Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Does a vitamin a day keep Alzheimer's at bay?

As regular readers of these posts know, I am generally not a big fan of using vitamins and supplements for healthy people who eat a reasonable diet. There is little solid data that these improve your health. A recent study has caused me to reconsider.

We all lose some memory function with aging, even those of us who will never develop dementia. Annoying “senior moments,” such as forgetting where we put the car keys or who wrote our favorite book, become increasingly common. What helps? Aerobic exercise has some benefit, while crossword puzzles, sudoku, etc. do not seem to do much. How about a pill?

A group of investigators from New York and Boston recently published the results of a trial studying the effects of a daily multivitamin (Centrum Silver) on memory in older adults. The trial was designed to test the effects of cocoa extract and multivitamins on cancer risk and cardiovascular outcomes but they used the trial to test other outcomes as well. It was a large trial: 12,666 women 65 or older and 8776 men 60 or older were enrolled.

The memory study used an internet-based battery of neuropsychological tests at baseline and repeated annually for 3 years. Importantly, the study used a memory test designed for healthy people.

You may recall the ridicule faced by Donald Trump in the summer of 2020 when he claimed to “have aced” a “really difficult test” that proved how smart he was. That test was the mini-mental status test (or something very similar), specifically designed to screen for dementia. Its weakness in studying healthy people is that it is so easy that most get high scores and subtle changes are hard to detect.

This study used a test called the ModRey test that is much harder and was designed to study memory changes in people without major memory impairment.

At both 1 and 3 years after they enrolled, people who were randomly assigned to take the multivitamin had significantly better memory scores than those assigned to placebo. The researchers estimated that the multivitamin improved memory performance over placebo by the equivalent of 3 years.

Since the treatment, an over-the-counter multivitamin, is harmless and cheap, it seems prudent to consider adding this to your daily routine. I plan to do so (when I remember).

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Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Menopause: Hot flashes or heart attack?

A new medication has just been approved by the FDA for the treatment of moderate to severe menopausal hot flashes, and I predict a barrage of television and other media advertising. In yesterday’s New York Times was an article headlined: A Movement to Make Workplaces ‘Menopause Friendly.’ Clearly a topic to be addressed.

Like most woman-specific health issues, menopause has been under-studied for years. For most of human history, women who lived long enough to pass through menopause were the lucky minority. As lifespans increased, menopause became “normal” and little but folklore was used to treat symptoms.

Menopause refers to the time a year after a woman has her last period. Perimenopause describes the years preceding, when menstrual periods may become erratic and many women begin to experience hot flashes. Each woman’s experience is different. I have had patients who will respond “I have not had a period in 6 months but feel fine,” while others have to bring a change of clothes to work. The cause of the ”vasomotor symptoms,” changes in the body's thermoregulatory system, leading to sudden feelings of heat, sweating, and skin flushing is clear: fall in estrogen. Hot flashes can occur after surgical removal of the ovaries or by medications that block estrogen, though natural perimenopause/menopause is the usual culprit.

Given the cause, the obvious treatment is estrogen, given by pill or skin patch. During the 1960’s, estrogen was widely prescribed as a panacea for all the issues of aging in women. But, a landmark study by the Woman’s Health Initiative (WHI) published in JAMA in 2002 claimed that giving hormone therapy to post-menopausal women led to more rather than fewer heart attacks and strokes, as well as increasing breast cancer risk. Prescriptions for estrogen plummeted.

At the time, I counselled my patients that the study was so flawed that it was irrelevant to them, but media coverage convinced most women that estrogen was akin to arsenic.

Why was it flawed? The study investigators set out to prove or disprove that HRT (hormone replacement therapy) prevented heart attacks. They enrolled a large number of women – over 16,600 – but were concerned there might not be enough heart attacks to result in the holy grail of “statistical significance” if they used only peri-menopausal younger women. The study group included women who were post-menopausal and 50-79 years old.

We know that menstruating women have many fewer heart attacks than men and that this protection is lost after menopause. By enrolling women who were many years or decades post-menopausal, they selected a group that were beginning to catch up to men in developing artery plaques and then exposing them to the known clot-promoting effects of estrogen. It should have been predicted that this group would have more heart attacks and strokes. How is HRT usually prescribed? It is given to women in their perimenopausal years, when they are still much less likely to have artery plaques. Much later re-analysis of the WHI data did show that the younger members of the study had fewer heart attacks when taking HRT while the older women had more.

