Medical Compass

Being active is the magic pill for a healthy life. Stock photo
Inactivity may increase mortality and disease risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

With the advent of summer weather, with its heat and humidity, who wants to think about exercise? Instead, it’s tempting to lounge by the pool or even inside with air conditioning.

First, let me delineate between exercise and inactivity; they are not complete opposites. When we consider exercise, studies tend to focus on moderate to intense activity. However, light activity and being sedentary, or inactive, tend to get clumped together. But there are differences between light activity and inactivity.

Light activity may involve cooking, writing and strolling (1). Inactivity involves sitting, as in watching TV or in front of a computer screen. Inactivity utilizes between 1 and 1.5 metabolic equivalent units — better known as METS — a way of measuring energy. Light activity, however, requires greater than 1.5 METS. Thus, in order to avoid inactivity, we don’t have to exercise in the dreaded heat. We need to increase our movement.

What are the potential costs of inactivity? According to the World Health Organization, over 3 million people die annually from inactivity. This ranks inactivity in the top five of potential underlying mortality causes (2).

How much time do we spend inactive? In an observational study of over 7,000 women with a mean age of 71 years old, 9.7 waking hours were spent inactive or sedentary. These women wore an accelerometer to measure movements. Interestingly, as body mass index and age increased, the amount of time spent sedentary also increased (3).

Inactivity may increase the risk of mortality and plays a role in increasing risks for diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and fibromyalgia. It can also increase the risk of disability in older adults.

Surprisingly, inactivity may be worse for us than smoking and obesity. For example, there can be a doubling of the risk for diabetes in those who sit for long periods of time, compared to those who sit the least (4).

Let’s look at the evidence.

Does exercise overcome inactivity?

We tend to think that exercise trumps all; if you exercise, you can eat what you want and, by definition, you’re not sedentary. Right? Not exactly. Diet is important, and you can still be sedentary, even if you exercise. In a meta-analysis — a group of 47 studies — results show that there is an increased risk of all-cause mortality with inactivity, even in those who exercised (5). In other words, even if you exercise, you can’t sit for the rest of the day. The risk for all-cause mortality was 24 percent overall.

However, those who exercised saw a blunted effect with all-cause mortality, making it significantly lower than those who were inactive and did very little exercise: 16 percent versus 46 percent increased risk of all-cause mortality. So, it isn’t that exercise is not important, it just may not be enough to reduce the risk of all-cause mortality if you are inactive for a significant part of the rest of the day.

Worse than obesity?

Obesity is a massive problem in this country; it has been declared a disease, itself, and it also contributes to other chronic diseases. But would you believe that inactivity has more of an impact than even obesity? In an observational study, using data from the EPIC trial, inactivity might be responsible for two times as many premature deaths as obesity (6). This was a study involving 330,000 men and women.

Interestingly, the researchers created an index that combined occupational activity with recreational activity. They found that the greatest reduction in premature deaths (in the range of 16 to 30 percent) was between two groups, the normal weight and moderately inactive group versus the normal weight and completely inactive group. The latter was defined as those having a desk job with no additional physical activity. To go from the completely inactive to moderately inactive, all it took, according to the study, was 20 minutes of brisk walking on a daily basis.

So what have we learned about inactivity? If you are inactive, increasing your activity to be moderately inactive by briskly walking for 20 minutes a day may reduce your risk of premature death significantly. Even if you exercise the recommended 150 minutes a week, but are inactive the rest of the day, you may still be at risk for cardiovascular disease. You can potentially further reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by increasing your activity with small additions throughout the day.

The underlying message is that we need to consciously move throughout the day, whether at work with a walk during lunch or at home with recreational activity. Those with desk jobs need to be most attuned to opportunities to increase activity. Simply setting a timer and standing or walking every 30 to 45 minutes may increase your activity levels and possibly reduce your risk.

References:

(1) Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2008;36(4):173-178. (2) WHO report: http://bit.ly/1z7TBAF. (3) JAMA. 2013;310(23):2562-2563. (4) Diabetologia 2012; 55:2895-2905. (5) Ann Intern Med. 2015;162:123-132, 146-147. (6) Am J Clin Nutr. online Jan. 24, 2015.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.   

Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland is not able to produce enough thyroid hormone. Stock photo
Treatment doesn’t always result in weight loss
Dr. David Dunaief

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Many refer to hypothyroidism as a potential cause for weight gain and low energy. But do we really know what it is and why it is important?

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ responsible for maintaining our metabolism. It sits at the base of the neck, just below the laryngeal prominence, or Adam’s apple. The prefix “hypo,” derived from Greek, means “under” (1). Therefore, hypothyroidism indicates an underactive thyroid and results in slowing of the metabolism.

Blood tests determine if a person has hypothyroidism. Items that are tested include thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which is usually increased, thyroxine (free T4) and triiodothyronine (free T3 or T3 uptake). Both of these last two may be suppressed (2).

There are two types of primary hypothyroidism: subclinical and overt. In the overt (more obvious) type, classic symptoms include weight gain, fatigue, thinning hair, cold intolerance, dry skin and depression, as well as the changes in all three thyroid hormones on blood tests mentioned above. In the subclinical, there may be less obvious or vague symptoms and only changes in the TSH. The subclinical can progress to the overt stage rapidly in some cases (3). Subclinical is substantially more common than overt; its prevalence may be as high as 10 percent of the U.S. population (4).

Potential causes or risk factors for hypothyroidism are medications, including lithium; autoimmune diseases, whether personal or in the family history; pregnancy, though it tends to be transient; and treatments for hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), including surgery and radiation.

The most common type of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, where antibodies attack thyroid gland tissues (5). Several blood tests are useful to determine if a patient has Hashimoto’s: thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibodies and antithyroglobulin antibodies.

