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Medical Compass

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Increasing fiber may reduce risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Many patients say they have been diagnosed with diverticulitis, but this is a misnomer. Diverticulitis is actually a consequence of diverticular disease, or diverticulosis. Diverticulosis is one of the most common maladies that affects us as we age. For instance, 35 percent of U.S. 50-year-olds are affected and, for those over the age of 60, approximately 58 percent are affected (1). Many will never experience symptoms.

The good news is that it is potentially preventable through modest lifestyle changes. My goal in writing this article is twofold: to explain simple ways to reduce your risk, while also debunking a myth that is pervasive — that fiber, or more specifically nuts and seeds, exacerbates the disease.

What is diverticular disease? 

Diverticular disease is a weakening of the lumen, or wall of the colon, resulting in the formation of pouches or out-pocketing referred to as diverticula. The cause of diverticula may be attributable to pressure from constipation. Its mildest form, diverticulosis may be asymptomatic. 

Symptoms of diverticular disease may include fever and abdominal pain, predominantly in the left lower quadrant in Western countries, or the right lower quadrant in Asian countries. It may need to be treated with antibiotics.

Diverticulitis affects 10 to 25 percent of those with diverticulosis. Diverticulitis is inflammation and infection, which may lead to a perforation of the bowel wall. If a rupture occurs, emergency surgery may be required.

Unfortunately, the incidence of diverticulitis is growing. As of 2010, about 200,000 are hospitalized for acute diverticulitis each year, and roughly 70,000 are hospitalized for diverticular bleeding (2).

How to prevent diverticular disease

There are a number of modifiable risk factors, including fiber intake, weight and physical activity, to prevent diverticular disease.

In terms of fiber, there was a prospective (forward-looking) study published online in the British Medical Journal that extolled the value of fiber in reducing the risk of diverticular disease (3). This was part of the EPIC trial, involving over 47,000 people living in Scotland and England. The study showed a 31 percent reduction in risk in those who were vegetarian. 

But more intriguing, participants who had the highest fiber intake saw a 41 percent reduction in diverticular disease. Those participants in the highest fiber group consumed >25.5 grams per day for women and >26.1 grams per day for men, whereas those in the lowest group consumed less than 14 grams per day. Though the difference in fiber between the two groups was small, the reduction in risk was substantial. 

Another study, which analyzed data from the Million Women Study, a large-scale, population-based prospective UK study of middle-aged women, confirmed the correlation between fiber intake and diverticular disease, and further analyzed the impact of different sources of fiber (4). The authors’ findings were that reduction in the risk of diverticular disease was greatest with high intake of cereal and fruit fiber.

Most Americans get about 16 grams of fiber per day. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends daily fiber intake for those <50 years old of 25-26 grams for women and 31-38 grams for men (5). Interestingly, their recommendations are lower for those who are over 50 years old.

Can you imagine what the effect is when people get at least 40 grams of fiber per day? This is what I recommend for my patients. Some foods that contain the most fiber include nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. In a study in 2009, specifically those men who consumed the most nuts and popcorn saw a protective effect from diverticulitis (6).

Obesity plays a role, as well. In the large, prospective male Health Professionals Follow-up Study, body mass index played a significant role, as did waist circumference (7). Those who were obese (BMI >30 kg/m²) had a 78 percent increased risk of diverticulitis and a greater than threefold increased risk of a diverticular bleed compared to those who had a BMI in the normal range of <21 kg/m². For those whose waist circumference was in the highest group, they had a 56 percent increase risk of diverticulitis and a 96 percent increase risk of diverticular bleed. Thus, obesity puts patients at a much higher risk of the complications of diverticulosis.

Physical activity is also important for reducing the risk of diverticular disease, although the exact mechanism is not yet understood. Regardless, the results are impressive. In a large prospective study, those with the greatest amount of exercise were 37 percent less likely to have diverticular disease compared to those with the least amount (8). Jogging and running seemed to have the most benefit. When the authors combined exercise with fiber intake, there was a dramatic 256 percent reduction in risk of this disease. 

Thus, preventing diverticular disease is based mostly on lifestyle modifications through diet and exercise.

References:

(1) www.niddk.nih.gov. (2) Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2016; 14(1):96–103.e1. (3) BMJ. 2011; 343: d4131. (4) Gut. 2014 Sep; 63(9): 1450–1456. (5) Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Jan-Feb; 11(1): 80–85. (6) AMA 2008; 300: 907-914. (7) Gastroenterology. 2009;136(1):115. (8) Gut. 1995;36(2):276.  

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.   

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Lowering your meat intake may reduce cataract risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Cataracts affect a substantial portion of the U.S. population. In fact, 24.4 million people in the U.S. over the age of 40 are currently afflicted, and this number is expected to increase approximately 61 percent by the year 2030 — only 10 years from now — according to estimates by the National Eye Institute (1).

