When Bob Harper collapsed at the gym from a heart attack last year, according to a New York Times report, it was the ultimate head scratcher. Host and trainer on NBC’s hit show, “The Biggest Loser,” Harper, 52, was about as fit as they come. It is now known that Harper had high levels of a blood particle called lipoprotein “little a”, or Lp(a), which greatly increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Lp(a) carries proteins, fats and cholesterol in your blood.
Low levels of this fatty particle usually don’t cause problems for people. But over a certain level, Lp(a) can be deadly. People with high levels have a 2- to 4-fold greater risk for early heart and blood vessel disease.
In recent years researchers have learned that 1 in 5 people have high Lp(a) levels, increasing heart attack and stroke risk. Often, but not always, high Lp(a) levels run in families. So as many as 63 million Americans could have high Lp(a) levels. Yet, most people who have high Lp(a) have no idea they have this increased risk for heart disease, and they may seem perfectly healthy.
According to the Lipoprotein(a) Foundation, Lp(a) speeds up the development of plaque in the arteries, which narrows them. Not only does it increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, but it also boosts the threat of dangerous blood clots.
A simple blood test can determine your Lp(a) level, but it is not part of standard heart health screening tests. A separate, additional lab order is required for this test that may be done at any time of the day. You may be a candidate for Lp(a) testing if one or more of the following is true for you:
- There is a history of heart attacks, heart disease, or strokes in your family members before age 55 for men or age 65 for women.
- You’ve been diagnosed with a heart attack or stroke, a heart valve condition, or problems with blood flow in the legs before age 55 if you’re a man and before age 65 if you’re a woman.
- You have a personal history of more than one heart attack and/or stroke.
- You have a family member with high Lp(a). Children have a 1 in 2 chance of inheriting it.
- You had a heart attack or stroke without common risk factors, such as a history of smoking, high LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, or being more than 30 pounds over your ideal weight.
- You have high LDL levels, even after taking statins and other LDL-lowering medications.
- You have familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), an inherited condition of very high LDL cholesterol. About 30% of people with FH also have high Lp(a).
It’s important that you talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner about your family history and other personal health concerns.
Although researchers are just beginning to understand the role of this harmful blood particle, treatment is available and promising new medications are being studied and may be on the way. In the meantime, a simple blood test for Lp(a) to find out if you have this additional risk factor for heart attack or stroke can allow you and your practitioner to work together to lower your risk and offer the best hope for staying well.
For information on other simple blood and urine tests that can help you find out if you have hidden heart disease risks that could silently be harming your health, go to www.KnowYourRisk.com.