Monday, January 16, 2023

It is not "Mental Health," it's the f...ing 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.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2023

What happened to Damar Hamlin?

The media have been focused on the tragic collapse of Damar Hamlin, a professional football player, during a televised game last Monday. Hopefully it will bring more attention to this huge problem: some 350,000 sudden deaths occur annually in the United States, though it is rare for it to happen in a fit athlete.

Some terminology:

This was not a “heart attack,” the lay term for what health professionals call an acute myocardial infarction. An acute MI typically happens to an older person who has (sometimes unknown!) narrowing of the coronary arteries and is generally felt as chest tightness rather than sudden collapse, though this can occur. It would be very rare for a fit young athlete to have coronary disease. While possible, this is unlikely to have happened to Damar.

Nor was it “heart failure,” a condition in which the heart, because of weakened muscle, cannot adequately pump blood and which usually comes on very gradually and whose cardinal symptoms are tiredness and shortness of breath due to fluid backing up in the lungs.

This was a sudden cardiac arrest, in which the coordinated electrical activity that regulates the heart becomes totally uncoordinated. The ventricles, the main pumping chambers of the heart, no longer contract rhythmically. Instead, they quiver in a totally uncoordinated manner, and there is NO effective pumping of blood. This is called VF: ventricular fibrillation. The first organ to feel the lack of blood is the brain, and hence the sudden collapse.

While the commonest cause of this in the general population is coronary disease, in young people there are commoner causes. Bostonians with a long memory will recall the tragic death of Reggie Lewis, star player with the Boston Celtics, who collapsed and died during a practice in 1993.

One possible cause of VF in a healthy person is a blow to the chest which happens to occur at just the wrong time in the heart’s electrical cycle. This is called Commotio Cordis. It tends to be more common in younger males, possibly because their chests are less muscular and a blow is more easily transmitted to the heart. It has been seen in lacrosse or hockey players getting a stick in the chest and baseball players struck in the chest by a ball. This could have caused Damar's collapse.

Another cause is a cardiomyopathy, an abnormality, often congenital, of the heart muscle. If this is very localized, the athlete may be able to perform at a high level but still be prone to VF.

A specific form of cardiomyopathy, that may have been the cause of Reggie Lewis’ sudden death, is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: the heart is too thick and during exertion there may be severe obstruction of blood flow out of the left ventricle.

The good news is that Damar appears to have been successfully resuscitated and with luck will come out of this tragedy with minimal damage. If so, he will owe his life to the prompt recognition of what had happened, prompt administration of CPR and prompt use of an AED: automatic external defibrillator. This last is a device that allows the general public to give a life-saving electric shock to stop VF without having to wait for medical personnel to arrive on the scene.

Time is critical: the brain suffers irreversible damage if resuscitation is delayed, even if heart function can be restored.

Learn CPR. If you have any influence, see that any place where groups gather has an AED and personnel trained in its use.

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Monday, December 19, 2022

Curing Alzheimer's? Lies, damn lies and statistics

If you flip a coin three times and all three times it shows heads, you would not be shocked. If you flipped it 50 times and it came up heads every time you would ask for a new coin! Statisticians have ways of describing the odds that something happens by chance, and this type of calculation is broadly used in medical trials.

When treatment A gives a different outcome than treatment B, this is generally accompanied by a “P value,” which expresses the likelihood that the difference was purely by chance. The commonly accepted metric that there is a real difference between two arms of a trial is a P value less than 0.05. If P<0.05, this says there is less than a 1 in 20 chance the results were not really different. The lower the P value, the greater the chance the results were not coincidental.

While many researchers worship at the altar of P<0.05, I urge caution. If you include very large numbers of patients, even small differences in outcome can be “statistically significant,” when the difference is meaningless to patient outcomes.

Let’s say you treat 10 patients with an aggressive cancer with A and 10 with B. After 3 years, all the patients given A are dead and 9 of those given B are alive. You don’t need a statistician to choose your treatment.

Instead, let us say you treat 1000 patients with A or B, and the average lifespan for those given A is 2 years and two months, while those given B live an average of 2 years and a month. Because of the large number of patients in the trial, it is reported that A is statistically better than B. Yes, but… Those given A were twice as likely to have to stop treatment for a time due to serious side effects, and spent several weeks more in hospital. Choice depends on individual values.