Cataracts are defined as an opacity or cloudiness of the lens in the eye, which decreases vision over time as it progresses. It’s very common for both eyes to be affected. We often think of cataracts as a symptom of age, but we can take an active role in preventing them.

There are enumerable modifiable risk factors including diet; smoking; sunlight exposure; chronic diseases, such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome; steroid use; and physical inactivity. I am going to discuss the dietary factor.

Prevention

In a prospective (forward-looking) study, diet was shown to have substantial effect on the risk reduction for cataracts (2). This study was the United Kingdom group, with 27,670 participants, of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) trial. Participants completed food frequency questionnaires between 1993 and 1999. Then, they were checked for cataracts between 2008 and 2009.

There was an inverse relationship between the amount of meat consumed and cataract risk. In other words, those who ate a great amount of meat were at higher risk of cataracts. “Meat” included red meat, fowl and pork. These results followed what is termed a dose-response curve. 

Compared to high meat eaters, every other group demonstrated a significant risk reduction as you progressed along a spectrum that included low meat eaters (15 percent reduction), fish eaters (21 percent reduction), vegetarians (30 percent reduction) and finally vegans (40 percent reduction). 

There really was not that much difference between high meat eaters, those having at least 3.5 ounces, and low meat eaters, those having less than 1.7 ounces a day, yet there was a substantial decline in cataracts. Thus, you don’t have to become a vegan to see an effect.

In my clinical experience, I’ve also had several patients experience reversal of their cataracts after they transitioned to a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet. I didn’t think this was possible, but anecdotally, this is a very positive outcome and was confirmed by their ophthalmologists.

Mechanism of action

Oxidative stress is one of the major contributors to the development of cataracts. In a review article that looked at 70 different trials for the development of cataract and/or maculopathies, such as age-related macular degeneration, the authors concluded antioxidants, which are micronutrients found in foods, play an integral part in prevention (3).

The authors go on to say that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, as well as lifestyle modification with cessation of smoking and treatment of obesity at an early age, help to reduce the risk of cataracts. Thus, you are never too young or too old to take steps to prevent cataracts.

How do you treat cataracts?

The only effective way to treat cataracts is with surgery; the most typical type is phacoemulsification. Ophthalmologists remove the opaque lens and replace it with a synthetic intraocular lens. This is done as an outpatient procedure and usually takes approximately 30 minutes. Fortunately, there is a very high success rate for this surgery. So why is it important to avoid cataracts if surgery can remedy them?

Potential consequences of surgery

There are always potential risks with invasive procedures, such as infection, even though the chances of complications are low. However, more importantly, there is a greater than fivefold risk of developing late-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD) after cataract surgery (4). This is wet AMD, which can cause significant vision loss. These results come from a meta-analysis (group of studies) looking at more than 6,000 patients. 

It has been hypothesized that the surgery may induce inflammatory changes and the development of leaky blood vessels in the retina of the eye. However, because this meta-analysis was based on observational studies, it is not clear whether undiagnosed AMD may have existed prior to the cataract surgery, since they have similar underlying causes related to oxidative stress.

Therefore, if you can reduce the risk of cataracts through diet and other lifestyle modifications, plus avoid the potential consequences of cataract surgery, all while reducing the risk of chronic diseases, why not choose the win-win scenario?

References:

(1) nei.nih.gov. (2) Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May; 93(5): 1128-1135. (3) Exp Eye Res. 2007; 84: 229-245. (4) Ophthalmology. 2003; 110(10): 1960.

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.    

Kidneys are one of our main stystems for removing toxins and waste. Stock photo
High sodium’s impact extends beyond hypertension

By David Dunaief, M.D.

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.

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.    

Lifestyle modifications, including getting more exercise, can lower blood pressure. Stock photo
Left untreated, high blood pressure has long-term health consequences

By David Dunaief, M.D.

We have focused a large amount of effort on the treatment and prevention of hypertension (high blood pressure) in the U.S. This insidious disorder includes prehypertension —defined as a systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 120-139 mmHg and/or a diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) of 80-89 mmHg. Prehypertension is pervasive in the United States, affecting approximately one-third of people (1).

The consequences of prehypertension are significant, even though there are often no symptoms. For example, it increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack dramatically: in an analysis of the Framingham Heart Study, researchers found a 3.5-fold increase in the risk of heart attack and a 1.7-fold increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease among those with prehypertension (2). This is why it’s crucial to treat it in these early stages, even before it reaches the level of hypertension.

Another study, the Women’s Health Initiative, which followed more than 60,000 postmenopausal women for an average of 7.7 years, showed an increase in heart attack deaths, heart attacks and strokes compared to those with normal blood pressure (less than 120/80 mmHg). In the Strong Heart Study, prehypertension independently increased the risk for cardiovascular events at 12 years significantly (3).

