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Stroke

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It is disconcerting when the medical community reverses course. They seem to do that every decade or so, as with the purported value of vitamin C, estrogen and so forth. The latest about face, in case you haven’t yet heard, is on the matter of taking baby aspirin. For years we have been urged to take a baby aspirin each day to ward off all sorts of ills: heart attacks, strokes, dementia, colorectal cancers and who knows what else. Those tiny pills that can dissolve in seconds against the roof of one’s mouth, or be popped into it, seemed capable of miracles.

Now, with a shot heard truly around the world, an Australian research team at Monash University in Melbourne concluded that not only may aspirin not help, it may in some cases actually harm. The results of their study, which included more than 19,000 people over 4.7 years, were published in three articles this past Sunday in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine and summarized by The New York Times on Monday, and by just about all other major media.

The study included whites 70 and older, and blacks and Hispanics 65 and older. Each took 100 milligrams — slightly more than the 81 milligrams of a baby aspirin — or a placebo each day. While doing so did not lower their risks of diseases, it did increase “the risk of significant bleeding in the digestive tract, brain or other sites that required transfusions or admission to the hospital,” according to The Times.

So what does all that mean, especially for those already at risk for the conditions aspirin was supposed to protect against?

I am going to quote from The Times very carefully here because this can get confusing due to mixed messages. “Although there is good evidence that aspirin can help people who have already had heart attacks or strokes, or who have a high risk that they will occur, the drug’s value is actually not so clear for people with less risk, especially older ones,” wrote reporter Denise Grady.

So can aspirin prevent cardiovascular events in people with diabetes, for example, or is the benefit outweighed by the risk of major bleeding? Does dose matter in that heavier people might require more aspirin to be prophylactive?

Here’s what the study tells us: Healthy older people should not begin taking aspirin. This will no doubt disappoint Bayer, St. Joseph and others who manufacture the drug. But those who have already been using it regularly should not quit based on these findings, according to Dr. John McNeil, leader of the Australian study. Rather they should talk with their doctors first because the new findings do not apply to those who have already had heart attacks or strokes, which involve blood clots. Aspirin is known to inhibit clotting.

The name of this study is Aspree and it was funded by the National Institute on Aging, along with the National Cancer Institute, Monash University and the Australian government. Bayer supplied the aspirin and placebos but had no other role, according to The Times.

The study focuses on preventive medicine, especially how to keep older people healthy longer. It included 16,703 people from Australia and 2,411 from the United States, starting in 2010. Serious bleeding occurred in 3.8 percent of the aspirin group as opposed to 2.7 percent in the placebo group.

McNeil does suggest the possibility that aspirin’s protective effect against colorectal cancers might still exist but not show up for a longer time span than the study. The Times article does go on to say that the good doctor, who is 71 and specializes in epidemiology and preventive medicine, does not himself take aspirin.

Don’t know what to do? As they say in the commercials, consult your doctor.

The effects of high sodium are insidious

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

By now, most of us have been hit over the head with the fact that too much salt in our diets is unhealthy. Still, we respond with “I don’t use salt,” “I use very little,” or “I don’t have high blood pressure, so I don’t have to worry.” Unfortunately, these are myths. All of us should be concerned about salt or, more specifically, our sodium intake.

Excessive sodium in the diet does increase the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension); the consequences are stroke or heart disease. Approximately 90 percent of Americans consume too much sodium (1).

Now comes the interesting part. Sodium has a nefarious effect on the kidneys. In the Nurses Health Study, approximately 3,200 women were evaluated in terms of kidney function, looking at the estimated glomerular filtration rate (GFR) as related to sodium intake (2). Over 14 years, those with a sodium intake of 2,300 mg had a much greater chance of an at least 30 percent reduction in kidney function, compared to those who consumed 1,700 mg per day.

Why is this study important? Kidneys are one of our main systems for removing toxins and waste. The kidneys are where many initial high blood pressure medications work, including ACE inhibitors, such as lisinopril; ARBs, such as Diovan or Cozaar; and diuretics (water pills). If the kidney loses function, it may be harder to treat high blood pressure. Worse, it could lead to chronic kidney disease and dialysis. Once someone has reached dialysis, most blood pressure medications are not very effective.

Ironically, the current recommended maximum sodium intake is 2,300 mg per day, or one teaspoon, the same level that led to negative effects in the study. However, Americans’ mean intake is twice that level.