Myths versus realities

I would like to separate the myths from the realities with hypothyroidism. Does treating hypothyroidism help with weight loss? Not necessarily. Is soy potentially bad for the thyroid? Yes. Does coffee affect thyroid medication? Maybe. Let’s look at the evidence.

Medications

Levothyroxine and Armour Thyroid are two main medications for hypothyroidism. The difference is that Armour Thyroid converts T4 into T3, while levothyroxine does not. Therefore, one medication may be more appropriate than the other, depending on the circumstance. T3 can also be given with levothyroxine, which is similar to using Armour Thyroid.

What about supplements?

A study tested 10 different thyroid support supplements; the results were downright disappointing, if not a bit scary (6). Of the supplements tested, 90 percent contained actual medication, some to levels higher than what are found in prescription medications. These supplements could cause toxic effects on the thyroid, called thyrotoxicosis. Supplements are not FDA-regulated; therefore, they are not held to the same standards as medications. There is a narrow therapeutic window when it comes to the appropriate medication dosage for treating hypothyroidism, and it is sensitive. Therefore, if you are going to consider using supplements, check with your doctor and tread very lightly.

Soy impact

In a randomized controlled trial, the treatment group that received higher amounts of soy supplementation had a threefold greater risk of conversion from subclinical hypothyroidism to overt hypothyroidism than those who received considerably less supplementation (7). According to this small, yet well-designed, study, soy has a negative impact on the thyroid. Therefore, those with hypothyroidism may want to minimize or avoid soy.

The reason that soy may have this negative impact was illustrated in a study involving rat thyrocytes (thyroid cells) (8). Researchers found that soy isoflavones, especially genistein, which are usually beneficial, may contribute to autoimmune thyroid disease, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. They also found that soy may inhibit the absorption of iodide in the thyroid.

Weight loss

Wouldn’t it be nice if the silver lining of hypothyroidism is that, with medication to treat the disease, we were guaranteed to lose weight? In a retrospective study, results showed that only about half of those treated with medication for hypothyroidism lost weight (9). This was a small study, and we need a large randomized controlled trial to test it further.

WARNING: The FDA has a black box warning on thyroid medications — they should never be used as weight loss drugs (10). They could put a patient in a hyperthyroid state or worse, having potentially catastrophic results.

Coffee

Taking levothyroxine and coffee together may decrease the absorption of levothyroxine significantly, according to one study (11). It did not seem to matter whether they were taken together or an hour apart. This was a very small study involving only eight patients. Still, I recommend avoiding coffee for several hours after taking the medication.

There are two take-home points, if you have hypothyroid issues: Try to avoid soy products, and don’t think supplements that claim to be thyroid support and good for you are harmless because they are over the counter and “natural.” In my clinical experience, an anti-inflammatory, vegetable-rich diet helps improve quality of life issues, especially fatigue and weight gain, for those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

References:

(1) dictionary.com. (2) nlm.nih.gov. (3) Endocr Pract. 2005;11:115-119. (4) Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:526-534. (5) mayoclinic.org. (6) Thyroid. 2013;23:1233-1237. (7) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 May;96:1442-1449. (8) Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2013;238:623-630. (9) American Thyroid Association. 2013;Abstract 185. (10) FDA.gov. (11) Thyroid. 2008;18:293-301.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.     

٭We invite you to check out our weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.٭

KEEP MOVING A regular program of walking can reduce stiffness and inflammation. Stock photo
A 10-pound weight loss reduces pain by 50 percent

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Over 27 million people in the U.S. suffer from osteoarthritis (OA) (1). Osteoarthritis is insidious, developing over a long period of time. By nature, it is chronic. It is also a top cause of disability (2). What can we do about it?

It turns out that OA is not just caused by friction or age-related mechanical breakdown, but rather by a multitude of factors. These include friction, but also local inflammation, genes and metabolic processes at the cellular level (3). This means that we may be able to prevent and treat it better than we thought by using exercise, diet, medication, injections and possibly even supplements. Let’s look at some of the research.

How can exercise be beneficial?

In an older study, results showed that even a small 10-pound weight loss could result in an impressive 50 percent reduction of symptomatic knee OA over a 10-year period (4).

Most of us either tolerate or actually enjoy walking. We have heard that walking can exacerbate OA symptoms; the pounding can be harsh on our joints, especially our knees. Well, maybe not. Walking actually may have benefits.

In the Multicenter Osteoarthritis Study (MOST), results showed that walking may indeed be useful to prevent functional decline (5). The patients in this study were a mean age of 67 and were obese, with a mean body mass index (BMI) of 31 kg/m2, and either had or were at risk for knee arthritis. In fact, the most interesting part of this study was that the researchers quantified the amount of walking needed to see a positive effect.

The least amount of walking to see a benefit was between 3,250 and 3,750 steps per day, measured by an ankle pedometer. The best results were seen in those walking more than 6,000 steps per day, a relatively modest amount. This was random, unstructured exercise. In addition, for every 1,000 extra steps per day, there was a 16 to 18 percent reduced risk of functional decline two years later.

Acetaminophen may not live up to its popularity

Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) is a popular initial go-to drug for osteoarthritis treatment, but what does research tell us about its effectiveness?

Although acetaminophen doesn’t have anti-inflammatory properties, it does have analgesic properties. However, in a meta-analysis (involving 137 studies), acetaminophen did not reduce pain for OA patients (7).

In this study, all other oral treatments were significantly better than acetaminophen, including diclofenac, naproxen and ibuprofen, as well as intra-articular (in the joint) injectables, such as hyaluronic acid and corticosteroids. The exception was an oral Cox-2 inhibitor, celecoxib, which was only marginally better.

