The belief that soft plaque is more likely to rupture and cause heart attacks than hard calcium deposits in coronary arteries may be incorrect, according to a new study by researchers at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute. The find challenges views on the relative dangers soft and hard atherosclerotic plaque deposits pose to heart health.
“We previously thought the lipid-laden soft plaque was more likely to rupture and cause heart attacks, but based on our new research, it’s more the calcified plaque that appears to be associated with adverse cardiovascular events.”
Atherosclerosis is caused when plaque builds up in the arteries, narrowing and hardening them.
Calcified Arterial Plaque
The study involves long-term findings after patients were followed for an average of nearly seven years to see if their plaque composition had predicted whether they’d have a cardiac event.
Through careful quantitative evaluation, the composition of coronary artery plaque identified in the subjects through CT coronary angiography was stratified proportionately into amounts of soft, calcified, and fibrous plaque and compared with future risk of unstable angina, heart attack or death.
Unexpectedly, proportionately higher quantities of calcified plaque best predicted major adverse coronary events, while soft plaque did not, researchers found.
Dr. Muhlestein said further studies are needed to verify the findings, but results from his team’s research may represent a potential paradigm shift.
“We need further validation to gauge the importance of why the coronary calcium score is so predictive,” he said.
Heart Disease Marker
Although a build-up of coronary calcium doesn’t go away, doctors can successfully treat the patient aggressively with statins. They know no one gets coronary calcium if they don’t have plaque, even if it hasn’t been seen, so anyone with coronary calcium also has atherosclerosis.
“It’s a disease marker, not a risk marker. And we think it’s possibly a very important predictor,” said Dr. Muhlestein.
He noted that having a calcium score of zero is like having a five-year warranty against heart attack—even with high levels of low-density lipoprotein, also known as LDL or bad, cholesterol. The next step for the researchers is to complete more of the scans to see if the finding holds up, which will make findings more robust.
The study was presented at the American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions in Washington D.C. on March 18.