by Dr Ray Andrew
Suppose you’re planning a long driving trip. Your car has over 100,000 miles on it but doesn’t make any funny noises and seems to run just fine around town and on short trips. But you want to do whatever you reasonably can to ensure that your trip isn’t ruined by some unforeseen preventable breakdown. So you take the car to the shop and have a good mechanic look it over. You could have him take apart and examine all the major systems for wear and tear, but the labor would be prohibitively expensive. Moreover it is entirely possible—mechanics being human, and your car being old—that something might not be put back together just right during the process. Fortunately, modern technology enables car owners and mechanics to analyze automotive systems electronically, without the expense and risk of taking them completely apart.
Similarly, scientific progress enables cutting-edge physicians to evaluate the health of many body systems without taking them apart or even exposing them to long-term dangers, such as the ionizing radiation caused by heart catheterization, mammograms, and CT scans, for example.
As all of us rack up mileage in our bodies, concern about heart disease, cancer, stroke, dementia, diabetes, and nursing home placement naturally begin to occupy more and more of our attention. Just as the best time to solve a car problem is at home before the trip instead of on a country road a hundred miles from a shop, the best time to address health problems is when you are feeling well instead of when you are in the hospital after a heart attack. Fortunately, in our offices, we are increasingly able to bring the latest tools to the table to identify looming engine and other problems and help patients address them before the big breakdown.
Photoplethysmography is one such tool. The technology is amazing but its application is simple: a painless probe is placed on your finger and toe for a total of six minutes. Instantly you have a graph depicting the flow of blood from your heart to these two points. The resultant waveform reveals whether your arteries are flexible, as they were designed to be, or stiff and plaque-filled, indicating risk of heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, erectile dysfunction, and other vascular problems. Wouldn’t you rather do this today—risk-free—than have a catheter run from your groin to your heart tomorrow, with the attendant risks of infection, heart attack, and death?
Roughly half of Americans with heart disease have “normal” cholesterol, and many of these are already taking statin drugs. Sure it’s nice to hear that, by taking a certain drug, your cholesterol has become “normal.” Unfortunately, this reassurance yields a false sense of security. Both reality and the latest science betray the notion that the four basic cholesterol numbers have any meaningful predictive value for heart disease. This is why Dr. Mark Houston and many others have long taught that standard cholesterol testing is useless. Fifteen years ago, Dr. Andrew learned from preventive cardiologists to use an affordable but much more sophisticated cholesterol panel that does actually correlate with risk of vascular disease.
But this is not enough. Even a thorough evaluation of the gasoline going into an engine tells us nothing about the oil, which is just as critical. There are a number of factors other than cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight that a good functional medicine physician evaluates and addresses to help patients identify and reverse risk of the aforementioned inflammatory diseases.
For decades, Western medicine has been focused on a very limited subset of the risk factors that contribute to heart disease and stroke. While doctors trained in metabolic and regenerative medicine evaluate and treat a much broader range of risk factors, tools such as photoplethysmography allow them to go a step farther. Identifying the number and severity of one’s risk factors helps reveal potential for disease but does not tell us if you actually have damaged blood vessels.
Photoplethysmography enables staff at Grand County Wellness Center and Hormone Centers of Utah to identify actual diseased arteries before the damage becomes severe enough to cause a life-changing event such as a heart attack or stroke. This can be useful for young and old alike, considering that autopsies on Vietnam soldiers as young as age 18 found plaques in arteries!
But looking ahead only helps if repairs can be made and improvements verified. In our offices, we also provide patients the tools to make the necessary repairs and then reevaluate to demonstrate whether the chosen interventions are effective in each patient’s case or additional repairs need to be made.
If you are hoping for another 100,000 miles (or more) and would like to maximize your chances of an enjoyable, worry-free trip, ask your functional medicine-trained physician about photoplethysmography and other cutting-edge tools. It’s not just about adding years to your life, but adding life to your years. If you don’t have your health, it doesn’t much matter what else you do have.