What about NSAIDs?

NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) help to reduce inflammation, by definition. However, they have side effects that may include gastrointestinal bleed, and they have a black box warning for heart attacks. Risk tends to escalate with a rise in dose. Interestingly, a newer formulation of diclofenac (Zorvolex) uses submicron particles, which are roughly 20 times smaller than the older version. This allows it to dissolve faster, so it requires a lower dosage.

The approved dosage for OA treatment is 35 mg, three times a day. In a 602-patient, one-year duration, open-label randomized controlled trial (RCT), the newer formulation of diclofenac demonstrated improvement in pain, functionality and quality of life (7). The adverse effects, or side effects, were similar to the placebo. The only caveat is that there was a high dropout rate in the treatment group; only 40 percent completed the trial when they were dosed three times daily.

Don’t forget about glucosamine and chondroitin

Study results for this supplement combination or its individual components for the treatment of OA have been mixed. In a double-blind RCT, the combination supplement improved joint space, narrowing and reducing the pain of knee OA over two years. However, pain was reduced no more than was seen in the placebo group (8).

In a Cochrane meta-analysis review study of 43 RCTs, results showed that chondroitin, with or without glucosamine, reduced the symptom of pain modestly compared to placebo in short-term studies (9). Yet, the researchers stipulate that most of the studies were of low quality.

So, think twice before reaching for the Tylenol. If you are having symptomatic OA pain, NSAIDs such as diclofenac may be a better choice, especially with SoluMatrix fine-particle technology that uses a lower dose, hopefully meaning fewer side effects.

Even though results are mixed, there is no significant downside to giving glucosamine-chondroitin supplements a chance. However, if it does not work after 12 weeks, it is unlikely to have a significant effect. Also, try increasing your walking step count gradually; this could reduce your risk of functional decline. And above all else, if you need to lose weight and do, you will reduce your risk of OA significantly.

References:

(1) Arthritis Rheum. 2008;58:26-35. (2) Popul Health Metr. 2006;4:11. (3) Lancet. 1997;350(9076):503. (4) Ann Intern Med.1992;116:535-539. (5) Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2014;66(9):1328-1336. (6) Ann Intern Med. 2015;162:46-54. (7) ACR 2014 Annual Meeting: Abstract 249. (8) Ann Rheum Dis. Online Jan 6, 2014. (9) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Jan 28;1:CD005614.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.   

In a recent study, those who watched at least six hours of TV per day during their lifetime had a decrease in longevity of 4.8 years. Stock photo
Television viewing can lower your physical and mental health

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

According to the Nielsen Company, Americans spend an average of 10½ hours per day watching programming of some kind, whether on a television, computer or a portable device (1). For our purposes, we’ll call this TV, because most is consumed while sitting, although the average watching modality has shifted considerably.

What impact does all this watching have on our lives? It may be hazardous to your health. I know this seems obvious, but bear with me. The extent of the effect is surprising. According to 2013 Netflix research, binge-watching, or watching more than two or more episodes of a single program in a row, is perceived as providing a refuge from our busy lives. This also has an addictive effect, prompting dopamine surges as we watch. Interestingly, it also can lead to postbinge depression when a show ends and to isolation and lower social interaction while viewing (2).

TV’s detrimental effect extends beyond the psychological, potentially increasing the risk of heart attacks, diabetes, depression, obesity and even decreasing or stunting longevity. My mother was right when she discouraged us from watching television, but I don’t think even she knew the extent of its impact.

Cardiovascular events including heart attacks 

There was a very interesting observational study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed watching sporting events increases the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events, such as arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and unstable angina (severe chest pain ultimately due to lack of oxygen). The researchers followed Germans who watched the FIFA (soccer) World Cup playoffs in 1996. 

How much did watching increase the risk of cardiovascular events? This depended on what round of the playoffs and how close a game it was. The later the round and the closer the game, the greater the risk of cardiovascular events. Knockout games, which were single elimination, seemed to have the greatest impact on cardiovascular risk. When Germany was knocked out in the semifinals, the finals between France and Italy did not have any cardiovascular effect. 

Overall, men experienced a greater than threefold increase in risk, while women experienced an increased risk that was slightly below twofold. According to the authors, it was not the outcome of the game that mattered most, but the intensity. The study population involved 4,279 German residents in and around the Munich area (3). 

Another study found that, compared to fewer than two hours a day, those who watched four or more hours experienced an increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality of 80 percent. I know this sounds like a lot of TV, but remember that the average daily American viewing time is significantly over this. This study, called the Australian Diabetes, Obesity, and Lifestyle study (AusDiab) was observational, looking at 8,800 adults over a six-year period (4). 

Impact on life expectancy 

The adage that life tends to pass you by when you watch TV has a literal component. An observational study found that TV may reduce the life expectancy of viewers. In the study, those who watched at least six hours per day during their lifetime had a decrease in longevity of 4.8 years. However, this is not the whole story. What is even more telling is that after the age of 25, for every hour of TV, one might expect to potentially lose 21.8 minutes of life expectancy (5). According to the authors, these results rival those for obesity and sedentary lifestyles.

Diabetes and obesity risk

In the Nurses’ Health Study, for every two hours of television viewing on a daily basis there were increased risks of type 2 diabetes and obesity of 23 and 14 percent, respectively (6). The results show that sitting at work for two hours at a time increased the risk of diabetes and obesity by only 5 and 7 percent, respectively, much less of an effect than TV watching. The authors surmise that we can reduce the incidence of diabetes and obesity by 43 and 30 percent, respectively, by cutting our TV time by 10 hours a week.

Modestly reducing the amount of television is a simple lifestyle modification that can have a tremendous impact on longevity, quality of life and prevention of the top chronic disease. So, step away from your television, tablet or computer and get out in the world.

