeman. “Diet and exercise keep the dose of drug as low as possible and can accomplish things that drugs don’t.”

    Diet and exercise can raise HDL and lower blood sugar, blood pressure, LDL, triglycerides, and the tendency to form blood clots. Drugs can also do some of those things, but unless you want to take a handful each day, it makes sense to correct the source of the problem.

    Says Cleeman: “With diet and drugs, the overall effect on cardiovascular risk is broader.”

For more information:

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Home Page: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov

Web site for the new guidelines: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/cholesterol

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Nutrition Action Healthletter Center for Science in the Public Interest October 2001 U.S. Edition What's your cholesterol? The next time you ask someone that question, don't be surprised if you get an answer that starts with LDL and HDL, sweeps rapidly to VLDL and triglycerides, touches lightly on blood pressure and blood sugar, and winds up with a short discourse on hs-CRP, lipoprotein(a), and fibrinogen. What's your cholesterol? By Bonnie Liebman How To Lower Your Risk Of A Heart Attack Read My Lipids The next time you ask someone that question, don't be surprised if you get an answer that starts with LDL and HDL, sweeps rapidly to VLDL and triglycerides, touches lightly on blood pressure and blood sugar, and winds up with a short discourse on hs-CRP, lipoprotein(a), and fibrinogen. Last May's government report on how doctors should protect their patients from heart disease is the third since 1988.  It won't be the last. What's your cholesterol? Subscribe Today! Customer Service