Furthermore, according to the Framingham Heart Study, the risk of sustained hypertension increases substantially the higher the baseline blood pressure (4).

This may or may not impact mortality, but it certainly does impact morbidity (sickness). Quality of life may be dramatically reduced with heart disease, heart attack and hypertension.

Treatment of prehypertension

In my view, it would be foolish not to treat prehypertension. Recommendations for treatment, according to the Joint National Commission (JNC) 7, the association responsible for guidelines on the treatment of prehypertension and hypertension, are lifestyle modifications (5). These involve a Mediterranean-type diet called DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), with a focus on fruits, vegetables, reduction in sodium to a maximum of 1,500 mg (⅔ of a teaspoon on a daily basis), exercise, weight loss and no more than moderate amounts of alcohol (1 or fewer drinks for women and 2 or fewer drinks for men on a daily basis). 

Some studies have also shown that a diet rich in potassium helps to reduce blood pressure (6). Fortunately, foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes have significant amounts of potassium. However, do not take potassium supplements unless instructed for other reasons by a physician; high potassium can be very dangerous and may precipitate a heart attack.

The danger in treating prehypertension comes only when medication is used, due to side effects. 

Unfortunately, the Trial of Preventing Hypertension (TROPHY) suggests the use of a hypotensive agent, the blood pressure drug Atacand (candesartan) to treat prehypertensive patients (7). The drug reduced the incidence of hypertension significantly compared to placebo over two years. However, after stopping therapy, the following two years showed only a small benefit over placebo. Yet the authors implied that this may be a plausible treatment. The study was funded by Astra-Zeneca, the makers of the drug. 

In an editorial, Dr. Jay I. Meltze, a clinical specialist in hypertension at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, noted that the results were interpreted in an unusually favorable way (8). 

Prehypertension is an asymptomatic disorder that has been shown to respond well to lifestyle changes — why create symptoms with medication? Therefore, I don’t recommend treating prehypertension patients with medication. Thankfully, the JNC7 agrees.

However, it should be treated -— and treated with lifestyle modifications. The side effects from this approach are only better overall health. Please get your blood pressure checked at least on an annual basis.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) Stroke 2005; 36: 1859–1863. (3) Hypertension 2006;47:410-414. (4) Lancet 2001;358:1682-6. (5) nhlbi.nih.gov. (6) Archives of Internal Medicine 2001;161:589-593. (7) N Engl J Med. 2006;354:1685-1697. (8) Am J Hypertens. 2006;19:1098-1100.

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.     

All fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans contain some fiber. Stock photo
Fiber has powerful effects on disease prevention and reversal

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Many people worry about getting enough protein, when they really should be concerned about getting enough fiber. Most of us — except perhaps professional athletes or long-distance runners — get enough protein in our diets. Protein has not prevented or helped treat diseases in the way that studies illustrate with fiber. 

Americans are woefully deficient in fiber, getting between eight and 15 grams per day, when they should be ingesting more than 40 grams daily. 

In order to increase our daily intake, several myths need to be dispelled. First, fiber does more than improve bowel movements. Also, fiber doesn’t have to be unpleasant. 

The attitude has long been that to get enough fiber, one needs to eat a cardboard box. With certain sugary cereals, you may be better off eating the box, but on the whole, this is not true. Though fiber comes in supplement form, most of your daily intake should be from diet. It is actually relatively painless to get enough fiber; you just have to become aware of which foods are fiber rich.

Fiber has very powerful effects on our overall health. A very large prospective cohort study showed that fiber may increase longevity by decreasing mortality from cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and other infectious diseases (1). Over a nine-year period, those who ate the most fiber, in the highest quintile group, were 22 percent less likely to die than those in the lowest group. Patients who consumed the most fiber also saw a significant decrease in mortality from cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and infectious diseases. The authors of the study believe that it may be the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of whole grains that are responsible for the positive results. 

Along the same lines of the respiratory findings, we see benefit with prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with fiber in a relatively large epidemiologic analysis of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study (2). The specific source of fiber was important. Fruit had the most significant effect on preventing COPD, with a 28 percent reduction in risk. Cereal fiber also had a substantial effect but not as great.

Does the type of fiber make a difference? One of the complexities is that there are a number of different classifications of fiber, from soluble to viscous to fermentable. Within each of the types, there are subtypes of fiber. Not all fiber sources are equal. Some are more effective in preventing or treating certain diseases. Take, for instance, a February 2004 irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) study (3). 

It was a meta-analysis (a review of multiple studies) study using 17 randomized controlled trials with results showing that soluble psyllium improved symptoms in patients significantly more than insoluble bran.