References:

(1) Nielsen.com (2) nbcnews.com/better/health/what-happens-your-brain-when-you-binge-watch-tv-series-ncna816991. (3) N Engl J Med 2008; 358:475-483. (4) Circulation. 2010 Jan 26;121(3):384-391. (5) Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsm.2011.085662. (6) JAMA. 2003 Apr 9;289(14):1785-1791.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician. 

Stock photo
Medication guidelines have changed with recent studies

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

May is National Stroke Awareness Month, with a focus on raising awareness of stroke risk factors and prevention. This is valuable, since stroke remains one of the top five causes of mortality and morbidity in the United States (1). As a result, we have a wealth of studies that inform us on the roles of medications and lifestyle in managing risk. Of particular importance are changes in medication guidelines that balance the risks and benefits of different stroke prevention regimens.

Medications with beneficial effects

Two medications have shown positive impacts on reducing stroke risk: statins and valsartan. Statins are used to lower cholesterol and inflammation, and valsartan is used to treat high blood pressure. Statins do have side effects, such as increased risks of diabetes, cognitive impairment and myopathy (muscle pain). However, used in the right setting, statins are very effective. In one study, there was reduced mortality from stroke in patients who were on statins at the time of the event (2). Patients who were on a statin to treat high cholesterol had an almost sixfold reduction in mortality, compared to those with high cholesterol who were not on therapy.

There was also significant mortality reduction in those on a statin without high cholesterol, but with diabetes or heart disease. The authors surmise that this result might be from an anti-inflammatory effect of the statins. Of course, if you have side effects, you should contact your physician immediately.

Valsartan is an angiotensin II receptor blocker that works on the kidney to reduce blood pressure. However, in the post-hoc analysis (looking back at a completed trial) of the Kyoto Heart Study data, valsartan used as an add-on to other blood pressure medications showed a significant reduction, 41 percent, in the risk of stroke and other cardiovascular events for patients who have coronary artery disease (3).

It is important to recognize that high blood pressure and high cholesterol are two of the most significant risk factors for stroke. Fortunately, statins can reduce cholesterol, and valsartan may be a valuable add-on to prevent stroke in those patients with coronary artery disease.

Medication combination: negative impact

There are two anti-platelet medications that are sometimes given together in the hopes of reducing stroke recurrence — aspirin and Plavix (clopidogrel). The assumption is that these medications together will work better than either alone. However, in a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of studies, this combination not only didn’t demonstrate efficacy improvement but significantly increased the risk of major bleed and death (4, 5).

Major bleeding risk was 2.1 percent with the combination versus 1.1 percent with aspirin alone, an almost twofold increase. In addition, there was a 50 percent increased risk of all-cause death with the combination, compared to aspirin alone. Patients were given 325 mg of aspirin and either a placebo or 75 mg of Plavix. The study was halted due to these deleterious effects. The American Heart Association recommends monotherapy for the prevention of recurrent stroke. If you are on this combination of drugs, please consult your physician.

Aspirin: low dose vs. high dose

Greater hemorrhagic (bleed) risk is also a concern with daily aspirin regimens greater than 81 mg, which is the equivalent of a single baby aspirin. Aspirin’s effects are cumulative; therefore, a lower dose is better over the long term. Even 100 mg taken every other day was shown to be effective in trials. There are about 50 million patients who take aspirin chronically in the United States. If these patients all took 325 mg of aspirin per day, an adult dose, it would result in 900,000 major bleeding events per year (6). Do not take an aspirin regimen – even a low-dose aspirin regimen – for stroke prevention without consulting your physician.

Lifestyle modifications

A prospective study of 20,000 participants showed that consuming white fleshy fruits — apples, pears, bananas, etc. — and vegetables — cauliflower, mushrooms, etc. — decreased ischemic stroke risk by 52 percent (7). Additionally, the Nurses’ Health Study showed that foods with flavanones, found mainly in citrus fruits, decreased the risk of ischemic stroke by 19 percent (8). 

The authors suggest that the reasons for the reduction may have to do with the ability of flavanones to reduce inflammation and/or improve blood vessel function. I mention both of these trials together because of the importance of fruits in prevention of ischemic (clot-based) stroke.

Fiber’s important role

Fiber also plays a key role in reducing the risk of a hemorrhagic stroke. In a study involving over 78,000 women, those who consumed the most fiber had a total stroke risk reduction of 34 percent and a 49 percent risk reduction in hemorrhagic stroke. The type of fiber used in this study was cereal fiber, or fiber from whole grains.

Refined grains, however, increased the risk of hemorrhagic stroke twofold (9). When eating grains, it is important to have whole grains. Read labels carefully, since some products that claim to have whole grains contain unbleached or bleached wheat flour, which is refined.

Fortunately, there are many options to help reduce the risk or the recurrence of a stroke. Ideally, the best option would involve lifestyle modifications. Some patients may need to take statins, even with lifestyle modifications. However, statins’ side effect profile is dose-related. Therefore, if you need to take a statin, lifestyle changes may help lower your dose and avoid harsh side effects. Once you have had a stroke, it is likely that you will remain on at least one medication — typically low-dose aspirin — since the risk of a second stroke is high.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) AAN conference: April 2012. (3) Am J Cardiol 2012; 109(9):1308-1314. (4) ISC 2012; Abstract LB 9-4504. (5) www.clinicaltrials.gov NCT00059306. (6) JAMA 2007;297:2018-2024. (7) Stroke. 2011; 42: 3190-3195. (8) J. Nutr. 2011;141(8):1552-1558. (9) Am J Epidemiol. 2005 Jan 15;161(2):161-169.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.  

