By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: Inflammation—not cholesterol—is the true cause of heart disease!
Thanks to advancing science and books like The Great Cholesterol Myth, medicine’s vice grip on cholesterol is finally starting to loosen. But far too many doctors still remain fixated on blood lipids, and overlook much more accurate indicators of cardiovascular risk. The result? Heart attacks and strokes that seemingly come out of the blue.
To assess your true risk for heart disease, make sure your doctor is going beyond what’s “standard” and looking at the following markers. If you have a family history of early heart attack or other cardiovascular events, start getting tested at age 30. If not, it’s okay to wait until age 50 or the onset of symptoms, whichever comes first.
Essential Heart Tests: Bloodwork
- A normal range for total levels of blood cholesterol, LDL and HDL, is 180–240 mg/dL. However, a standard total cholesterol blood test is basically meaningless for identifying risk and best treatment options. You need to ask your doctor to order one of the new generation of advanced blood lipid tests. These tests neatly fractionate cholesterol elements into percentages based on particle size (i.e. are they dense and potentially dangerous, or large and less harmless?) so your doctor can more accurately determine whether there is reason for concern or not. These tests also cover another risk factor: triglycerides (a type of blood fat). Ideally, you want a triglyceride level between 50 and 100 mg/dL.
- Lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a), is an inflammatory, dangerous cholesterol particle when elevated, and a heart disease risk factor. Hydrogenated oils and trans fats (and potentially sugar) raise Lp(a). If you have a family history of early heart attacks or elevated Lp(a), you need to monitor this factor periodically. If you have a known Lp(a) elevation, you must avoid trans fats at all costs because trans fats will raise it and Lp(a) is the most dangerous risk factor. Normal ranges vary in different laboratories; I recommend it be less than 30 mg/dL.
- Glycohemoglobin (HbA1c) – this test measures the amount of blood sugar (glucose) attached to hemoglobin, the red blood cell pigment that carries oxygen. As an effective indicator of the average glucose level over several months, this test is a primary tool in monitoring and managing diabetes. A normal level is below 5.7 percent; pre-diabetes below 6.4; and diabetes 6.5 and above. Routine blood glucose tests are useful for measuring glucose control on a day-to-day basis.
- C-reactive protein is a potent indicator, not just of inflammation, but also of high blood sugar, antioxidant deficiency, thick blood, and overweight status, all important issues that contribute to arterial disease. An optimal blood level is under 0.8 mg/dL.
- Homocysteine is an amino acid that is produced in your body by the normal breakdown of protein. However, if you’re deficient in the B vitamins folic acid, B-6, and B-12, which are needed for this breakdown, you can have a high homocysteine level. High homocysteine is dangerous because it can trigger arterial plaque and blood clot formation. Optimal level: between 7 and 10 µmol/L.
- Fibrinogen, a coagulation-regulating protein, is intimately involved in blood clotting and blood thickness (viscosity). Having too much fibrinogen can speed up the clotting process and make you more vulnerable to a cardiovascular event. Smoking raises fibrinogen dramatically; genetics, oral contraceptives, insulin resistance, and postmenopausal status are also factors that can elevate your fibrinogen level. Optimal level: 180 to 350 mg/dl.
- Ferritin is a protein that acts as an iron carrier in the blood. Diagnostically, it serves as an indicator of iron stored in the body. Your body needs some ferritin to make hemoglobin, the red blood cell pigment that carries oxygen. And while too little could be an indicator of anemia, too much ferritin can promote inflammation, oxidation of cholesterol, and plaque. Optimal level: under 80 mg/L (women) and 90 mg/L (men).
Heart Rate Variability
I like to tell people that heart rate variability, or HRV, is the best heart health test they’ve never heard of. In a nutshell, it measures the intervals between your heartbeats. Individuals with low HRV are more prone to develop cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, and tend to have higher risk for cardiac events—which make it an essential test for assessing your true heart health.
Imaging and Other Heart Tests
- The electrocardiogram (EKG) is a routine heart test, usually performed at the first visit to a cardiologist. The EKG shows the electrical activity of the heart and provides vital information about cardiac rhythm and rate, coronary blood flow, and pump action.
- The echocardiogram is an ultrasound exam that doctors employ to check for blood flow patterns and abnormalities in the heart muscle, and the performance of the cardiac valves.
- For individuals who are symptomatic, a cardiologist will order a routine or a nuclear stress test. This procedure combines the treadmill with images recorded by a computerized camera to pinpoint arterial blood flow restriction to parts of the heart.
Of course, knowing your blood pressure numbers is also of crucial importance, as high blood pressure is a serious cardiac risk factor.
The heart tests I have listed here can make a big difference in whether you need treatment or not, and what kind. You can find more information about tests for strokes and where I like the numbers to be at Drsinatra.com.
© Stephen Sinatra, M.D. All rights reserved.