Fiber also has powerful effects on breast cancer treatment. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, soluble fiber had a significant impact on breast cancer risk reduction in estrogen negative women (4). Most beneficial studies for breast cancer have shown results in estrogen receptor positive women. This is one of the few studies that has illustrated significant results in estrogen receptor negative women. 

The list of chronic diseases and disorders that fiber prevents and/or treats also includes cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, diverticulosis and weight gain. This is hardly an exhaustive list. I am trying to impress upon you the importance of increasing fiber in your diet.

Foods that are high in fiber are part of a plant-rich diet. They are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Overall, beans, as a group, have the highest amount of fiber. Animal products don’t have fiber. Even more interesting is that fiber is one of the only foods that has no calories, yet helps you feel full. These days, it’s easy to increase your fiber by choosing bean-based pastas. Personally, I prefer those based on lentils. Read the labels, though; you want those that are solely made from lentils without rice added.

If you have a chronic disease, the best fiber sources are most likely disease dependent. However, if you are trying to prevent chronic diseases in general, I would recommend getting fiber from a wide array of sources. 

Make sure to eat meals that contain substantial amounts of fiber, which has several advantages, such as avoiding processed foods, reducing the risk of chronic disease, satiety and increased energy levels. Certainly, while protein is important, each time you sit down at a meal, rather than asking how much protein is in it, you now know to ask how much fiber is in it. 

References:

(1) Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(12):1061-1068. (2) Amer J Epidemiology 2008;167(5):570-578. (3) Aliment Pharmacology and Therapeutics 2004;19(3):245-251. (4) Amer J Clinical Nutrition 2009;90(3):664–671. 

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.   

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Maintaining your mobility is crucial
Dr. David Dunaief

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). We need to reduce our risk factors to improve this scenario.

Some risk factors are obvious. Others are not. 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 ones include gout, atrial fibrillation and osteoarthritis. Lifestyle modifications, including a high-fiber diet and exercise, may help allay the risks.

Let’s look at the evidence.

Obesity

Obesity continually gets play in discussions of disease risk. But how substantial a risk factor is it?

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) (2). 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 a thing as a “metabolically healthy” obese patient. Therefore, if you are obese, it is really important to lose weight.

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. An observational study found that activity levels had a surprisingly high impact on women’s heart disease risk (3). Of four key factors — weight, blood pressure, smoking and physical inactivity — age was the determinant as to which one had the most negative effect. 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 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. (4) 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.

Fiber

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 (5).  

Those who consumed the most fiber, compared to the least, had a 25 percent reduction in post-heart attack mortality. Even more impressive is 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 cardiovascular events such as heart attacks (6).

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(1):15-22. (3) Br J Sports Med. 2014, May 8. (4) PLoS ONE. 2014, Mar 14, 2014 [https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0091286]. (5) BMJ. 2014;348:g2659. (6) 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.    

The main symptom of a heart attack is chest pain. Stock photo
As many as 35 percent of heart attacks may present without chest pain

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Heart disease is the most common chronic disease in America. When we refer to heart disease, it is an umbrella term; heart attacks are one component. 

Fortunately, the incidence of heart attacks has decreased over the last several decades, as have deaths from heart attacks. However, there are still 790,000 heart attacks every year, and almost three-quarters of these are first heart attacks (1).

If you think someone is having a heart attack, call 911 as quickly as possible and have the patient chew an adult aspirin (325 mg) or four baby aspirins. While the Food & Drug Administration does not recommend aspirin for primary prevention of a heart attack, the use of aspirin here is for treatment of a potential heart attack, not prevention.

Heart attack symptoms

The main symptom is chest pain, which most people don’t have trouble recognizing. However, there are a number of other, more subtle, symptoms such as discomfort or pain in the jaw, neck, back, arms and epigastric, or upper abdominal areas. Others include nausea, shortness of breath, sweating, light-headedness and tachycardia (racing heart rate). One problem is that less than one-third of people know these other major symptoms (2). About 10 percent of patients present with atypical symptoms — without chest pain — according to one study (3).

It is not only difficult for the patient but also for the medical community, especially the emergency room, to determine who is having a heart attack. Fortunately, approximately 80 to 85 percent of chest pain sufferers are not having a heart attack. More likely, they have indigestion, reflux or other non-life-threatening ailments.

There has been a raging debate about whether men and women have different symptoms when it comes to heart attacks. Several studies speak to this topic.

Men vs. women

There is data showing that, although men have heart attacks more commonly, women are more likely to die from a heart attack (4). In a Swedish prospective (forward-looking) study, after having a heart attack, a significantly greater number of women died in hospital or near-term when compared to men. The women received reperfusion therapy, artery opening treatment that consisted of medications or invasive procedures, less often than the men.