Stock photo
Improving RHR can improve your healthy life span 

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

What does our heart rate, or pulse, tell us beyond the obvious fact that we are alive?

Our “normal” resting heart rate is between 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). A resting heart rate (RHR) above 100 bpm is referred to as tachycardia, or a racing heartbeat, and it has potentially serious consequences. 

However, even normal RHRs can be stratified to identify risks for diseases. What I mean is that, even in the normal range, as your resting heart rate increases, so do your potential risks. Actually, resting heart rate below approximately 70 bpm may be ideal.

Resting heart rate’s importance should not be underestimated. In fact, it may play a role in longevity, heart disease — including heart failure, arrhythmias, heart attacks and sudden cardiac death — and even chronic kidney disease. The good news is that RHR is modifiable. Methods that may reduce your rate include medications for high blood pressure, such as beta blockers, and lifestyle modifications, including meditation, dietary changes and exercise.

Impact on life span

Reducing RHR may be an important component in living a longer, healthier lifestyle. In the Copenhagen Male Study, a prospective study that followed 2,798 participants for 16 years, results showed that those with higher resting heart rates had a greater risk of death (1). There was a linear relationship between the risk of death and increasing RHR. Those who had a resting heart rate above 90 bpm were at a threefold greater risk of death, compared to those who had a RHR at or below 50 bpm. RHR was inversely related to the amount of physical activity.

Thus, the authors concluded that a “healthy” person with higher RHR may still have a shorter life span, with all other factors being equal, such as physical activity and blood pressure.

In contrast with the previous study, the following one took a “glass is half-full” approach to longevity. The Jerusalem Longitudinal Cohort Study showed that elderly women and men who had a lower RHR lived the longest (2). There were more than 2,000 study participants, ranging from 70 to 90 years old.

Your resting heart rate can help identify
potential health problems as well as gauge your current heart health.
Stock photo

Heart disease mortality

In the Nord-Trondelag Health Study, a prospective observational study, those who had a higher RHR at the end of the study than they did at the beginning of the study 10 years prior were more likely to die from heart disease (3). In other words, as the RHR increased from less than 70 bpm to over 85 bpm, there was a 90 percent greater risk of heart disease, compared to those who maintained a RHR of less than 70 throughout the two measurements. This study involved 30,000 participants who were healthy volunteers at least 20 years old.

Heart attacks

In the Women’s Health Initiative, results showed a 26 percent decrease in the risk of cardiovascular events in those postmenopausal women who had a RHR below 62 bpm, compared to those who had a RHR above 76 bpm (4). Interestingly, these results were even more substantial in the subgroup of women who were newly postmenopausal, ranging in age from 50 to 64.

Effect on kidney function

I have written many times about chronic kidney disease. An interesting follow-up is resting heart rate and its impact on kidney function. In the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, results showed that the most severe form of chronic kidney disease, end-stage renal disease, was 98 percent more likely to occur in those with the highest RHR, compared to those with the lowest (5). There were approximately 13,000 participants in the study, with a 16-year follow-up. The authors hypothesized that this negative effect on the kidney may be due to a loss of homeostasis in the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system, resulting in blood vessel dysfunction, such as increased inflammation and vasoconstriction (narrowing).

Can RHR be too low?

Is there a resting heart rate that is too low? Well, it depends on the context. If you are a marathoner or an athlete, then a RHR in the 40s may not be abnormal. For a healthy, physically active individual, it is not uncommon to have a resting heart rate in the 50s. However, if you are on medications that reduce your RHR and/or have a chronic disease, such as heart failure, it is probably not advisable to go much below 60 bpm. Always ask your doctor about the appropriate resting heart rate for your particular situation.

Thus, resting heart rate is an easy and inexpensive biomarker to potentially determine risk stratification for disease and to increase longevity, even for those in the normal range. By monitoring and modifying RHR, we can use it as a tool for primary disease prevention. 

References:

(1) Heart Journal 2013 Jun;99(12):882-887. (2) J Am Geriatr Soc. 2013;61(1):40-45. (3) JAMA 2011; 306:2579-2587. (4) BMJ. 2009 Feb 3;338:b219. (5) J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010 Sept;21(9):1560-1570.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician. 

٭We invite you to check out our weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on                                        Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.٭

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Obesity is continuously covered in the media. And rightly so. Its economic cost to the U.S. is massive: in 2016, the cost of chronic diseases for which being obese or overweight is a risk factor totaled over $480 billion in direct health care costs and $1.24 trillion in lost economic productivity (1). These startling numbers don’t even consider the human cost of these diseases.

Obesity and its effect on life span

It’s well-known that obesity could have an impact on development of other chronic diseases and decrease quality of life, but to what extent? A 2013 study indicated that almost as many as one in five deaths in the U.S. is associated with obesity (2).

In a computer modeling study, results showed that those who are obese may lose up to eight years, almost a decade, of their life span (3). But that is only part of the picture. The other, more compelling result is that patients who are very obese, defined as a BMI >35 kg/m², could lose almost two decades of healthy living. According to the researchers, this means you may have diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, even those patients who were obese and those who were overweight could have reductions in life span, up to six years and three years, respectively.

This study evaluated 3,992 adults between the ages of 20 and 79. The data was taken from an NHANES database from 2003 to 2010, which looked at participants who went on to develop diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Though this is not a clinical trial, and there is a need for more study, the results are eye-opening, with the youngest and very obese negatively impacted the most.

Cancer impact

Since it is very difficult to “cure” cancer, it is important to reduce modifiable risk factors. Obesity may be one of these contributing factors, although it is hotly debatable how much of an impact obesity has on cancer development.  The American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO), in a position paper, supported the idea that it is important to treat obesity in the fight against cancer (4). The authors indicate obesity may make the prognosis worse, may hinder the delivery of therapies to treat cancer, and may increase the risk of malignancy.