Excessive sodium in one’s diet can increase the risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to a stroke or heart disease. Stock photo

If we reduced our consumption by even a modest 20 percent, we could reduce the incidence of heart disease dramatically. Current recommendations from the American Heart Association indicate an upper limit of 2,300 mg per day, with an “ideal” limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day (3).

If the salt shaker is not the problem, what is? Most of our sodium comes from processed foods, packaged foods and restaurants. There is nothing wrong with eating out on occasion, but you can’t control how much salt goes into your food. My wife is a great barometer of restaurant salt use. If food from the night before was salty, she complains of not being able to get her rings off.

Do you want to lose 5 to 10 pounds quickly? Decreasing your salt intake will allow you to achieve this goal. Excess sodium causes the body to retain fluids. 

One approach is to choose products that have 200 mg or fewer per serving indicated on the label. Foods labeled “low sodium” have fewer than 140 mg of sodium, but foods labeled “reduced sodium” have 25 percent less than the full-sodium version, which doesn’t necessarily mean much. Soy sauce has 1,000 mg of sodium per tablespoon, but low-sodium soy sauce still has about 600 mg per tablespoon. Salad dressings and other condiments, where serving sizes are small, add up very quickly. Mustard has 120 mg per teaspoon. Most of us use far more than one teaspoon of mustard. Caveat emptor: Make sure to read labels on all packaged foods very carefully.

Is sea salt better than table salt? High amounts of salt are harmful, and the type is not as important. The only difference between them is slight taste and texture variation. I recommend not buying either. In addition to the health issues, salt tends to dampen your taste buds, masking the flavors of food.

If you are working to decrease your sodium intake, become an avid label reader. Sodium hides in all kinds of foods that don’t necessarily taste salty, such as breads, soups, cheeses and salad dressings. I also recommend getting all sauces on the side, so you can control how much — if any — you choose to use.

As you reduce your sodium intake, you might be surprised at how quickly your taste buds adjust. In just a few weeks, foods you previously thought didn’t taste salty will seem overwhelmingly salty, and you will notice new flavors in unsalted foods.

If you have a salt shaker and don’t know what to do with all the excess salt, don’t despair. There are several uses for salt that are actually beneficial. According to the Mayo Clinic, gargling with ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of warm water significantly reduces symptoms of a sore throat from infectious disease, such as mononucleosis, strep throat and the common cold. Having had mono, I can attest that this works.

Remember, if you want to season your food at a meal, you are much better off asking for the pepper than the salt.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010;5:836-843. (3) heart.org.

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.

Cocoa components reduce cardiovascular risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Valentine’s Day is one of the wonderful things about winter. For many, it lifts the mood and spirit. A traditional gift is chocolate. But do the benefits of chocolate go beyond Valentine’s Day? The short answer is yes, which is good news for chocolate lovers. However, we are not talking about filled chocolates, but primarily dark chocolate and cocoa powder.

The health benefits of chocolate are derived in large part from its flavonoid content — compounds that are produced by plants. These health benefits are seen in cardiovascular disease, including stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure. This is ironic, since many chocolate boxes are shaped as hearts. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily the chocolates that come in these boxes that are beneficial.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Effect on heart failure

Heart failure is very difficult to reverse. Therefore, the best approach is prevention, and dark chocolate may be one weapon in this crusade. In the Swedish Mammography Cohort study, those women who consumed dark chocolate saw a reduction in heart failure (1). The results were on a dose-response curve, but only to a point. Those women who consumed two to three servings of dark chocolate a month had a 26 percent reduction in the risk of heart failure.

For the dark chocolate lovers, it gets even better. Women who consumed one to two servings per week had an even greater reduction of 32 percent. However, those who ate more than these amounts actually lost the benefit in heart failure reduction and may have increased risk. With a serving (1 ounce) a day, there was actually a 23 percent increased risk.

This study was a prospective (forward-looking) observational study that involved more than 30,000 women over a long duration, nine years. The authors comment that chocolate has a downside of too much fat and calories and, if eaten in large quantities, it may interfere with eating other beneficial foods, such as fruits and vegetables. The positive effects are most likely from the flavonols, a subset of flavonoids, which come from the cocoa solids — the chocolate minus the cocoa butter.

Impact on mortality from heart attacks

In a two-year observational study, results showed that chocolate seemed to reduce the risk of cardiac death after a first heart attack (2). Again, the effects were based on a dose-response curve, but unlike the previous study, there was no increased risk beyond a certain modest frequency.

