Doctor’s Tip: February is heart month — do you and your loved ones have healthy arteries?

Doctor’s Tip

For the next few weeks, we will be taking a break from the series of columns about nutrition for children, because February is heart month. Once again, during February Compass Peak Imaging in Glenwood (970-665-2194) is offering a special price for carotid IMTs — a special, FDA-approved ultrasound study that assesses artery health.

B.C. (Before COVID-19), heart attacks were the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. year after year, in spite of the fact that essentially all heart attacks are preventable. Here’s what Christiaan Barnard — the South African heart surgeon who performed the first heart transplants — had to say about prevention: “I have saved the lives of 150 people by heart transplants. If I had focused on preventive medicine earlier, I might have saved 150 million.”

Unfortunately, medical training and practice in the U.S. are geared towards pills and procedures instead of prevention. Heart disease is looked at as a plumbing problem, with blockages that need to be fixed with stents and bypass procedures, rather than a medical disease (caused by atherosclerosis, aka hardening of the arteries) that can be prevented, treated and reversed through lifestyle changes and when necessary aggressive medical therapy.

Risk factors for atherosclerosis — and therefore heart attacks — include smoking; blood pressure above 120/80; high total cholesterol, low good cholesterol (HDL), high LDL (bad cholesterol), high triglycerides; obesity, particularly extra weight around the middle; pre-diabetes and diabetes; sleep apnea; inflammation, often due to dental disease; sedentary lifestyle; stress, including depression; inadequate sleep; the standard American diet; age (men over 40, women over 50); and family history of cardiovascular disease.

These risk factors cause the endothelium that lines our arteries to thicken, and eventually to form plaque (atherosclerosis), 99 percent of which is in the walls of the arteries, not causing a blockage. If the plaque ruptures (often triggered by inflammation), a blood clot forms in the artery, blocking the blood flow, causing death of part of the heart muscle (or brain in the case of a stroke). Twenty percent of heart attacks result in sudden death. For the other 80% of heart attack victims who make it to the hospital, an interventional cardiologist can save lives by opening the blockage with a stent. However, stents and bypass procedures don’t treat the underlying disease, and in non-heart attack settings have not been shown to save lives or improve quality of life.

There are two commonly-used methods of determining arterial health. One is coronary calcium scoring, available at most imaging centers. This is a CT scan of your heart, which shows how much calcium (atherosclerosis) you have in your coronary arteries. It involves a small amount of radiation, and can result in false-negatives because it doesn’t pick up non-calcified plaque, which is the most dangerous kind. Repeat coronary calcium scoring is not useful in determining effectiveness of treatment, because calcification of uncalcified plaque — which is a good thing — results in a higher score.

The second method is carotid IMT, which provides a soundwave picture of the carotid arteries, located just beneath the skin on both sides of the windpipe, and therefore easily assessable. It measures the thickness of the endothelial lining, and picks up both calcified and uncalcified plaque. If abnormal, IMT should be repeated a year after starting treatment — appropriate treatment should result in less endothelial thickening, stable or lesser amount of plaque, and calcification (stabilization) of uncalcified plaque. The downside of IMT is that it looks at the carotid rather than the coronary (heart) arteries, but there is a 95% correlation between the two — i.e., if you have atherosclerosis in one area you almost certainly have it in arteries throughout your body.

Brad Bale M.D. and Amy Doneen PhD, authors of “Beat the Heart Attack Gene,” have developed one of the most successful heart attack prevention programs in the world, called the Bale-Doneen Method. They recommend carotid IMT screening on everyone at age 40, and younger if significant risk factors are present. Note that the carotid IMT is much more sensitive than the usual carotid ultrasound done at most imaging centers and by companies such as Lifeline Screening — which just pick up major blockages.

Next week’s column will be about what to do if you are found to have plaque.

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment or email

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