Also, possibly reinforcing ASCO’s stance, a study suggested that upward of a half-million cases of cancer worldwide were related to being overweight or obese, with the overwhelming concentration in North America and Europe (5).

Possible solutions

A potential counterweight to both the reductions in life quality and life expectancy may be a Mediterranean-type diet. In a published analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study, results show that the Mediterranean diet helped slow shortening of the telomeres (6). Repeat sequences of DNA found at the end of chromosomes, telomeres, shorten with age; the shorter the telomere, the shorter life expectancy.

Thus, the Mediterranean-type diet may decrease occurrence of chronic diseases, increase life span and decrease premature mortality — countering the effects of obesity. In fact, it may help treat obesity, though this was not mentioned in the study. Interestingly, the greater the adherence to the diet, rated on a scale of 0 to 9, the better the effect. Those who had an increase in adherence by three points saw a corresponding decrease in telomere aging by 4.5 years. There were 4,676 middle-aged women involved in this analysis. The researchers believe that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects could be responsible for the diet’s effects.

According to an accompanying editorial, no individual component of the diet was identified as having beneficial effects by itself, so it may be the diet as a whole that is important (7).

Short-term solutions

There are easy-to-use distraction tactics that involve physical and mental techniques to reduce food cravings. These include tapping your foot on the floor, staring at a blank wall and alternating tapping your index finger against your forehead and your ear (8). The forehead and ear tapping technique was most effective, although probably most embarrassing in public. Among mental techniques, seeing pictures of foods that were unhealthy and focusing on their long-term detriments to health had the most impact (9). These short-term distractors were done for 30 seconds at a time. The results showed that they decreased food cravings in obese patients.

Exercise impact

I have written that exercise does not lead to fat percentage loss in adults. The results are different for adolescents, though. In a randomized controlled trial, results show that those in a resistance training group and those in a combined resistance and aerobic training group had significantly greater percentages of fat loss compared to a control group (10).

Interestingly, the aerobic group alone did not show a significant change in fat percent versus the control. There were 304 study participants, ages 14 to 18, followed for a six-month duration, and results were measured with MRI. The reason that resistance training was effective may have to do with an increase in muscle mass rather than a decrease in actual fat.

Obesity can have devastating effects, from potentially inducing cancer or worsening it, to shortening life expectancy and substantially decreasing quality of life. Fortunately, there may be ways to help treat obesity with specific lifestyle modifications. The Mediterranean diet as a whole may be an effective step toward decreasing the burden of obesity and reducing its complications. Kids, teenagers specifically, should be encouraged to do some resistance training. As we mentioned, there are simple techniques that may help reduce short-term food cravings.

References:

(1) “America’s Obesity Crisis,” Milken Institute. October, 2018. (2) Am J Public Health. 2013;103:1895-1901. (3) The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, online Dec. 5, 2014. (4) J Clin Oncol. 2014;32(31):3568-3574. (5) The Lancet Oncology. online Nov. 26, 2014. (6) BMJ. online Dec. 2, 2014. (7) BMJ 2014;349:g6843. (8) Obesity Week 2014 abstract T-2658-P. (9) Obesity Week 2014 abstract T-3023-OR. (10) JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(11):1006-1014.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.      

٭We invite you to check out our weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.٭

Blood pressure is typically highest during the day and lowest at night. Stock photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

There are currently about 75 million people with high blood pressure in the U.S. Put another way, one in three adults have this disorder. If that isn’t scary enough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of people dying from complications of hypertension increased by 23 percent from 2000 to 2013 (1).

Speaking of scary, during nighttime sleeping hours, the probability of complications, such as cardiovascular events and mortality, may have their highest incidence.

Unfortunately, as adults, it does not matter what age or what sex you are; we are all at increased risk of complications from high blood pressure, even isolated systolic (top number) blood pressure, which means without having the diastolic (bottom number) elevated as well. Fortunately, hypertension is highly modifiable in terms of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality (2). At least some of the risk factors are probably familiar to you. These include being significantly overweight and obese (BMI >27.5 kg/m²), smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, family history, age, increased sodium, depression, low vitamin D, diabetes and too much alcohol (3).

Of course, antihypertensive (blood pressure) medications treat this disorder. In addition, some nonpharmacological approaches have benefits. These include lifestyle modifications with diet, exercise and potentially supplements.

Risk factors matter, but not equally

In a study, results showed that those with poor diets had 2.19 times increased risk of developing high blood pressure. This was the greatest contributor to developing this disorder (4). Another risk factor with a significant impact was being at least modestly overweight (BMI >27.5 kg/m²) at 1.87 times increased risk. This surprisingly, albeit slightly, trumped cigarette smoking at 1.83 times increased risk. This study was observational and involved 2,763 participants. The moral is that a freewheeling lifestyle can have a detrimental impact on blood pressure and cause at least stage 1 hypertension.

High blood pressure doesn’t discriminate

One of the most feared complications of hypertension is cardiovascular disease. In a study, isolated systolic hypertension was shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and death in both young and middle-aged men and women between 18 and 49 years old, compared to those who had optimal blood pressure (5). The effect was greatest in women, with a 55 percent increased risk in cardiovascular disease and 112 percent increased risk in heart disease death. High blood pressure has complications associated with it, regardless of onset age. Though this study was observational, it was very large and had a 31-year duration.

Nightmares that may be real

Measuring blood pressure in the clinic can be useful. However, in a meta-analysis (involving nine studies from Europe, South America and Asia), results showed that high blood pressure measured at nighttime was potentially a better predictor of myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) and strokes, compared to daytime and clinic readings (6).

