Doug Dunning, MD thought he was healthy – until he suffered a heart attack on June 15, 2015, at age 56. He is now convinced that it might have been prevented with the right knowledge, testing, and optimal medical care. “This experience has changed how I practice medicine, making me a more attentive advocate for my patients’ cardiovascular wellness – and my own,” he says.
To mark American Heart Month, dedicated to raising awareness of cardiovascular disease (CVD), Dr. Dunning is sharing his story and 4 insights that he hopes will help save lives – and hearts – this year. CVD claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined, killing 2,150 Americans a day, one every 40 seconds, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Often, a heart attack or stroke is the first symptom of CVD, which typically develops silently over many years.
Dr. Dunning says his heart attack was almost literally a bolt from the blue. On that sunny June afternoon, he was sitting on the patio when thunder suddenly rumbled overhead. “I looked up, saw an ominous black cloud heading toward me and almost simultaneously, I felt a burning pressure in my chest,” he recalls.
As the thunderstorm and the pain in his chest intensified, Dr. Dunning was rushed to a local hospital and then to a major medical center by ambulance. Cardiologists discovered that one of his coronary arteries was 90 percent blocked, triggering the attack. He was treated with a stent and ultimately made a full recovery.
“This experience has changed how I practice medicine, making me a more attentive advocate for my patients’ cardiovascular wellness – and my own.”
About 50 percent of heart attacks and strokes occur in people with normal cholesterol.
Several months before the heart attack, says Dr. Dunning, “I started exercising regularly, improved my diet and lost 30 pounds. After years of burning the candle at both ends with my hectic medical practice, I also reduced my work hours after affiliating with MDVIP,” an organization of doctors who provide personalize medicine.
As a result of these lifestyle improvements, he adds, “my blood pressure fell from 138/88 to 120/80 and my lipids looked great.” However, a number of studies have found that about half of all patients who suffer heart attacks and strokes have “normal” cholesterol levels. A large body of research suggests that chronic inflammation explains this residual risk.
Inflammation testing can uncover hidden risk for heart attack and stroke.
In Dr. Dunning’s case, Cleveland HeartLab’s inflammation testing revealed a major cardiovascular risk. He had elevated levels of Lp-PLA2, a blood vessel-specific enzyme mainly attached to LDL (bad) cholesterol that rises when artery walls become inflamed. Studies suggest that Lp-PLA2 is a direct player in both plaque buildup and vulnerability (the risk that it will rupture like a volcano and cause a heart attack).
“I now use CHL’s unique biomarker testing to a much greater extent to monitor my patients’ cardiovascular risk,” says the doctor. “These tests also reveal response to treatment: For example, my results show the medications I’m taking and lifestyle changes I’ve made after the heart attack really are making a difference.”
Heart attacks are potentially preventable.
A 2015 CHL/MDVIP study model also suggests that thousands of heart attacks and strokes could be avoided – and $187 million in healthcare costs saved – by using inflammation testing to improve cardiovascular risk assessment, compared to standard screening.
A 2013 peer-reviewed study by CHL and MDVIP, published in Future Cardiology, found that a multi-marker approach that included inflammation testing detected 37 to 43 percent more patients at risk for heart attack and stroke than would have been identified by checking levels of LDL cholesterol alone. The study included more than 95,000 patients.
“I’m impressed by the big impact of inflammation testing shown in these studies,” says Dr. Dunning. “Recently my wife asked if I was afraid I’d have another heart attack, and I said that I don’t live in fear, since we’re monitoring all these biomarkers and the results show that I’m now optimizing my treatment.”