There is often a serious difference between statistical significance and clinical significance.

This brings me to lecanemab, the newest “wonder drug” for Alzheimer’s disease. Like several others released or in testing, this monoclonal antibody targets amyloid-beta, a protein that accumulates in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s. I must note that experts are still not agreed on whether amyloid causes Alzheimer’s or is simply a marker of the disease.

The trial of lecanemab involved 1795 patients, half getting an infusion of the drug every two weeks and half getting a placebo. The results, touted loudly by the drug’s manufacturer showed a highly statistically significant difference (P<0.001) in favor of the drug.

When you dig deeper, the results are less impressive. Patients in both arms showed steady deterioration in mental acuity, though the decline was less for those on the drug. The absolute difference after 18 months was 0.45 on an 18-point scale, a difference, but a modest one.

A quarter of those given the drug had serious reactions to the infusion, and one in eight had brain swelling. There were two deaths in the active treatment group that remain unexplained. Potentially useful? Maybe. A game-changer? No.

Existing drugs like the cholinesterase-inhibitors (Aricept et al) also slow the decline but do not cure the disease. There is also recent evidence that this class of drugs prolongs life.

In the meantime, do things proven to help that are low cost and safe: do not drink to excess; every drink over 1/day progressively shrinks your gray matter. Eat less processed and more unprocessed food. Be sure your Vitamin D levels are in the normal range; if you do not live in the tropics, taking a daily supplement is advised. Be sure your blood pressure is below 140/80.

My bias is that chasing amyloid is chasing down a blind alley. Time will tell, but be cautious about “statistically proven” treatments of marginal clinical benefit.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Doctor: would you mind saying that again, but in English?

It will come as no surprise to most of you that what doctors think they say and what patients hear are frequently not the same.

Every field has its own jargon, understood by the practitioners but not “outsiders.” Be honest: if you bring your car in for service and the service advisor says you have a bad solenoid, would you understand what this means? [engineers excepted]

A recent study published in JAMA Network Open described what researchers found when they asked a group of adults attending the Minnesota State Fair last year their understanding of common medical expressions used by doctors talking to patients.

Despite the fact that this was an educated group (90% had at least an associate degree and 65% a bachelor’s degree or higher), less than 10% correctly understood the question “Have you been febrile?” and 2% understood the statement “I am concerned the patient has an occult infection.” 11% knew what it meant when they were told “You will need to be NPO at 8 AM.”

A common cause of confusion is the frequent difference between common usage and medical meaning. In most circumstances, “positive” has a good connotation, but in “your lymph nodes were positive,” the opposite is true. Being told “your performance on the test was impressive” would make a student happy, but if your doctor says “your Xray findings were very impressive,” you had better worry.

Even doctors may miscommunicate if an abbreviation is used out of context. If one doctor says to another “the patient has MS,” does this mean they have multiple sclerosis or mitral stenosis? If it is one neurologist talking to another, the meaning will usually be clear, but if the neurologist is talking to a cardiologist, all bets are off.

How should this affect your behavior?

A good medical interaction should end with the doctor asking the patient to tell the doctor what they understood of the conversation, but this rarely happens in today’s frantic environment. You should take the initiative and tell the doctor what you believe they just told you. Do not be surprised if they say “no, that is not what I intended to tell you.” You can then hopefully get a clarification.

Remember: the only dumb question is the one you should have asked but did not. Do not leave a medical visit without being sure you know what you were told and understand all its implications.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Out from the valley of the shadow of death

It has been a while since I last wrote, but there was good reason. On Sept 23, I went in to one of the country's "top ten" hospitals for a “minor procedure” that was supposed to let me out in 3-4 days. My surgeon was very well-respected. On the second post-op day I told the staff there was a problem but was reassured my recovery was normal. Late on the third day my blood pressure disappeared, a fever developed and I was rushed back to the operating room, where 2 quarts of blood were found in the abdomen, indicating a post-operative hemorrhage, and then I was admitted to the ICU in “guarded condition.” [Translation: may not make it.]

After 10 days in the ICU, I went to the surgical floor for a week and then a rehab hospital where I could not get out of bed without help. Two weeks of rehab, followed by home PT for a month and I am well on the way to recovery.

