Howard LeWine, M.D.
Posts by Howard LeWine, M.D.
Some years the flu vaccine works quite well. Other years it doesn’t. It has done a particularly poor job this year against the main flu virus. The CDC reported yesterday that this year’s flu vaccine has been just 18% effective. The estimate for children is even lower. And it looks like the nasal spray vaccine may not have worked at all among children. One reason for this year’s mismatch between virus and vaccine is that experts must decide months in advance which of the hundreds of flu viruses to include in the vaccine. What became the dominant flu virus this year, a new strain of H3N2 influenza A, wasn’t around last year when experts were determining this year’s vaccine.
Medications can do wonderful things, from fighting infection to preventing stroke and warding off depression. But medications don’t work if they aren’t taken. Some people don’t take their medications as prescribed because they forget, or are bothered by side effects. A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics shines the light on another reason: nearly 1 in 10 people skip medications because they can’t pay for them. Other strategies for saving money on drug costs included asking doctors for lower-cost medications, buying prescription drugs from other countries, and using alternative therapies. Not taking medications as prescribed can cause serious problems. It can lead to unnecessary complications related to a medical condition. It can lead to a bad outcome, like a heart attack or stroke. It can also increase medical costs if hospitalization or other medical interventions are needed. Safe money-saving options include using generic drugs when possible, pill splitting, shopping around, and making lifestyle changes such as exercising more and following a healthier diet, which can sometimes decrease the number and dose of drugs needed.
The standard recommendation for exercise is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. But that may not be the best recommendation for everyone, especially those who are older and have trouble exercising, or those who don’t exercise at all. If we think of exercise as a spectrum, with no activity on one end and 150 minutes or more a week on the other end, there’s a continuum in between. Getting individuals to move along that continuum, from no exercise to a little, a little to more, and so on, is an important goal. New research on the hazards of sitting for prolonged periods should get all of us to sit less and stand or move more.
Ninety years ago, type 1 diabetes was a death sentence: half of people who developed it died within two years; more than 90% were dead within five years. Thanks to the introduction of insulin therapy in 1922, and numerous advances since then, many people with type 1 diabetes now live into their 50s and beyond. But survival in this group still falls short of that among people without diabetes. A Scottish study published this week in JAMA shows that at the age of 20, individuals with type 1 diabetes on average lived 12 fewer years than 20-year-olds without it. A second study in the same issue of JAMA showed that people with type 1 diabetes with better blood sugar control lived longer than those with poorer blood sugar control.
Getting up at night to use the bathroom is often thought of as a problem mainly for older men. Not so—two in three women over age 40 wake up at least once each night because of a full bladder. And nearly half of them make two or more nighttime trips to the bathroom. Factors that increased the likelihood that a woman woke at night to urinate included older age, having had a hysterectomy, having hot flashes, and using vaginal estrogen. Many of the women had no other urinary problems, such as an overactive bladder or leaking urine when coughing, and many weren’t especially bothered by having to get up at night to urinate. Getting up once or more each night to urinate may not be “bothersome,” but it can still cause problems. It can interfere with sleep. It can also lead to falls and injury.
Last spring, an advisory panel for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recommended that Medicare not cover low-dose CT scans for smokers or former smokers. These scans can double the proportion of lung cancers found at an early stage, while they are still treatable. Yesterday, CMS announced that it would cover the cost of these scans for people between the ages of 55 and 74 who smoke, or who quit within the last 15 years, and who have a smoking history of 30 pack-years. (That means a pack a day for 30 years, two packs a day for 15 years, etc.) The new Medicare plan would cover scans for an estimated 4 million older Americans, at a cost estimated to be more than $9 billion over five years. In a wise addition, Medicare will require smokers to get counseling on quitting or the importance of staying smoke-free before having the annual scan.
The FDA’s approval in 2010 of the blood-thinner dabigatran (Pradaxa) got many doctors excited. It was at least as effective as warfarin for preventing stroke-causing blood clots, and possibly caused fewer bleeding side effects. In addition, it is easier to use. Since then, studies of Pradaxa have slightly dampened the enthusiasm for the new drug. For example, a new study from the University of Pittsburgh showed that Pradaxa cause more episodes of serious bleeding (9%) than warfarin (6%). The bleeding sites tended to differ. Bleeding in the stomach and intestines was slightly higher among Pradaxa users. Bleeding in the head was slightly higher among warfarin users. Black patients and those with chronic kidney disease were more likely to bleed from Pradaxa.
For the third time in two years, the FDA has approved a drug to help people lose weight. The new drug, Contrave, combines two generic drugs, naltrexone and bupropion. Naltrexone is used to help kick an addiction to alcohol or narcotics. Bupropion is used to treat depression and seasonal affective disorder. Many people also take bupropion to stop smoking. Neither naltrexone nor bupropion by itself has been approved for weight loss. Specifically, Contrave was approved for use by adults who are obese (meaning a body-mass index of 30 or higher) and by overweight adults (body-mass index between 27 and 30) who have at least one other weight-related condition or illness, such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. Across the clinical trials on which the FDA based its approval, some people lost more than 5% of their body weight. But it’s important to note that more than 50% had minimal or no weight loss. Side effects ranging from seizures and high blood pressure to diarrhea and constipation were reported.
The results of a clinical trial reported in yesterday’s Annals of Internal Medicine showed that low-carb diets helped people lose weight better than low fat diets. A report in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association tells a somewhat different story. A review of 48 head-to-head diet trails showed that average weight loss on either a low-carb or low-fat diet for 12 months was the same, about 16 pounds. And when the researchers compared named diets, which ranged from the low-carb Atkins and South Beach diets to moderates like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and low-fat approaches like the Ornish diet, all yielded similar weight loss. The main message from careful comparisons of different diets is that there’s no single diet that’s right for everyone. Any healthy diet can help people lose weight. And there’s more to a diet than weight loss. What’s needed for long-term health is an eating plan that can be followed day in and day out that is good for the heart, bones, brain, and every other part of the body. One eating strategy that can provide all that is the so-called Mediterranean diet.
Screening — checking a seemingly healthy person for signs of hidden disease — is an important part of routine medical care. It is done for various types of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Screening makes sense when finding and treating a hidden condition will prevent premature death or burdensome symptoms. But it doesn’t make sense when it can’t do either. That’s why experts recommend stopping screening in older individuals, especially those who aren’t likely to live another five or 10 years. Yet an article published online in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that many doctors still recommend cancer screening tests for their older patients. Many don’t benefit, and some are even harmed by the practice. Asking people who can’t benefit from a cancer screening test to have one is a waste of their time and money, not to mention a waste of taxpayer money (since these tests are usually covered by Medicare). Screening tests can also cause physical and mental harm. Decisions about cancer screening should be mutually made by an individual and his or her doctor. Equally important, the person should be well informed about the risks of the test and about what will happen if a test suggests there may be cancer that won’t shorten the his or her life.