Why ultra fit Harrogate marathon runner was shocked by high cholesterol result and what he did about it
As an ultra-fit marathon runner and Chief Operating Officer of Parkrun, Harrogate's Tom Williams was not expecting any issues when he went for an NHS well-man health check-up when he hit his 40s.
But Tom, 46, was told by his GP that his cholesterol level was far too high at 8.5 (above 6 is considered to be high risk) and that he should consider starting on statins to reduce his risk of a heart attack. Statins, which need to be taken for life, help to reduce cholesterol levels.
Instead, he went to see consultant preventative cardiologist Dr Scott Murray, now of Venturi Cardiology in Warrington, for more detailed tests including a calcium score test, which turned out to be crucial.
Tom, who has two children with his wife, Helen, has a family history of high cholesterol, although no one in his family has had heart disease.
Tom said: “I was expecting my GP appointment to be a straightforward well man check-up.
“I found endurance sport in my late 20s and had run dozens of marathons, several iron-distance triathlons and, with my weekly Marathon Talk podcast partner Martin Yelling, The Comrades Marathon, the world’s largest and oldest ultra-marathon race with a distance of 90km which takes place every year in South Africa.
"I was fit and active, so I wasn’t expecting any health issues.
“I’ve always had high cholesterol – it runs in my family – but I don’t prescribe to the idea of that necessarily being a bad thing.
"Nevertheless, my GP suggested that taking statins could be a good idea to both lower my cholesterol and protect against a heart disease. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
Tom continued:“I initially chose to monitor my health, but six months later I started getting heart palpitations for the first time.
"The flutters in my heart were particularly disconcerting at night when I was lying awake in bed, and considering my mortality.
“I was introduced to Dr Scott Murray, former president of the British Association for Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation (BACPR) and founder of Venturi Cardiology in Warrington, the North West’s first independent dedicated healthy heart clinic, which opens this month.
“Scott is a rare combination of being an incredibly credible individual and open-minded to what is a more patient-centric approach to health. He treats his patients as individuals and champions preventative cardiology.
“He talked through my family history of high cholesterol, asked about my heart flutters and then did a range of different tests including an electrocardiogram (ECG) which checks the heart’s rhythm and electrical activity and an echocardiogram (echo) which checks the pumping function and valves of the heart.
“I also had a calcium score and CT coronary angiogram to check for the presence of heart artery disease.”
A score of zero in the test indicates no calcium build-up while a score of over 400 suggests major furring of the arteries and a high risk of developing a future heart attack.
The test has been available for 20 years but is not routinely used to screen NHS patients for heart disease.
Tom said: “Dr Murray explained to me that as heart disease progresses, the level of calcium in the vessel walls increases, so it can be an excellent indicator as to whether you have the disease or not.
“He also told me that my tests showed that I had zero coronary calcium, putting my risk of heart disease at extremely low, which was hugely reassuring. I didn’t need to go on statins.
“So, what had caused the heart flutters? It could have been tiredness, work stress, a virus or just one of those things. It coincided with a time when I wasn’t sleeping well, was working very hard, my diet wasn’t great and I had very young children.
"They lasted a few months, faded away and I haven’t had any more since.
“Although my cholesterol is high, Dr Murray said that it was likely my cholesterol was helping me fuel my tissues, given my diet and exercise regime, rather than carrying excess cholesterol in dangerous lipoproteins that can cause heart disease.
"It seems to me to be much more complicated than just “good or bad”, and if in doubt give a statin pill.
“My father, Brian Williams, is a retired professor of epidemiology for the World Health Organisation in Geneva and also has very high cholesterol. He ran an ultra-marathon when he was 74 and his arteries were checked in the past and are healthy.
“There’s something about being given a clean bill of health which makes you think don’t mess it up. Today I prioritise eating and sleeping better and exercising well. I concentrate less on marathons and more on my frequent 5km runs.
“I may not be ‘super-fit’ now, but I believe that at 46-years-old I’m the healthiest I have been.
"The tests and diagnostics have backed that up. It’s very reassuring.”
The calcium score is a 10-minute £150 test which uses a CT scanning machine to take multiple X-ray images of the heart blood vessels to measure the level of calcium build-up.
Dr Scott Murray, a consultant preventative cardiologist and a founder of the independent Venturi Cardiology heart clinic in Warrington, said: “Tom appeared to be at a high risk of heart disease based on his cholesterol test, but the calcium score test showed he was actually at very low risk and didn’t need statins.
"Calcium score tests are a way of looking ‘under the hood’ to provide a much more personalised approach to a patient’s risk of heart disease.”
For more information about Venturi Cardiology and to register your interest in a having a calcium score test or CT Coronary angiogram, visit www.venturicardiology.com
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