What non-hormonal drugs can a woman take for bothersome hot flashes? Until very recently, the only approved drug was paroxetine, an anti-depressant that has been shown to reduce the severity and frequency of hot flashes. The new drug, which will be marketed as Veozah, works on the vasomotor center of the brain, and was shown in a recent study to provide superior relief to placebo. A small number of women taking it had liver test abnormalities, but side effects were generally few. The major side effect will be on the pocketbook. The drug will be marketed at a cost of $550/month, and will need to be taken for several years.

My suggestion? If your symptoms are mild, you do not need to take anything, or try soy milk.

What if your symptoms are worse?

If you are in your late 40’s or 50’s, ask your doctor about HRT. It has a good safety profile in younger women and is treating the underlying problem. Patches are generally safer than pills. If you have a history of (or strong family history of) breast cancer, HRT is not for you. In that case, see how much relief you get from paroxetine, generic and cheap. If that does not work, hope your insurance covers Veozah at a reasonable co-pay.

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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Drug-resistant shigella - how worried should you be?

Recent news stories have brought to our attention a report from the CDC that multiple strains of the diarrhea-causing bacteria Shigella have acquired resistance to the antibiotics most often used to treat the illness. The first case of extensively drug-resistant Shigella was discovered in the United States in 2016; by 2022, the strains accounted for 5 percent of Shigella infections. The drug-resistant bacteria have been found in 29 states so far. Even though shigellosis is commoner in children than adults, the resistant strain has been seen most often in adults, and is particularly common in men who have sex with men, the homeless and those with immune deficiency.

Is this important? Should you care?

Shigella is a bacterium that infects the wall of the intestine and causes nasty diarrhea, usually bloody, as well as nausea, cramps and fever. While mild cases exist and may improve without treatment, antibiotics are usually needed, as well as fluid replacement – by mouth if possible or by intravenous if you are very sick.

How do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics? Some bacteria randomly mutate to become resistant to one or more antibiotics. If exposed to antibiotics, the sensitive bacteria are killed off while the resistant ones thrive. We also know that antibiotic-resistant bacteria can share their resistance genes with other bacteria.

We live in an antibiotic-obsessed culture. People who go to their doctor with a cough and fever expect to get a prescription for antibiotics, whether they believe their illness be a sinus infection, bronchitis or pharyngitis. In the time-stressed doctor’s office, many doctors realize it is easier and faster to write a prescription than to explain why the illness is probably viral and will not get better any faster with an antibiotic.

In hospitals, patients are sicker, antibiotics are frequently given, and bacteria are readily transmitted from one patient to another, including resistant ones. These “super-bugs” are responsible for many hospital deaths.

If that is not bad enough, antibiotics are widely and often unnecessarily given to farm animals, in most cases to compensate for unhealthy conditions in which the animals are raised.

What can you do?

First, if your doctor tells you that an antibiotic is not needed, accept this. Most respiratory infections will do as well or better without one. Second, if you have any intestinal infection, be scrupulous with hand washing after using the toilet – the person you save from getting ill may be family or friend.

If you are unlucky enough to be hospitalized, do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask your doctors and nurses if they have washed their hands before they examine you. Finally, make your preference known at the grocery – try to purchase meat labelled as antibiotic-free, so that hopefully this practice will lessen.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Healthcare Fraud

Healthcare fraud tends be “under the radar” for most of us, surfacing when authorities arrest those accused of such behavior or when guilty verdicts are announced, and usually in stories buried on the inside pages of the newspaper.

While it is widely acknowledged to be a serious problem, costing the government and private insurers tens of billions of dollars, it is very hard to get factual data. The numbers that reach the press are of perpetrators who are caught. The number of schemes that go undetected is impossible to quantify.

It is also a world-wide problem, not just a North American issue. The National Academies estimated in 2018 that of the $7.35 trillion spent globally on health care, some $455 billion was lost to fraud. Investigators in China estimated that 10% of healthcare spending there was wasted due to fraud.

