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One simple lifestyle change is to make certain that those susceptible to gout attacks remain hydrated and consume plenty of fluids. Stock photo
Most risk factors are modifiable

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Gout is thought of as an inflammatory arthritis. It occurs intermittently, affecting the joints, most commonly the big toe. The symptoms are acute (sudden onset) and include extremely painful, red, swollen and tender joints. In terms of symptoms, if you have ever had kidney stones, gouty arthritis is just as painful.

Uric acid (or urate) levels are directly related to the risk of gout attacks. As uric acid levels increase, there is a greater chance of urate crystal deposits in the joints. Although, and unfortunately, some patients can still experience gout attacks without high levels of uric acid.

This disease affects approximately 8.3 million people in the United States (1). This number has doubled since the 1960s. Men between 30 and 50 years old are at much higher risk for their first attack (2). For women, most gout attacks occur after menopause.

There are a number of potential causes of gout, as well as ways to prevent and treat it. The most common contributors include drugs, such as diuretic use; alcohol intake; uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure); obesity; and sweetened beverage and fructose intakes (3). Though heredity plays a role, these risk factors are modifiable.

The best way to prevent and treat gout is by modifying medications and lifestyle. One simple lifestyle change is to make certain, just like with kidney stone prevention, that those susceptible to gout attacks remain hydrated and consume plenty of fluids.

Just like there are medications that may cause gout, there are also medications that can treat and help prevent gout. If you do get a gout attack, NSAIDs such as indomethacin or steroids such as a Medrol pack help treat the symptoms. In terms of prevention, allopurinol helps to reduce the risk of a gout attack.

I thought we might look at gout by using a case study. I had a patient who had started a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet. Within two weeks, she had a gout episode. Initially, it was thought that her change in diet with increased plant purines might have been an exacerbating factor. Purines are substances that raise the level of uric acid. So, it is not surprising that foods with containing purines might substantiate a gout attack. However, not all purines equally raise uric acid levels.

Animal versus plant proteins

In a case-crossover (epidemiologic forward-looking) study, it was shown that purines from animal sources increase our levels of purines far more than those from plant sources (4). The risk of a gout incident was increased approximately 241 percent in the group consuming the highest amount of animal products, whereas the risk of gout was still increased for those consuming plant-rich purine substances, but by substantially less: 39 percent.

The authors believe that decreasing the use of purine-rich foods, especially from animal sources, may decrease the risk of incidences and recurrent episodes of gout. Plant-rich diets are the preferred method of consuming proteins for patients who suffer gout attacks, especially since nuts and beans are excellent sources of protein and many other nutrients.

In another study, meats — including red meat, pork and lamb — increased the risk of gout, as did seafood (5). However, purine-rich plant sources did not increase risk of gout. Low-fat dairy actually decreased the risk of gout by 21 percent. The study was a large observational study involving 49,150 men over a duration of 12 years.

There are several more studies indicating and reaffirming that plant foods do not increase the risk of gout attacks. The Mayo Clinic also suggests that plants do not increase the risk of gout. When considering my patient’s circumstances, it was unlikely that her switch to a nutrient-dense, plant-rich diet had increased her risk of gout.

Diuretics (water pills)

My patient was on a diuretic called hydrochlorothiazide for hypertension (high blood pressure). There are several medications thought to increase the risk of gout, including diuretics and chronic use of low-dose aspirin. In the ARIC study, patients who used diuretics to control blood pressure were at a 48 percent greater risk of developing gout than nonusers (6). In fact, nonusers had a 36 percent decreased risk of developing gout. This study involved 5,789 participants and had a fairly long duration of nine years. The longer the patient is treated with a diuretic, the higher the probability they will experience gout. It is likely that my patient’s diuretic contributed to her gout episode.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C may reduce gout risk. In the Physicians Follow-up Study, a 500-mg daily dose of vitamin C decreased levels of uric acid in the blood (9). However, be careful with vitamin C supplementation because it can increase the risk of kidney stones.

Medical conditions

There are a number of medical conditions that may impact the risk of gout. These include uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol (7). My patient’s high blood pressure was under control, but she also had diabetes and high cholesterol. These disorders may have also contributed.

Obesity

Obesity, like smoking, seems to have its impact on almost every disease. In the CLUE II study, obesity was shown to not only increase the risk of gout but also to accelerate the age of onset (8). Those who were obese experienced gout three years earlier than those who were not. Even more striking is the fact that those who were obese in early adulthood had an 11-year earlier onset of gout. The study’s duration was 18 years. My patient was obese and had just started to lose some weight before the gout occurred.

Prevention

The key to success with gout lies with prevention. Patients who do get gout writhe in pain. Luckily, there are modifications that significantly reduce the risks. They involve very modest changes, such as not using medications called diuretics in patients with a history of gout; losing weight for obese patients; and substituting more plant-rich foods for meats and seafood. Increasing levels of uric acid may be a useful biomarker for indicating an increased risk of gouty arthritis attacks. However, gout attacks do occur without a rise in uric acid levels, so it is not a perfect. Although the cause of gout may be apparent to you, always check with your doctor before changing your medications or making significant lifestyle modifications, as we have learned from this case study of my patient.

References:

(1) Arthritis Rheum. 2011 Oct;63(10):3136-3141. (2) Arthritis Res Ther. 2006;8:Suppl 1:S2. (3) Am Fam Physician. 2014 Dec 15;90(12):831-836. (4) Ann Rheum Dis. online May 30, 2012. (5) NEJM 2004;350:1093-1103. (6) Arthritis Rheum. 2012 Jan;64(1):121-129. (7) www.mayoclinic.com. (8) Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2011 Aug;63(8):1108-1114. (9) J Rheumatol. 2008 Sep;35(9):1853-1858.