Those who consumed chocolate up to once a week saw a 44 percent reduction in risk of death, and those who ate the most chocolate — two or more times per week — saw the most effect, with 66 percent reduced risk. And finally, even those who consumed one serving of chocolate less than once per month saw a 27 percent reduction in death, compared to those who consumed no chocolate.

The study did not mention dark or milk chocolate; however, this was another study that took place in Sweden. In Sweden, milk chocolate has substantially more cocoa solids, and thus flavonols, than that manufactured for the U.S. There were over 1,100 patients involved in this study, and none of them had a history of diabetes, which is important to emphasize.

Stroke reduction

I don’t know anyone who does not want to reduce the risk of stroke. We tell patients to avoid sodium in order to control blood pressure and reduce their risk. Initially, sodium reduction is a difficult thing to acclimate to — and one that people fear. However, it turns out that eating chocolate may reduce the risk of stroke, so this is something you can use to balance out the lifestyle changes.

In yet another study, the Cohort of Swedish Men, which involved over 37,000 men, there was an inverse relationship between chocolate consumption in men and the risk of stroke (3). Those who ate at least two servings of chocolate a week benefited the most with a 17 percent reduction in both major types of stroke — ischemic and hemorrhagic — compared to those who consumed the least amount of chocolate. Although the reduction does not sound tremendous, compare this to aspirin, which reduces stroke risk by 20 percent. However, chocolate consumption study was observational, not the gold standard randomized controlled trial, like aspirin studies.

Blood pressure

One of the most common maladies, especially in people over 50, is high blood pressure. So, whatever we can do to lower blood pressure levels is important, including decreasing sodium levels, exercising and even eating flavonoid-rich cocoa.

In a meta-analysis (a group of 20 RCTs), flavonoid-rich cocoa reduced both systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) blood pressure significantly: −2.77 mm Hg and −2.20 mm Hg, respectively (4). These studies involved healthy participants, who are sometimes the most difficult in whom to show a significant reduction, since their blood pressure is not high initially. One of the weaknesses of this meta-analysis is that the trials were short, between two and 18 weeks.

Why chocolate has an effect

Consuming a small amount of dark chocolate twice a week may lower the risk of heart disease.

Chocolate has compounds called flavonoids. The darker the chocolate, the more flavonoids there are. These flavonoids have potential antioxidant, antiplatelet and anti-inflammatory effects.

In a small, randomized controlled trial comparing 22 heart transplant patients, those who received dark flavonoid-rich chocolate, compared to a cocoa-free control group, had greater vasodilation (enlargement) of coronary arteries two hours after consumption (5). There was also a decrease in the aggregation, or adhesion, of platelets, one of the primary substances in forming clots. The authors concluded that dark chocolate may also cause a reduction in oxidative stress.

It’s great that chocolate, mainly dark, and cocoa powder have such substantial effects in cardiovascular disease. However, certain patients should avoid chocolate such as those with reflux disease, allergies to chocolate and diabetes. Be aware that Dutch-processed, or alkalized, cocoa powder may have lower flavonoid levels and is best avoided. Also, the darker the chocolate is, the higher the flavonoid levels. I suggest that the chocolate be at least 60 to 70 percent dark.

Moderation is the key, for all chocolate contains a lot of calories and fat. Based on the studies, two servings a week are probably where you will see the most cardiovascular benefits. Happy Post-Valentine’s Day!

References: (1) Circ Heart Fail. 2010;3(5):612-616. (2) J Intern Med. 2009;266(3):248-257. (3) Neurology. 2012;79:1223-1229. (4) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012:15;8:CD008893. (5) Circulation. 2007 Nov 20;116(21):2376-2382.

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.

Consuming white fleshy fruits such as pears may decrease ischemic stroke risk by as much as 52 percent.

By David Dunaief, M.D.

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 issues ranging from identifying chronic diseases that increase stroke risk to examining the roles of medications and lifestyle in managing risk.

Impact of chronic diseases

There are several studies that show chronic diseases — such as age-related macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis and migraine with aura — increase the risk for stroke. Therefore, patients with these diseases must be monitored.

In the ARIC study, stroke risk was approximately 50 percent greater in patients who had AMD compared to those who did not — 7.6 percent versus 4.9 percent, respectively (2). This increase was seen in both types of stroke: ischemic (complete blockage of blood flow in the brain) and hemorrhagic (bleeding in the brain). The risk was greater for hemorrhagic stroke than for ischemic, 2.64 vs. 1.42 times increased risk.