For every 10 mmHg rise in nighttime systolic blood pressure, there was a corresponding 25 percent increase in cardiovascular events. This was a large meta-analysis that utilized studies that were at least one year in duration. Does this mean that nighttime readings are superior in predicting risk? Not necessarily, but the results are interesting. The nighttime readings were made using 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure measurements (ABPM).

There is something referred to as masked uncontrolled hypertension (MUCH) that may increase the risk of cardiovascular events in the nighttime. MUCH occurs in those who are well-controlled during clinic readings for blood pressure; however, their nocturnal blood pressure is uncontrolled. In the Spanish Society of Hypertension ABPM Registry, MUCH was most commonly seen during nocturnal hours (7). Thus, the authors suggest that ABPM may be a better way to monitor those who have higher risk factors for MUCH, such as those whose pressure is borderline in the clinic and those who are smokers, obese or have diabetes.

Previously, a study suggested that taking at least one antihypertensive medication at night may be more effective than taking them all in the morning (8). Those who took one or more blood pressure medications at night saw a two-thirds reduction in cardiovascular event risk. Now we can potentially see why. These were patients who had chronic kidney disease (CKD). Generally, 85 to 95 percent of those with CKD have hypertension.

Eat your berries

Diet plays a role in controlling high blood pressure. In a study, blueberry powder (22 grams) in a daily equivalent to one cup of fresh blueberries reduced systolic blood pressure by a respectable 7 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 5 mmHg over 2 months (9).

This is a modest amount of fruit with a significant impact, demonstrating exciting results in a small, preliminary, double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized trial. Blueberries increase a substance called nitric oxide, which helps blood vessels relax, reducing blood pressure.

In conclusion, nighttime can be scary for high blood pressure and its cardiovascular complications, but lifestyle modifications, such as taking antihypertensive medications at night and making dietary changes, can have a big impact in altering these serious risks.

References:

(1) CDC.gov. (2) Diabetes Care 2011;34 Suppl 2:S308-312. (3) uptodate.com. (4) BMC Fam Pract 2015;16(26). (5) J Am Coll Cardiol 2015;65(4):327-335. (6) J Am Coll Cardiol 2015;65(4):327-335. (7) Eur Heart J 2015;35(46):3304-3312. (8) J Am Soc Nephrol 2011 Dec;22(12):2313-2321. (9) J Acad Nutr Diet 2015;115(3):369-377. (10) JAMA Pediatr online April 27, 2015.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.    

Stock photo
Comparing Paleo and Mediterranean diets

By David Dunaief, M.D.

We have made great strides in the fight against heart disease, yet it remains the number one cause of death in the United States. Why is this? Many of us have the propensity toward heart disease. Can we alter this course, or is it our destiny?

A 2013 study involving the Paleo-type diet and other ancient diets suggests that there is a significant genetic component to cardiovascular disease, while another study looking at the Mediterranean-type diet implies that we may be able to reduce risk factors greatly. Most of the risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, smoking and obesity are modifiable (1). Let’s look at the evidence.

Genetic components

Researchers used computed tomography scans to look at 137 mummies from ancient times across the world, including Egypt, Peru, the Aleutian Islands and Southwestern America (2). The cultures were diverse, including hunter-gatherers (consumers of a Paleo-type diet), farmer-gatherers and solely farmers. Their diets were not vegetarian; they involved significant amounts of animal protein, such as fish and cattle.

Researchers found that one-third of these mummies had atherosclerosis (plaques in the arteries), which is a precursor to heart disease. The ratio should sound familiar. It seems to coordinate with modern times.

The authors concluded that atherosclerosis could be part of the aging process in humans. In other words, it may be a result of our genes. Being human, we all have a genetic propensity toward atherosclerosis and heart disease, some more than others, but many of us can reduce our risk factors significantly.

I am not saying that the Paleo-type diet specifically is not beneficial compared to the standard American diet. Rather, that this study does not support that, although validating the Paleo-type diet was not its intention. However, other studies demonstrate that we can reduce our chances of getting heart disease with lifestyle changes, potentially by following a Mediterranean-type diet with an emphasis on a plant-rich approach.

Mediterranean-type diet

A study about the Mediterranean-type diet and its potential impact on cardiovascular disease risk was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (3). Here, two variations on the Mediterranean-type diet were compared to a low-fat diet. People were randomly assigned to three different groups. The two Mediterranean-type diet groups both showed about a 30 percent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, with end points including heart attacks, strokes and mortality, compared to the low-fat diet. This improvement in risk profile occurred even though there was no significant weight loss.

The Mediterranean-type diets both consisted of significant amounts of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, fish, olive oil and potentially wine. I call them “the Mediterranean diet with opulence,” because both groups consuming this diet had either significant amount of nuts or olive oil and/or wine. If the participants in the Mediterranean diet groups drank wine, they were encouraged to drink at least one glass a day.

The study included three groups: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts (almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts), a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil (at least four tablespoons a day) and a low-fat control diet. The patient population included over 7,000 participants in Spain at high risk for cardiovascular disease.

The strength of this study, beyond its high-risk population and its large size, was that it was a randomized clinical trial, the gold standard of trials. However, there was a significant flaw, and the results need to be tempered. The group assigned to the low-fat diet was not, in fact, able to maintain this diet throughout the study. Therefore, it really became a comparison between variations on the Mediterranean diet and a standard diet.

What do the leaders in the field of cardiovascular disease and integrative medicine think of the Mediterranean diet study? Interestingly there are two diametrically opposed opinions, split by field. You may be surprised by which group liked it and which did not. Cardiologists hailed the study as a great achievement. They included Henry Black, M.D., who specializes in high blood pressure, and Eric Topol, M.D. They emphasized that now there is a large RCT measuring clinical outcomes, such as heart attacks, stroke and death.

