Monday, March 28, 2022

Reigning: Cats and Dogs

Pet owners know that dogs and cats are like family members and get joy (as well as the occasional pain) from their animal companions. It is well known that pet ownership went up during the Covid pandemic: the “pandemic puppy” phenomenon.

What you may not know is the health benefits that accrue to pet owners, particularly dog owners.

A recent study from the University of Michigan followed 1369 adults 65 and older, who had normal cognitive skills at entry, over six years. They found that there was less cognitive decline among pet owners. The effect was most pronounced among those who had owned a pet for five years or more. Using a 27-point test score, pet owners had an average score that was 1.2 points higher at 6 years than non-pet owners. For comparison, this is a great difference than bestowed by the controversial drug aduhelm!

Another study looked at 11,233 Japanese adults 65 and older who had no pet or who owned a cat or a dog and followed them over 3.5 years. The dog owners had half the rate of disability develop over the study period compared to non-pet owners. There was no major benefit seen in cat owners. The researchers suggested that the benefit was due to the increased exercise forced on dog owners: dogs must be walked regularly, unlike cats.

Another interesting study was done in the emergency department of a large teaching hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada. Patients coming to the emergency department with painful conditions were randomly assigned to either receive a 10-minute visit from a “therapy dog” or not. Those who had the canine visits had significantly lower pain scores after the visit, as well as less anxiety and depression.

So, when your pet chews the furniture, cut them some slack: they are doing you a lot of good!

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Thursday, March 10, 2022

Long Covid - it is not "all in your head."

If you follow the news, you are aware that some people who recover from a COVID-19 infection have persistent complaints for months after their apparent recovery. These can occur in almost every body system, but the most prominent tend to be fatigue, shortness of breath and “brain fog:” difficulty concentrating.

While an enormous amount has been written about post-acute Covid syndrome, popularly known as Long Covid, the medical profession still has more questions than answers. There are many challenges to understanding what is happening. For those who were sick enough to be hospitalized, the medium and long-term symptoms seen in Covid survivors are not that different than those seen in many patients who spent time in the ICU for any reason. In these people, “long Covid” may be a form of “post-ICU syndrome,” which has only recently been studied.

Another problem is that to date, we have no good measures to evaluate the long haulers’ complaints. There are no blood tests or X-rays that we can point and say that these explain the symptoms or that they “prove” you are truly sick. Just as with the chronic fatigue syndrome, when all the usual blood makers are normal, many doctors dismiss the complaints as being imagined.

Several recent studies have shed some light. Comparing people who have recovered from Covid with those who have recovered from other illnesses, there are more complaints of shortness of breath and of a variety of neurologic and psychologic symptoms. A large study of Chinese Covid survivors found them to have more decline in mental acuity, particularly among those who had severe acute Covid. Strengthening the idea that this was not psychological, a small study in Britain found both cognitive decline and shrinkage of the brain on MRI among people who had recovered from mostly mild cases of Covid but had persisting symptoms.

A very large study done by the VA showed that compared to people hospitalized for other reasons, Covid survivors had more blood clots, atrial fibrillation, strokes and heart failure. Most recently, a study of 10 patients who complained of shortness of breath but whose routine tests were all normal found, with more sophisticated tests, that their tissues did not take up oxygen normally, thus explaining why they had trouble exercising.

On the bright side, a British study found that only 9.5% of vaccinated individuals who had break though infection had Long Covid symptoms compared to 14.6% of unvaccinated individuals. Since vaccination also clearly reduces your chances of any symptomatic Covid, the value is even greater.

Finally, a very preliminary study in the U.S. found that enhanced external counterpulsation, a harmless but tedious treatment shown to improve circulation to the heart and brain, improved symptoms in most of the 50 patients studied.

Bottom line: 1. Get vaccinated. 2. If you have symptoms months after recovery from Covid, don’t let your doctor tell you “it is all in your head,” but ask to be referred to one of the specialized centers bringing a multi-disciplinary approach to treating Long Covid.

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