What lessons should you take from this experience?

First, let me remind you of my definition of “minor surgery:” surgery done on someone else. Something can always go wrong, so be very sure there are not non-surgical alternatives before agreeing to an operation.

Second, be your own advocate or have someone close assume that role. I was probably not insistent enough that studies were needed the day before everything went sour.

Third, be sure you have a written health care proxy and have reviewed it with your surrogate. Do you want to be on a ventilator? In what circumstances? This should be made explicit.

Fortunately, my tale has a happy ending, but that was far from guaranteed.

On another note, the newest Alzheimer’s drug has been reported to great fanfare, but I urge caution. As is all-too-often true with new drugs, the benefit was "statistically significant" but I was not impressed with the clinical benefit, and the two deaths in the trial remain to be explained. More when I have a chance to read the full paper.

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Saturday, September 10, 2022

The new Covid boosters

As you must be aware, the U.S. FDA recently approved (on August 31) a new booster shot against Covid-19, The bivalent vaccines, which are updated boosters, contain two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of the virus: one of the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 and the other, one that is common between the BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the most recent strains of the virus that are circulating.

Should you get one? Some facts:

The first is that the mRNA vaccines have been remarkably effective. While they do not necessarily mean you will not catch the virus, they dramatically reduce your chances of getting very sick or dying from it. Hospitalization rates were over 10 times commoner in unvaccinated people. Vaccinated people who are sick enough to require hospital care are overwhelmingly the elderly and those with multiple other medical illnesses.

While any vaccination helps, the best protection is offered by having the original two shots plus 1 or 2 boosters.

If you have not had your 3rd or 4th shot, the new vaccines will now be the only ones offered.

While the new vaccines have been shown in mice to produce good antibodies against the current Omicron strains, their effectiveness at preventing disease in humans has not been fully studied.

My take: if you have been fully vaccinated – 4 shots – I would be in no rush and would wait for more human studies to be reported. If you have not yet had your boosters, get one!

Also: everything we know tells us that this winter is likely to be a bad flu season. There was severe influenza in the southern hemisphere during their just-finishing winter and that is often an early warning about what we will experience.

The much-discussed mask wearing of last winter had a spin-off benefit: much less respiratory illness in general, including influenza. As people have begun to stop wearing masks, this extra layer of protection will be gone.

Get your flu vaccine before the end of October.

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Friday, July 29, 2022

Foods as medicine

As you know from reading earlier posts, the effects of different foods on health can be difficult to interpret. Rarely do studies get to compare people who are exactly alike except for their consumption of the substance of interest. Avocados may be good for your heart, or it may simply be that people who eat avocados eat a healthier diet overall. Hence the often contradictory headlines - coffee is good for you/coffee is bad for you – that populate the press.

I have thus been very interested to find several recent studies with robust data behind the health claims.

First bananas. A British group treated almost 1000 people with a hereditary tendency to colon cancer (Lynch syndrome) with a “resistant starch” powder made from bananas or a placebo for 4 years and followed them for at least 10 years. The supplement group had a similar rate of colon cancer but dramatically fewer cancers of the pancreas and upper GI organs: 5 vs. 21.

Another study looked at the value of cocoa-based chocolate compared to white chocolate and placebo in elderly patients with advanced cancer in palliative care. After 4 weeks, the group given dark chocolate had better calorie and protein intake and overall better nutritional status than either the white chocolate or no chocolate groups. They also had improved functional status.

Finally: prunes. Prunes are known to contain large amounts of antioxidant compounds. Researchers at Penn State gave post-menopausal women 55 to 75 either 6 prunes/day, 12 prunes/day or no prunes for 12 months. All 3 groups were given daily calcium and Vitamin D. Not surprisingly, the group assigned to 12 prunes/day had a high (41%) drop-out rate, presumably because of excess bowel movements, but only 10% of the 6-prune group and 15% of the no-prunes group left the study.

After a year, the groups taking prunes had much lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood. More important to the women in the study, the placebo group had a significant fall in their bone mineral density while the group who took 6 prunes/day had no drop.

So, good data showing that bananas, dark chocolate and prunes have proven health benefits. Enjoy!

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