On the other hand, the integrative medicine physicians, Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., and Dean Ornish, M.D., both of whom stress a plant-rich diet that may be significantly more nutrient dense than the Mediterranean diet in the study, expressed disappointment with the results. They feel that heart disease and its risk factors can be reversed, not just reduced. Both clinicians have published small, well-designed studies showing significant benefits from plant-based diets (4, 5). Ornish actually showed a reversal of atherosclerosis in one of his studies (6).

So who is correct about the Mediterranean diet? Each opinion has its merits. The cardiologists’ enthusiasm is warranted, because a Mediterranean diet, even one of “opulence,” will appeal to more participants, who will then realize the benefits. However, those who follow a more strict diet, with greater amounts of nutrient-dense foods, will potentially see a reversal in heart disease, minimizing risk — and not just reducing it.

Thus, even with a genetic proclivity toward cardiovascular disease, we can very much alter our destinies. The degree depends on the willingness of the participants.

References:

(1) www.uptodate.com. (2) BMJ 2013;346:f1591. (3) N Engl J Med 2018; 378:e34. (4) J Fam Pract. 1995;41(6):560-568. (5) Am J Cardiol. 2011;108:498-507. (6) JAMA. 1998 Dec 16;280(23):2001-2007.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management.  

A thyroid nodule is an abnormal growth that forms a lump in the thyroid gland. Stock photo
Most identified incidentally are benign

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

More than 50 percent of people have thyroid nodules detectable by high-resolution ultrasound (1). Fortunately, most are benign. A small percent, 4 to 6.5 percent, are malignant, with the number varying depending on the study (2). Thyroid nodules are being diagnosed more often incidentally on radiologic exams, such as CT scans of the chest, MRI scans, PET scans and ultrasounds of the carotid arteries in the neck (3).

There is a conundrum of what to do with a thyroid nodule, especially when it is found incidentally. It depends on the size. If it is over one centimeter, usually it is biopsied by fine needle aspiration (FNA) (4). While most are asymptomatic, if there are symptoms, these might include difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, hoarseness, pain in the lower portion of the neck and a goiter (5).

FNA biopsy is becoming more common. In a study evaluating several databases, there was a greater than 100 percent increase in thyroid FNAs performed over a five-year period from 2006 to 2011 (6). This resulted in a 31 percent increase in thyroidectomies, surgeries to remove the thyroid partially or completely.

However, the number of thyroid cancers diagnosed with the surgery did not rise in this same period. Though the number of cancers diagnosed has increased, the mortality rate has remained relatively stable over several decades at about 1,500 patients per year (7). Thyroid nodules in this study were least likely to be cancerous when the initial diagnosis was by incidental radiologic exam.

Treating borderline results

As much as 25 percent of FNA biopsies are indeterminate. We are going to look at two modalities to differentiate between benign and malignant thyroid nodules when FNA results are equivocal: a PET scan and a molecular genetics test. A meta-analysis (a group of six studies) of PET scan results showed that it was least effective in resolving an unclear FNA biopsy. The PET scan was able to rule out patients who did not have malignancies, but did not do a good job of identifying those who did have cancer (8).

On the other hand, a molecular-based test was able to potentially determine whether an indeterminate thyroid nodule by FNA was malignant or benign (9).

Unlike in the PET scan study above, the researchers were able to not only rule out the majority of malignancies but also to rule them in. It was not perfect, but the percent of negative predictive value (ruled out) was 94 percent, and the positive predictive value (ruled in) was 74 percent. The combination test improved the predictive results of previous molecular tests by 65 to 69 percent. This is important to help decide whether or not the patient needs surgery to remove at least part of the thyroid.

Significance of calcification on ultrasound

Microcalcifications in the nodule can be detected on ultrasound. The significance of this may be that patients with microcalcifications are more likely to have malignant thyroid nodules than those without them, according to a small prospective study involving 170 patients (10). This does not mean necessarily that a patient has malignancy with calcifications, but there is a higher risk.

Good news

As I mentioned above, most thyroid nodules are benign. The results of one study go even further, showing that most asymptomatic benign nodules do not progress in size significantly after five years (11). The factors that did contribute to growth of about 11 percent of the nodules were age (<45 years old had more growth than >60 years old), multiple nodules, greater nodule volume at baseline and being male.

The authors’ suggestion is that, after the follow-up scan, the next ultrasound scan might be five years later instead of three years. However, they did discover thyroid cancer in 0.3 percent after five years.

Thyroid function may contribute to risk

In considering risk factors, it’s important to note that those who had a normal thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) were less likely to have a malignant thyroid nodule than those who had a high TSH, implying hypothyroidism. There was an almost 30 percent prevalence of cancer in the nodule if the TSH was greater than >5.5 mU/L (12).

The bottom line is that there is an urgent need for new guidelines regarding thyroid nodules. Fortunately, most nodules are benign and asymptomatic, but the number of cancerous nodules found is growing. Why the death rate remains the same year over year for decades may have to do with the slow rate at which most thyroid cancers progress, especially two of the most common forms, follicular and papillary.

References:

(1) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (2) Thyroid. 2005;15(7):708. (3) uptodate.com. (4) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (5) thyroid.org. (6) AAES 2013 Annual Meeting. Abstract 36. (7) AACE 2013 Abstract 1048. (8) Cancer. 2011;117(20):4582-4594. (9) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. Online May 12, 2015. (10) Head Neck. 2008 Sep;30(9):1206-1210. (11) JAMA. 2015;313(9):926-935. (12) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2006;91(11):4295.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management.    

We invite you to check out our weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on Times Beacon Record News Media’s website, www.tbrnewsmedia.com.