French Canadian population at higher risk of FH

Carl Oullette had his first heart attack at 34. Or so he thought initially.

After taking a closer look at his medical history, Carl thinks he may have had a series of heart attacks, which went unrecognized. Symptoms included sudden paleness, breaking into sweat, chest pains and numbness in his arms.

When his wife demanded he visit the hospital, it turned out he had seven artery blockages and needed a quintuple bypass (meaning that five vessels were bypassed). Oullette commented, “At the time, in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘This is not happening to me’. But it did.”

If his heart were to be examined without knowledge of his age, it would seem he was 80 years old. While an adult’s normal cholesterol levels range in the 100s, Carl’s amounted to 425.

Carl has Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH), the hereditary genetic disorder that disrupts the body’s ability to regulate the supply of cholesterol in the bloodstream, resulting in extremely high cholesterol levels. His father, his sister, and two of his nieces also have it. Carl’s father, Bert, found out his cholesterol level had reached 500 when he was in his early 30s. By the time he was in his mid-40s, he started experiencing chest pains even from short-distance walks. “They called it angina,” he says, referring to his doctors.

While in America 1 in every 300 to 500 people are affected by FH, the French Canadian population shows higher statistics, with the Lewiston-Auburn area (where Oullette resides) demonstrating a 1 in every 30 to 50 people frequency.

Elsewhere in Canada cardiologists may have never even heard of FH, but in Auburn they come across it so often that to them it’s now a routine diagnosis. Dervilla M. McCann M.D, who practices at Central Maine Heart Associates, claims she is now accustomed to recognizing the signs of FH even in passers by on the. “My first instinct is, ‘Here, here’s my card. Come to my office.’”

One of Carl’s nieces, Jill, found out she had FH when she was only 10. At the time she didn’t understand the implications. All she knew was that she had to take medicine with her orange juice every morning and it didn’t taste nice. Now a university student, she takes statins on a daily basis, regulates her diet, and is part of a dance team in order to stay physically active. Despite these endeavors, her cholesterol levels range in the 300s. She now realizes the potential dangers of FH, “But I’m doing all that I can,” she says. “What else can I do?”

These questions are raised by many individuals affected by FH.

But the future looks optimistic. There are treatment options already available, as well as current efforts to develop new and effective cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as the recently FDA approved Juxtapid (for Homozygous FH). As Dr. Robert Weiss, cardiologist and CEO of Maine Research Associates, noted “It’s treatable, but only if you treat it.” It is important to remember that FH therapy requires a combination of measures, including medication, exercise, and an appropriate diet. You can browse our Learn page for more information.

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