Fraud can take many forms. The most obvious is to bill insurers for services not rendered. A New York-based cardiologist was arrested for billing Medicare and Medicaid $1.3 million for Covid testing that was never done.

More commonly, billing can be done for expensive services and equipment that are unnecessary. Companies “cold-call” people and offer braces and electric-lift chairs that will be “free” if their doctor authorizes them. One brazen scheme involved gathering homeless people who were on Medicaid and paying them small sums to go to a testing center for a panel of totally pointless but expensive tests for fabricated diagnoses.

Twelve physicians in Ohio and Michigan were sentenced to prison last year for a scheme that required narcotic addicts seeking prescriptions to undergo spinal injections, which are richly reimbursed, before getting their prescriptions.

More subtle and more widespread is “up-coding,” providing a service but billing for a more expensive one. Take the office visit. Billing for such visits can be done at one of five tiers based on the complexity of the problem and time needed to deal with it. The higher the level, the more the payment. A Massachusetts orthopedic surgeon was charged in March of 2022 for billing top-level visits for as many as 90 patients a day – meaning that in one work-day he was claiming to do over 60 hours of care! To a lesser degree, this practice is very widespread.

Technology has unfortunately made fraud easier. The typical electronic medical record allows the user to populate a note with detailed history and physical finding with a few clicks, whether or not these were done.

Telemedicine, a boon for many during Covid lock-downs, also provided a fertile field for the unscrupulous. One of “America’s Frontline Doctors,” the headline-grabbing vaccination deniers, lost her license for providing ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine after 1-2 minute on-line visits for which she billed $90. Telemedicine visits for addiction counselling are supposed to last 45 minutes. The Recovery Connection Centers of America billed insurance programs millions of dollars for visits that lasted an average of 5 minutes federal authorities alleged last month.

Why should you care? Ultimately, whether through taxes or health insurance premiums, it is your money that is being wasted. When you suspect fraudulent billing, report it.

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Thursday, March 2, 2023

Can I live to 120? Do I want to?

The Fountain of Youth is a mythical spring that restores the youth of anyone who drinks from it or bathes in its waters. Tales of such a spring have been recounted for thousands of years, appearing in the writings of Herodotus in the 5th century BC. The legend became particularly prominent in the 16th century, when it became associated with the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, the first Governor of Puerto Rico. Ponce de León was supposedly searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to Florida in 1513.

Modern seekers after the Fountain of Youth include tech billionaires who plan to be cryo-preserved until science finds the secret of eternal youth. Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos have both heavily funded start-ups studying how to slow the aging process. Researchers have studied “blue zones,” where people live the longest, and are healthiest: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California. Not only do these places have large numbers of residents in their 90’s and older, but they remain largely free of most of the diseases associated with aging. They share common attributes of lifestyle and diet noted below.

How long can we hope to live? The best evidence is that the limit to the human lifespan is about 120 years. It is very unlikely that any intervention will dramatically change this number.

Probably more realistic, and in my mind more important, is to delay the myriad ills that we accumulate as we get older: frailty, dementia, disabling arthritis, heart and lung disease. In other words, we should hope to extend our healthy years rather than simply living longer.

How can we accomplish this? Some of this is not new: do not smoke, drink little or no alcohol, maintain a healthy weight, eat a plant-focused diet and exercise regularly. If you do all five of these, you can add 12-14 good years to your life. Being socially engaged and having a sense of purpose is also helpful.

Further study is needed, but marked calorie restriction has been shown to extend the lifespan in many species, including mice, and is now being tested in human volunteers.

The diabetes drug metformin has been touted as having anti-aging properties and is being tested in two on-going trials. It is clearly beneficial in patients with type 2 diabetes; whether that will translate to the rest of us remains to be seen.

Some 20 years ago, reports began to emerge that taking blood from young mice and giving it to old mice seemed to dial back the clock on aging for the elderly rodents. Soon after, entrepreneurs began doing this with humans without any proof that it was effective, but researchers are now testing the idea. Still in the laboratory is injecting one of several new anti-inflammatory drugs. There are some indirect markers that suggest these may work, but as yet no meaningful results have been demonstrated.

So, at this point, practice as many of the lifestyle habits listed above as you can and wait to see what science has in store. Eat well, exercise and get involved in your community.