However, recurrent heart attacks occurred at the same rate, regardless of sex. Both men and women had similar findings on an electrocardiogram; they both had what we call ST elevations. This was a study involving approximately 54,000 heart attack patients, with one-third of them being women.

One theory about why women are treated less aggressively when first presenting in the ER is that they have different and more subtle symptoms — even chest pain symptoms may be different. Women’s symptoms may include pain in the lower portion of the chest or upper portion of the abdomen and may have significantly less severe pain that could radiate or spread to the arms. But, is this true? Not according to several studies.

In one observational study, results showed that, though there were some subtle differences in chest pain, on the whole, when men and women presented with this main symptom, it was of a similar nature (5). There were 34 chest pain characteristic questions used to determine if a difference existed. These included location, quality or type of pain and duration. Of these, there was some small amount of divergence: The duration was shorter for a man (2 to 30 minutes), and pain subsided more for men than for women. The study included approximately 2,500 patients, all of whom had chest pain. The authors concluded that determination of heart attacks with chest pain symptoms should not factor in the sex of patients.

This trial involved an older population; patients were a median age of 70 for women and 59 for men, with more men having had a prior heart attack. The population difference was a conspicuous weakness of an otherwise solid study, since age and previous heart attack history are important factors.

In the GENESIS-PRAXY study, another observational study, but with a younger population, the median age of both men and women was 49. Results showed that chest pain remained the most prevalent presenting symptom in both men and women (6). However, of the patients who presented without distinct chest pain and with less specific EKG findings (non-ST elevations), significantly more were women than men. Those who did not have chest pain symptoms may have had some of the following symptoms: back discomfort; weakness; discomfort or pain in the throat, neck, right arm and/or shoulder; flushing; nausea; vomiting; and headache.

If the patients did not have chest pain, regardless of sex, the symptoms were diffuse and nonspecific. The researchers were looking at acute coronary syndrome, which encompasses heart attacks. In this case, independent risk factors for disease not related to chest pain included both tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and being female. The authors concluded that there need to be better ways to calibrate non-chest pain symptoms.

Some studies imply that as much as 35 percent of patients do not present with chest pain as their primary complaint (7).

Let’s summarize

So what have we learned about heart attack symptoms? The simplest lessons are that most patients have chest pain, and that both men and women have similar types of chest pain. However, this is where the simplicity stops and the complexity begins. The percentage of patients who present without chest pain seems to vary significantly depending on the study — ranging from less than 10 percent to 35 percent.

Non-chest pain heart attacks have a bevy of diffuse symptoms, including obscure pain, nausea, shortness of breath and light-headedness. This is seen in both men and women, although it occurs more often in women. When it comes to heart attacks, suspicion should be based on the same symptoms for both sexes. Therefore, know the symptoms, for it may be your life or a loved one’s that depends on it.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) MMWR. 2008;57:175–179. (3) Chest. 2004;126:461-469. (4) Int J Cardiol. 2013;168:1041-1047. (5) JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Feb. 1;174:241-249. (6) JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173:1863-1871. (7) JAMA 2012;307:813-822.

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.  

Studies have shown that eating fresh fruit and cinnamon may be beneficial to diabetics. Stock photo
Fresh fruit and cinnamon may reduce risk

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

What causes Type 2 diabetes? It would seem like an obvious answer: obesity, right? Well, obesity is a contributing factor but not necessarily the only factor. This is important because the prevalence of diabetes is at epidemic levels in the United States, and it continues to grow. The latest statistics show that about 12.2 percent of the U.S. population aged 18 or older has Type 2 diabetes, and about 9.4 percent when factoring all ages (1).

Not only may obesity play a role, but sugar by itself, sedentary lifestyle and visceral (abdominal) fat may also contribute to the pandemic. These factors may not be mutually exclusive, of course.

We need to differentiate among sugars, because form is important. Sugar and fruit are not the same with respect to their effects on diabetes, as the research will help clarify. Sugar, processed foods and sugary drinks, such as fruit juices and soda, have a similar effect, but fresh fruit does not.

Sugar’s impact

Sugar may be sweet, but it also may be a bitter pill to swallow when it comes to its effect on the prevalence of diabetes. In an epidemiological (population-based) study, the results show that sugar may increase the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes by 1.1 percent worldwide (2). This seems like a small percentage, however, we are talking about the overall prevalence, which is around 9.4 percent in the U.S., as we noted above.

Also, the amount of sugar needed to create this result is surprisingly low. It takes about 150 calories, or one 12-ounce can of soda per day, to potentially cause this rise in diabetes. This is looking at sugar on its own merit, irrespective of obesity, lack of physical activity or overconsumption of calories. The longer people were consuming sugary foods, the higher the incidence of diabetes. So the relationship was a dose-dependent curve. Interestingly, the opposite was true as well: As sugar was less available in some countries, the risk of diabetes diminished to almost the same extent that it increased in countries where it was overconsumed.

