I think I have become a connoisseur of scientific double-think. Swilling the most ridiculous statements around my glass with relish, and enjoying the finest vintages. Last week, whilst I was on holiday, someone sent me a piece about statins and coronary artery calcification. I’m not sure what such people think I do on my holidays – but reading medical reports is not one of them.
However, the moment I read this article, it immediately brought to mind a story about a patient who had a fixed delusion that he was dead. The psychiatrist he was seeing had repeatedly tried, and failed, to get this patient to admit that he was deluded. One day a conversation took place
Psychiatrist: ‘Would you accept that dead people do not bleed?’
Patient: ‘Of course.’
Psychiatrist: Pulling needle from pocket. ‘Would you allow me to prick your thumb to see if you do bleed?’
Patient: ‘Go ahead doc, nothing will happen.’
Psychiatrist: Pricks the thumb of the patient, which then bleeds. ‘Aha!’
Patient: Looks down with interest. ‘Well what do you know, I guess dead people do bleed after all.’
For many years now it has become, almost a known fact, that a highly significant sign of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is calcification of the coronary arteries. The most widely accepted thinking is that calcification represents the final stage of atherosclerotic plaque development. It is a clear indication that your arteries have been developing atherosclerotic plaques over the years. Or, to quote Medscape on the issue:
‘First and foremost, calcium is a marker for a diseased artery1.’
The same article expands on this simple quote: “Coronary calcium is part of the development of atherosclerosis; …it occurs exclusively in atherosclerotic arteries and is absent in the normal vessel wall.” Simply put, the presence of calcification in the epicardial coronary arteries indicates that the patient has coronary atherosclerosis.’
This could not be more clear, and has been almost unquestioned. Lots of calcium in your arteries means lots of arterial disease. More = bad. Less = good. Sorry to labour the point, but I am doing it for a reason.
Sherlock: ‘So, my dear Watson. If we find that one of our treatments for heart disease is increasing the amount of calcification in the arteries, it would seem strange. Would it not?’
Sherlock: ‘And what, pray, does this make you think?’
Watson: ‘I’m not entirely sure that I know what you are getting at?’
Sherlock: ‘Think my dear Watson. Think.’
Watson: ‘Our ideas about heart disease are wrong?’
Statins, as we know, reduce the LDL/cholesterol level in the bloodstream. They also reduce (albeit not by very much) the risk of dying of heart attacks – and strokes. The current thinking, as I am sure everyone knows, is that excess LDL/cholesterol in the blood causes atherosclerosis. Ergo, lowering the level will reduce the burden. If this model is correct then, as LDL/cholesterol levels go down, we should lower the risk of atherosclerosis… and therefore we should see less calcium in the arteries. I know, I am labouring the point again.
However – as I have known for some time – this is not what we see. If you take statins you will increase the amount of calcium in the arteries.
CLEVELAND, OH – ‘The results of a new study suggest that there is a paradoxical relationship between calcification of the coronary artery and atheroma volume among individuals treated with statin therapy. In the analysis, statins, specifically high-intensity statin therapy, actually promoted coronary calcification.2’
So, there you have it. At this point, if you are a scientist, you have a few possible explanations that you could look at. (Assuming that this research is correct – and no-one seems to doubt that it is true). You could, for example, say that that statins do not work by lowering LDL/cholesterol, and therefore must provide benefits through another mechanism. How else could you reduce the risk of heart disease, whilst increasing the atherosclerotic burden?
However, if you have a fixed delusion, namely that raised LDL/cholesterol is the most important causal factor in heart disease, and that lowering it must be beneficial, you need to look down at your, now, bleeding thumb and switch the game through one hundred and eighty degrees.
So, what would you do? What explanation would you come up with?
Well, and here I paraphrase. Steven Nissen – one of the most powerful and inexhaustible supporters and promoters of LDL/cholesterol lowering – a man of great influence throughout the world of cardiology. This man looked down at his thumb and said.
‘I guess coronary artery calcification is a good thing after all.’
In truth his actual words were:
“We have some physicians—some, not a lot—advocating for serial calcium scans to determine whether or not patients are doing well,” he said. “If you give them a high-dose of a statin and their calcium goes up that might actually be a good thing. Instead of saying, ‘Oh my goodness, your coronary calcium is increasing,’ we might be able to tell patients, ‘Your coronary calcium is up, your plaques are stabilizing.’ “
Or, as George Orwell may have put it. ’Four legs good, two legs better.’ ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”