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.

Sedentary lifestyle increases risk in the young

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

First, the good news: We have made great strides in reducing mortality from heart attacks. When we compare cardiovascular disease — heart disease and stroke — mortality rates from 1975 to the present, there is a substantial decline of approximately one-quarter. However, if we look at these rates since 1990, the rate of decline has slowed (1).

Plus, one in 10 visits to the emergency room are related to potential heart attack symptoms. Luckily, only 10 to 20 percent of these patients actually are having a heart attack (2). We need to reduce our risk factors to improve this scenario.

Some risk factors are obvious, while others are not. The obvious ones include age (men at least 45 years old and women at least 55 years old), family history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and smoking. Less obvious risk factors include gout, atrial fibrillation and osteoarthritis. Lifestyle modifications, including a high-fiber diet and exercise, also may help allay the risks.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Obesity

On a board exam in medicine, if smoking is one of the choices with disease risk, you can’t go wrong by choosing it. Well, it appears that the same axiom holds true for obesity. But how substantial a risk factor is obesity? In the Copenhagen General Population Study, results showed an increased heart attack risk in obese

(BMI >30 kg/m²) individuals with or without metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high sugar) and in those who were overweight (BMI >25 kg/m²) (3). The risk of heart attack increased in direct proportion to weight. Specifically, there was a 26 percent increase in heart attack risk for those who were overweight and an 88 percent increase in risk for those who were obese without metabolic syndrome. This study had a follow-up of 3.6 years.

It is true that those with metabolic syndrome and obesity together had the highest risk. But, it is quite surprising that obesity, by itself, can increase heart attack risk when a person is “metabolically healthy.” Since this was an observational trial, we can only make an association, but if it is true, then there may not be such thing as a “metabolically healthy” obese patient. Therefore, if you are obese, it is really important to lose weight.

Lifestyle modifications such as weight loss, physical activity and diet can help decrease the risk of heart attacks.

Sedentary lifestyle

If obesity were not enough of a wake-up call, let’s look at another aspect of lifestyle: the impact of being sedentary. A recent observational study found that activity levels had a surprisingly high impact on heart disease risk (4). Of four key factors — weight, blood pressure, smoking and physical inactivity — age was the determinant as to which one had the most negative effect on women’s heart disease risk. Those under the age of 30 saw smoking as most negatively impactful. For those over the age of 30, lack of exercise became the most dominant risk factor for heart disease, including heart attacks.

For women over the age of 70, the study found that increasing physical activity may have a greater positive impact than addressing high blood pressure, losing weight, or even quitting smoking. However, since high blood pressure was self-reported and not necessarily measured in a doctor’s office, it may have been underestimated as a risk factor. Nonetheless, the researchers indicated that women should make sure they exercise on a regular basis to most significantly reduce heart disease risk.

Osteoarthritis

The prevailing thought with osteoarthritis is that it is best to suffer with hip or knee pain as long as possible before having surgery. But when do we cross the line and potentially need joint replacement? Well, in a recent study, those with osteoarthritis of the hip or knee joints that caused difficulty walking on a flat surface were at substantially greater risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attack (5). Those who had surgery for the affected joint saw a substantially reduced heart attack risk. It is important to address the causes of osteoarthritis to improve mobility, whether with surgery or other treatments.

Gout

When we think of gout, we relate it to kidney stones. But gout increases the risk of heart attacks by 82 percent, according to an observational study (6). Gout tends to affect patients more when they are older, but the risk of heart attack with gout is greater in those who are younger, ages 45 to 69, than in those over 70. What can we do to reduce these risk factors?

There have been studies showing that fiber decreases the risk of heart attacks. However, does fiber still matter when someone has a heart attack? In a recent analysis using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional Follow-up Study, results showed that higher fiber plays an important role in reducing the risk of death after a heart attack (7). Those who consumed the most fiber, compared to the least, had a 25 percent reduction in post-heart attack mortality.

Even more impressive is the fact that those who increased their fiber after the cardiovascular event had a 31 percent reduction in mortality risk. In this analysis, it seemed that more of the benefit came from fiber found in cereal. The most intriguing part of the study was the dose-response. For every 10-g increase in fiber consumption, there was a 15 percent reduction in the risk of post-heart attack mortality. Since we get too little fiber anyway, this should be an easy fix.

Lifestyle modifications are so important. In the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 120,000 women for 20 years, those who routinely exercised, ate a quality diet, did not smoke and were a healthy weight demonstrated a whopping 84 percent reduction in the risk of a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack (8).

What have we learned? We can substantially reduce the risk of heart attacks and even potentially the risk of death after sustaining a heart attack with lifestyle modifications that include weight loss, physical activity and diet — with, in this case, a focus on fiber. While there are a number of diseases that contribute to heart attack risk, most of them are modifiable. With disabling osteoarthritis, addressing the causes of difficulty with mobility may also help reduce heart attack risk.

References: (1) Heart. 1998;81(4):380. (2) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(2):241-249. (3) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(1):15-22. (4) Br J Sports Med. 2014, May 8. (5) Presented Research: World Congress on OA, 2014. (6) Rheumatology (Oxford). 2013 Dec;52(12):2251-2259. (7) BMJ. 2014;348:g2659. (8) N Engl J Med. 2000;343(1):16.

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.

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