However, there was a smaller overall number of hemorrhagic strokes, which may have skewed the results. This was a 13-year observational study involving 591 patients, ages 45 to 64, who were diagnosed with AMD. Most patients had early AMD. If you have AMD, you should be followed closely by both an ophthalmologist and a primary care physician.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

In an observational study, patients with RA had a 30 percent increased risk of stroke, and those under 50 years old with RA had a threefold elevated risk (3). This study involved 18,247 patients followed for a 13-year period. There was also a 40 percent increased risk of atrial fibrillation (AF), a type of arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat. Generally, AF causes increased stroke risk; however, the authors were not sure if AF contributed to the increased risk of stroke seen here. They suggested checking regularly for AF in RA patients, and they surmised that inflammation may be an underlying cause for the higher number of stroke events.

Migraine with aura

In the Women’s Health Study, an observational study, the risk of stroke increased twofold in women who had migraine with aura (4). Only about 20 percent of migraines include an aura, and the incidence of stroke in this population is still rather rare, so put this in context (5).

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 (6). 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 (7).

It is important to recognize that chronic disease increases stroke risk. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are two of the most significant risk factors. 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 (8, 9).

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 (10).

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 (11). Additionally, the Nurses’ Health Study showed that foods with flavanones, found mainly in citrus fruits, decreased the risk of ischemic stroke by 19 percent (12). 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 (13). 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 — low-dose aspirin — since the risk of a second stroke is high.

References: (1) cdc.gov. (2) Stroke online April 2012. (3) BMJ 2012; Mar 8;344:e1257. (4) Neurology 2008 Aug 12; 71:505. (5) Neurology. 2009;73(8):576. (6) AAN conference: April 2012. (7) Am J Cardiol 2012; 109(9):1308-1314. (8) ISC 2012; Abstract LB 9-4504; (9) www.clinicaltrials.gov NCT00059306. (10) JAMA 2007;297:2018-2024. (11) Stroke. 2011; 42: 3190-3195. (12) J. Nutr. 2011;141(8):1552-1558. (13) 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.

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Ursula Costanzo and her husband, Vince. Photo from Ursula Costanzo

By Rachel Siford

The Miller Place and Mount Sinai communities are coming together to support a fellow resident in her time of need.

Five years ago, Ursula Costanzo, of Mount Sinai, started the parent Facebook group, Mt. Sinai/Miller Pl. Moms, which has more than 2,600 members.

She started the group to unite the communities, since they don’t have a town center. Group members share information, ask questions and have friendly discussions. If someone needs a repairman or landscaper recommendation, the Facebook group is the place to go.

In May, the wife and mom suffered an aneurysm and a stroke, which has since kept her in the hospital and rehab facilities. Costanzo is currently at St. Johnland Nursing Center for rehabilitation and has had various surgeries.

Now, Costanzo’s close friends and other administrators of the Facebook group have pulled together to create a fundraiser to help the family with medical and childcare bills, as her and her husband’s insurance only covers so much.

On Aug. 16, the nine-person committee will present Rock the Range at Willow Creek Golf & Country Club in Mount Sinai from 2 to 7 p.m. The event will have a barbecue, raffle and live music.

“Ursula has been one my best friends for 15 years,” Melissa Goodman, of Mount Sinai, said. “It was mine and my husband’s idea to start this fundraiser because Ursula always liked to help people and has always been so altruistic.”

Denise May, one of the Facebook group administrators and close friend of Costanzo’s, said the event will be a fun community day, which is what Costanzo is all about.

“Ursula is one those happy, dynamic people who runs in a bunch of different crowds,” May said. “She is a very happy, positive person.”

May is also in charge of a GoFundMe site to benefit the Costanzo family. The site has already raised more than $3,400. Their goal is $20,000.

Eight local bands will be playing at the event, and Goodman added there will be grand prizes at the fundraiser, like a television and vacation packages.

“She is a wonderful mom, a wonderful person and a wonderful friend,” Goodman said. “Everyone loves her; that’s why everyone is helping out.”

Costanzo’s other close friend, Cynthia Liendo, of Mount Sinai, is in charge of the ticket sales. She said the committee is expecting between 200 and 400 people.

“She really, truly cares about people and went out of her way to smile,” Liendo said about Costanzo.

A stroke survivor will speak at Rock the Range.

Costanzo’s friends and family said she is fighting hard to get through this.

“She volunteers at school, the kids are familiar with her and she has many friends,” Liendo said. “Her absence has really been felt.”

Tickets for Rock the Range are $25. Children 5 and under are free. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, contact rocktherange4Ursula@gmail.com.

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