In fact, the study highlights that certain countries, such as France, Romania and the Philippines, are struggling with the diabetes pandemic, even though they don’t have significant obesity issues. The study evaluated demographics from 175 countries, looking at 10 years’ worth of data. This may give more bite to municipal efforts to limit the availability of sugary drinks. Even steps like these may not be enough, though. Before we can draw definitive conclusion from the study, however, there need to be prospective (forward-looking) studies.

Effect of fruit

The prevailing thought has been that fruit should only be consumed in very modest amounts in patients with — or at risk for — Type 2 diabetes. A new study challenges this theory. In a randomized controlled trial, newly diagnosed diabetes patients who were given either more than two pieces of fresh fruit or fewer than two pieces had the same improvement in glucose (sugar) levels (3). Yes, you read this correctly: There was a benefit, regardless of whether the participants ate more fruit or less fruit.

This was a small trial with 63 patients over a 12-week period. The average patient was 58 and obese, with a body mass index of 32 (less than 25 is normal). The researchers monitored hemoglobin A1C (HbA1C), which provides a three-month mean percentage of sugar levels.

It is very important to emphasize that fruit juice and dried fruit were avoided. Both groups also lost a significant amount of weight while eating fruit. The authors, therefore, recommended that fresh fruit not be restricted in diabetes patients.

What about cinnamon?

It turns out that cinnamon, a spice many people love, may help to prevent, improve and reduce sugars in diabetes. In a review article, the authors discuss the importance of cinnamon as an insulin sensitizer (making the body more responsive to insulin) in animal models that have Type 2 diabetes (4).

Cinnamon may work much the same way as some medications used to treat Type 2 diabetes, such as GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide-1) agonists. The drugs that raise GLP-1 levels are also known as incretin mimetics and include injectable drugs such as Byetta (exenatide) and Victoza (liraglutide). In a study with healthy volunteers, cinnamon raised the level of GLP-1 (5). Also, in a randomized control trial with 100 participants, 1 gram of cassia cinnamon reduced sugars significantly more than medication alone (6). The data is far too preliminary to make any comparison with FDA-approved medications. However, it would not hurt, and may even be beneficial, to consume cinnamon on a regular basis.

Sedentary lifestyle

What impact does lying down or sitting have on diabetes? Here, the risks of a sedentary lifestyle may outweigh the benefits of even vigorous exercise. In fact, in a recent study, the authors emphasize that the two are not mutually exclusive in that people, especially those at high risk for the disease, should be active throughout the day as well as exercise (7).

So in other words, the couch is “the worst deep-fried food,” as I once heard it said, but sitting at your desk all day and lying down also have negative effects. This coincides with articles I’ve written on exercise and weight loss, where I noted that people who moderately exercise and also move around much of the day are likely to lose the greatest amount of weight.

As a medical community, it is imperative that we reduce the trend of increasing prevalence by educating the population, but the onus is also on the community at large to make lifestyle changes. So America, take an active role.

References:

(1) www.cdc.gov/diabetes. (2) PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e57873. (3) Nutr J. published online March 5, 2013. (4) Am J Lifestyle Med. 2013;7(1):23-26. (5) Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1552–1556. (6) J Am Board Fam Med. 2009;22:507–512. (7) Diabetologia online March 1, 2013.

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.      

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Speedy diagnosis and treatment improves outcomes

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

TIA (transient ischemic attack) is sometimes referred to as a “mini-stroke.” This is a disservice since it makes a TIA sound like something that should be taken lightly. Ischemia is reduced or blocked blood flow to the tissue, due to a clot or narrowing of the arteries. Symptoms may last less than five minutes. However, a TIA is a warning shot across the bow that needs to be taken very seriously on its own. It may portend life-threatening or debilitating complications that can be prevented with a combination of medications and lifestyle modifications.

Is TIA common?

It is diagnosed in anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 Americans each year (1). The operative word is “diagnosed,” because it is considered to be significantly underdiagnosed. I have helped manage patients with symptoms as understated as the onset of double vision. Other symptoms may include facial or limb weakness on one side, slurred speech or problems comprehending others, dizziness or difficulty balancing or blindness in one or both eyes (2). TIA incidence increases with age (3).

What is a TIA?

It is a brief episode of neurological dysfunction caused by focal brain ischemia or retinal ischemia (low blood flow in the back of the eye) without evidence of acute infarction (tissue death) (4). In other words, TIA has a rapid onset with potential to cause temporary muscle weakness, creating difficulty in activities such as walking, speaking and swallowing, as well as dizziness and double vision.

Though they are temporary, TIAs have potential complications, from increased risk of stroke to heightened depressive risk to even death. Despite the seriousness of TIAs, patients or caregivers often delay receiving treatment.

