The Latest Medical Breakthroughs for the Heart


Heart disease is the leading killer among American women. Here's the top women's heart health news from 2006 .

Turning back the clog
This year, heart experts managed to do something previously thought almost impossible: Using the maximum dosage of the cholesterol-lowering medication Crestor, they were able to shrink the fatty clogs blocking heart patients arteries by about 7 percent over two years.

The finding is significant because its always been believed that atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the arteries, was irreversible, says author Steven Nissen, MD, head of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic and president of the American College of Cardiology. In the past, the best you could hope to do with drugs or a healthy lifestyle was slow or stop the gradual narrowing (although an angioplasty or stent can open up blocked arteries).

The new finding raises the possibility that you can actually reverse the plaque accumulation that starts as early as childhood. It also fuels the growing realization that dropping LDL, or bad, cholesterol to levels far below the 100 milligrams per deciliter thats considered optimal is the best way to prevent heart attacks (the studys participants reduced theirs from 130 to 61). Current guidelines advise that only people at very high risk of a heart attack aim for an LDL level below 70, but Nissen says its possible that someday even those at lower risk will simply shoot for the lowest cholesterol number thats safely possible.

All arteries arent created equal
Think heart disease, and you probably imagine an artery clogged with a chunk of gunk. Thats how cholesterol tends to accumulate in mens arteries—and most womens. But in as many as 3 million American women with a condition called coronary microvascular syndrome, plaque builds up smoothly and evenly, according to the results of a 10-year, National Institutes of Health study.

The usual heart-health-screening tests cant see the build-up, so even women who are in danger of a heart attack or who experience chest pain may be told theyre healthy and wont get treatment, the researchers say. Future studies will determine the best tests to spot the problem. In the meantime, though, women shouldnt assume theyre OK, and docs shouldnt ignore classic risk factors. Keeping cholesterol and blood pressure at healthy levels, not smoking, exercising, and following a heart-healthy diet are key.

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