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Monday, February 6, 2023

We are what we eat

We must eat to live. Dining is also a pleasurable activity, particularly when the food is tasty and we are eating in a companionable setting. WHAT we eat can also have a huge impact on our health and longevity. What diets are best and do dietary “supplements” have an added benefit? Millions of people believe in dietary supplements and this is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Like skirt lengths, diets go in and out of fashion. Among the headline-grabbers over the years have been the Atkins, Scarsdale, ketogenic and Neanderthal diets, none of which have been shown to have any health benefits beyond (usually transient) modest weight loss.

Diets that HAVE been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease and cancer include the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet and a plant-based diet. The common factor in all three is an emphasis on fruits, vegetables and grains. The Mediterranean and DASH diets add fish, some poultry and olive oil. All three dramatically reduce red meat, processed foods and sugar.

Some 80,000 different “supplements” are sold in the United States!

The more they are carefully studied, the less supplements are found to be of value. Fish oil supplements are used by millions of Americans to reduce heart disease despite multiple studies showing no benefit. Vitamin D taken by middle-aged and older healthy adults was found to have no benefit in reducing fractures. Avocados, touted after an observational trial suggested benefit, were found to have no benefit when studied in a controlled trial. One study did find mild memory benefits from a multivitamin-mineral supplement given to older adults.

Are supplements harmful? Most are not, except to your pocketbook, but some can be dangerous. Products sold for weight loss have been linked to many deaths. There is also the caveat that supplements are excluded from scrutiny by the FDA and may or may not contain what the label says.

Bottom line? Try to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Supplement it with nuts and fish. Drink alcohol sparingly if at all. Avoid processed foods and use meat more as a condiment than as the main source of calories in a meal.

Don’t waste your money on lots of supplements. If you wish, take a single multivitamin from a reputable manufacturer.

Oh, and while I am being a kill-joy – get out and move your body! Exercise beats most pills.

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Monday, January 16, 2023

It is not "Mental Health," it's the guns!

In 2020, firearm fatalities displaced motor vehicles accidents as the leading cause of death of U.S. youth (ages 1-19). We long ago dramatically reduced infectious deaths (though vaccine hesitancy threatens to upend this victory), and the “big five” have been auto accidents, firearms, cancer, suffocation and drug overdose – accidental in the youngest and intentional or accidental in teens.

Between 2000 and 2015, firearm deaths remained steady at about 10% of all youth deaths, but this has grown dramatically since, and guns caused 19% of young peoples’ deaths in 2021.

Children, of course, are not the only ones to suffer. Between 1990 and 2021, 1,110,421 Americans died as the result of gunshots: homicidal, suicidal or accidental. The death rate has roughly doubled between 2014 and 2021. Deaths disproportionally affect males: 86% of the 1.1 million deaths were men. When looking at deaths among young people, black boys are much more likely to be killed than non-Hispanic white youth. When we look at suicides, older white males are the victims more than any other group.

Comparison with similar countries emphasizes how much of an outlier we are in the U.S. An American is 30 times more likely to die by firearm than a French citizen. Not surprisingly, in France there are 15-20 privately-owned firearms per 100 population, while in the U.S. there are 120 per 100 people. Multiple studies have shown a tight correlation of numbers of guns in circulation and gun deaths. Within the U.S., states with tougher gun laws have significantly lower firearm mortality.

Certainly, social factors – mental health issues, including depression, poverty, lack of social supports – play a role, but these are not unique to Americans. Every country has its share of sociopaths, depressed people and people angry at the world, but only in America is it so easy for these people to obtain a gun.

If someone tries to kill themselves with an overdose, there is a high likelihood they will be saved and then given help. Very few of such people die of suicide. When the method chosen is a gunshot, the “success” rate is nearly 100%.

A fanatic can kill innocents with a knife (or their bare hands), but mass killings are almost always done with firearms.

Public opinion surveys consistently show that the majority of Americans support tougher gun laws, but our federal legislators seem under the control of the gun lobby. We must convince our legislature that the will of the people is for sensible gun control unless we prefer to remain World Champions in deaths by firearm.

Prescription for Bankruptcy. Buy the book on Amazon