Stroke risk

A TIA is a stroke that lasts only a few minutes.
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After a TIA, stroke risk goes up dramatically. Even within the first 24 hours, stroke risk can be 5 percent (5). According to one study, the incidence of stroke is 11 percent after seven days, which means that almost one in 10 people will experience a stroke after a TIA (6). Even worse, over the long term, the probability that a patient will experience a stroke reaches approximately 30 percent, one in three, after five years (7).

The EXPRESS study, a population-based study that considered the effect of urgent treatment of TIA and minor stroke on recurrent stroke, evaluated 1,287 patients, comparing their initial treatment times after experiencing a TIA or minor stroke and their subsequent outcomes (8).

The Phase 1 cohort was assessed within a median of three days of symptoms and received a first prescription within 20 days. In Phase 2, median delays for assessment and first prescription were less than one day. All patients were followed for two years after treatment. Phase 2 patients had significantly improved outcomes over the Phase 1 patients. Ninety-day stroke risk was reduced from 10 to 2 percent, an 80 percent improvement.

The study’s authors advocate for the creation of TIA clinics that are equipped to diagnose and treat TIA patients to increase the likelihood of early evaluation and treatment and decrease the likelihood of a stroke within 90 days. The moral of the story is: Treat a TIA as a stroke should be treated, the faster the diagnosis and treatment, the lower the likelihood of sequalae, or complications.

Predicting the risk of stroke

Both DWI (diffusion-weighted imaging) and ABCD2 are potentially valuable predictors of stroke after TIA. The ABCD2 is a clinical tool used by physicians. ABCD2 stands for Age, Blood pressure, Clinical features and Diabetes, and it uses a scoring system from 0 to 7 to predict the risk of a stroke within the first two days of a TIA (9).

Heart attack

In one epidemiological study, the incidence of a heart attack after a TIA increased by 200 percent (10). These were patients without known heart disease. Interestingly, the risk of heart attacks was much higher in those over 60 years of age and continued for years after the event. Just because you may not have had a heart attack within three months after a TIA, this is an insidious effect; the average time frame for patients was five years from TIA to heart attack.

Mortality

TIAs decrease overall survival by 4 percent after one year, by 13 percent after five years and by 20 percent after nine years, especially in those over age 65 (11). The reason younger patients had a better survival rate, the authors surmise, is that their comorbidity (additional diseases) profile was more favorable.

Depression

In a cohort study that involved over 5,000 participants, TIA was associated with an almost 2.5-times increased risk of depressive disorder (12). Those who had multiple TIAs had a higher likelihood of depressive disorder. Unlike with stroke, in TIA it takes much longer to diagnose depression, about three years after the event.

What can you do?

Awareness and education are important. While 67 percent of stroke patients receive education about their condition, only 35 percent of TIA patients do (13). Many risk factors are potentially modifiable, with high blood pressure being at the top of the list, as well as high cholesterol, increasing age (over 55) and diabetes.

Secondary prevention (preventing recurrence) and prevention of complications are similar to those of stroke protocols. Medications may include aspirin, antiplatelets and anticoagulants. Lifestyle modifications include a Mediterranean and DASH diet combination. Patients should not start an aspirin regimen for chronic preventive use without the guidance of a physician.

If you or someone you know has TIA symptoms, the patient needs to see a neurologist and a primary care physician and/or a cardiologist immediately for assessment and treatment to reduce risk of stroke and other long-term effects.

References:

(1) Stroke. Apr 2005;36(4):720-723; Neurology. May 13 2003;60(9):1429-1434. (2) mayoclinic.org. (3) Stroke. Apr 2005;36(4):720-723. (4) N Engl J Med. Nov 21 2002;347(21):1713-1716. (5) Neurology. 2011 Sept 27; 77:1222. (6) Lancet Neurol. Dec 2007;6(12):1063-1072. (7) Albers et al., 1999. (8) Stroke. 2008;39:2400-2401. (9) Lancet. 2007;9558;398:283-292. (10) Stroke. 2011; 42:935-940. (11) Stroke. 2012 Jan;43(1):79-85. (12) Stroke. 2011 Jul;42(7):1857-1861. (13) JAMA. 2005 Mar 23;293(12):1435.

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.    

Eat the colors of the rainbow to reduce the risk of dementia. Stock photo
Intensive lifestyle changes may grow protective telomeres

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Dementia may be diagnosed when someone experiences loss of memory plus loss of another faculty, such as executive functioning (decision-making) or language abilities (speaking, writing or reading). The latter is known as aphasia. Alzheimer’s disease is responsible for approximately 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases (1).

Unfortunately, there are no definitive studies that show reversal or a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. This is why prevention is central to Alzheimer’s — and dementia in general.

In terms of dementia, there is good news and some disappointing news.

We will start with the good news. Though chronological age is a risk factor that cannot be changed, biological age may be adjustable. There are studies that suggest we may be able to prevent dementia through the use of both lifestyle modifications and medications.

Telomeres’ length and biological age

Biological age may be different from chronologic age, depending on a host of environmental factors that include diet, exercise and smoking. There are substances called telomeres that are found at the ends of our chromosomes. They provide stability to this genetic material. As our telomeres get shorter and shorter, our cellular aging and, ultimately, biological aging, increases.

In a preliminary case control study, dementia patients were shown to have significantly shorter telomere length than healthy patients (2). Interestingly, according to the authors, men have shorter telomere length and may be biologically older by four years than women of the same chronological age. The researchers caution that this is a preliminary finding and may not have clinical implications.

What I find most intriguing is that intensive lifestyle modifications increased telomere length in a small three-month study with patients who had low-risk prostate cancer (3). By adjusting their lifestyles, study participants were potentially able to decrease their biological ages.

Diet’s effect

Lifestyle modifications play a role in many chronic diseases and disorders. Dementia is no exception. In a prospective observational study, involving 3,790 participants, those who had the greatest compliance with a Mediterranean-type diet demonstrated a significant reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, compared to the least compliant (4). Participants were over the age of 65, demographics included substantial numbers of both black and white participants, and there was a mean follow-up of 7.6 years. Impressively, those who adhered more strictly to the diet performed cognitively as if they were three years younger, according to the authors.

Beta-carotene and vitamin C effect

In a small, preliminary case-control study (disease vs. healthy patients), higher blood levels of vitamin C and beta-carotene significantly reduced the risk of dementia, by 71 percent and 87 percent, respectively (5). The blood levels were dramatically different in those with the highest and lowest blood levels of vitamin C (74.4 vs. 28.9 µmol/L) and beta-carotene (0.8 vs. 0.2 µmol/L).

The reason for this effect may be that these nutrients help reduce oxidative stress and thus have neuroprotective effects, preventing the breakdown of neurons. This study was done in the elderly, average 78.9 years old, which is a plus, since as we age we’re more likely to be afflicted by dementia.

It is critically important to delineate the sources of vitamin C and beta-carotene in this study. These numbers came from food, not supplements. Why is this important? First, beta-carotene is part of a family of nutrients called carotenoids. There are at least 600 carotenoids in food, all of which may have benefits that are not achieved when taking beta-carotene supplements. Second, beta-carotene in supplement form may increase the risk of small-cell lung cancer in smokers (6).

Foods that contain beta-carotene include fruits and vegetables such as berries; green leafy vegetables; and orange, red or yellow vegetables like peppers, carrots and sweet potato. In my practice, I test for beta-carotene and vitamin C as a way to measure nutrient levels and track patients’ progress when they are eating a nutrient-dense diet. Interestingly, many patients achieve more than three times higher than the highest beta-carotene blood levels seen in this small study.

Impact of high blood pressure medications

For those patients who have high blood pressure, it is important to know that not all blood pressure medications are created equal. When comparing blood pressure medications in an observational study, two classes of these medications stood out. Angiotensin II receptor blockers (known as ARBs) and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (known as ACE inhibitors) reduce the risk of dementia by 53 and 24 percent, respectively, when used in combination with other blood pressure medications.

Interestingly, when ARBs were used alone, there was still a 47 percent reduction in risk; however, ACE inhibitors lost their prevention advantage. High blood pressure is a likely risk factor for dementia and can also be treated with lifestyle modifications (7). Otherwise, ARBs or ACE inhibitors may be the best choices for reducing dementia risk.

Ginkgo biloba disappoints

Ginkgo biloba, a common herbal supplement taken to help prevent dementia, may have no benefit. In the GuidAge study, ginkgo biloba was shown to be no more effective than placebo in preventing patients from progressing to Alzheimer’s disease (8). This randomized controlled trial was done in elderly patients over a five-year period with almost 3,000 participants. There was no difference seen between the treatment and placebo groups. This reinforces the results of an earlier study, Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory trial (9). Longer studies may be warranted. The authors stressed the importance of preventive measures with dementia.

You may be able to prevent dementia, whether through lifestyle modifications or, if medications are necessary, through medication selection.

References:

(1) www.uptodate.com. (2) Arch Neurol. 2012 Jul 23:1-8. (3) Lancet Oncol. 2008;9(11):1048-1057. (4) Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;93:601-607. (5) J Alzheimers Dis. 2012;31:717-724. (6) Am. J. Epidemiol. 2009; 169(7):815-828. (7) Neurology. 2005;64(2):277. (8) Lancet Neurol. 2012;11(10):851-859. (9) JAMA. 2008;300(19):2253-2262.

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.