It’s been a topsy-turvy few days in the world of heart health and disease. Last week, the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology released new guidelines that upended previous recommendations for who should take a cholesterol-lowering statin. A few days later, two Harvard physicians challenged the accuracy of the calculator included in the guidelines, saying it would cause many people to unnecessarily take a statin. The story made headlines in The New York Times and prompted a closed-door review by the guidelines committee. The controversy over the calculator should serve to improve this tool. Adoption of the guidelines should help prevent more heart attacks, strokes, and premature deaths. It’s important to keep in mind that guidelines are just that—information to guide a decision, not to mandate it. The best approach is to talk about what’s best for you with a trusted physician.
Howard LeWine, M.D.
Posts by Howard LeWine, M.D.
Most people take balance for granted. They navigate without thinking, effort, or fear. For millions of others, though, poor balance is a problem. Some struggle with long-term dizziness or imbalance. Others suffer balance-related falls and injuries. A new study concludes that exercise can reduce not only the odds of falling but the odds of sustaining fall-related injuries. In many urban areas, there’s no shortage of classes aimed at improving balance. You can find them at senior centers, Y’s and Jewish Community Centers, health clubs, and the like. There’s also a lot you can do at home. The American College of Sports Medicine Standing recommends standing with one foot in front of another, lifting a foot off the floor, and shifting weight in various directions as three examples of home exercises.
Today is World Stroke Day. It offers a good reminder of the profound impact that stroke has on individuals and communities. Nearly 800,000 Americans have strokes each year. Worldwide, one in six adults will have a stroke during their lifetime. Although most survive, stroke is a leading cause of disability in the United States and many other countries. A report published last week in The Lancet documents a troubling trend: more and more young people are experiencing strokes. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of strokes among people aged 20 to 64 years increased 25%. This age group now accounts for one-third of strokes worldwide. Some stroke survivors recover fully and regain their previous levels of function. Others don’t. Keys to full recovery include rapid identification of stroke symptoms, immediate evaluation and treatment, early rehabilitation, and support
There’s no question that tests to detect cancer before it causes any problems can save lives. But such tests can also cause harm through overdiagnosis and overtreatment. A study published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that the majority of people aren’t informed by their doctors that early warning cancer tests may detect slow-growing, or no-growing, cancers that will never cause symptoms or affect health. Undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation for such cancers provides no benefits and definite harms. The researchers found that only 9.5% of people were informed by their doctors of the risk of overdiagnosis and possible overtreatment. Compare that to 80% who said they wanted to be informed of the possible harms of screening before having a screening test. Informing patients about the risks of screening isn’t easy to do in a brief office visit. It’s complicated information. And the researchers suggest that many doctors don’t have a good grip on relative benefits and harms of screening.
William Howard Taft was America’s heaviest president. He would have preferred being seen and remembered for something else, and took steps to lose weight. Taft’s story of weight loss and regain, described in today’s Annals of Internal Medicine, sounds completely familiar today, more than 100 years later. Using correspondence and archival sources, Deborah Levine, an assistant professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, tells the story of Taft’s struggles with his weight. In 1905, with the help of a British physician, Taft went from 314 pounds to 255. He was pleased with his accomplishment. But three years later, when Taft was inaugurated as the nation’s 27th President, he tipped the scales at 354 pounds. His story and struggle with weight are no different than what many people experience today.
Women with early-stage HER-2 positive breast cancer may benefit by taking a drug called pertuzumab (Perjeta) before undergoing breast surgery. By shrinking breast tumors before surgery, the drug is expected to lead to less invasive operations and a greater chance of a cure. Perjeta was initially approved in 2012 to treat late-stage breast cancer that had spread to other parts of the body. Yesterday the FDA approved it for pre-surgery use. Keep in mind that the use of Perjeta before surgery has only been approved for women with HER-2 positive breast cancer. In this form of the disease, which affects accounts for one in five cases of breast cancer, the malignant cells overproduce something called human epidermal growth factor receptor-2. Such tumor cells tend to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer cells.
In a new study sure to raise hackles and controversy, an international team of researchers is reporting that pregnant women who drink alcohol during the first trimester of pregnancy and possibly beyond aren’t putting their babies at risk for premature birth or low birth weight, or themselves at risk for high blood pressure complications during pregnancy. This goes against recommendations for women to avoid drinking alcohol during pregnancy. The main reason for this is that heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to a long-term and irreversible condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome that can cause long-lasting physical and developmental problems. The medical evidence supporting strict abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy is not very strong. Will there be consensus about whether it’s safe for a pregnant woman to have a glass of wine or a beer once or twice a week? I don’t think we will see that any time soon.
Savvy shoppers know that it’s a bad idea to shop for food when they are hungry. It’s a formula for filling your cart with high calorie foods, and likely spending more money than expected. Shopping while sleep deprived may have the same effect. That finding came from an interesting experiment done by a team of Swedish researchers. Sleep-deprived men bought more food, and more high-calorie foods, the morning after sleep deprivation than the morning after sleeping well. We’ve known for some time that not getting enough sleep is linked to weight gain. It’s possible that shopping may contribute to this phenomenon. For years, research on weight gain and obesity has focused on genes, foods, diets, and physical activity (or the lack of it). This study from Sweden, along with many others, are showing that our behaviors also play important roles in weight maintenance and weight gain.
It’s easy to think of heart disease and stroke as an almost inevitable part of aging in a developed country like the United States. After all, they are our leading causes of death and disability. But the truth is that these are largely preventable conditions. New estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that one-quarter of all deaths from heart disease and stroke are preventable. And that is almost certainly an underestimate. According to the report, published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, among American adults under age 75, approximately 200,000 of deaths caused each year by heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure (hypertension) are preventable. Surprisingly, more than half of those preventable deaths occurred among individuals under age 65. The good news is that the rate of preventable death declined 29% from 2001 to 2010, the last year for which there are complete statistics.
When it comes to treating stroke, time is brain and every minute counts. That tenet was supported yet again by an international study showing that the sooner clot-busting treatment is begun—preferably within 90 minutes of the onset of stroke symptoms—the greater the chances of surviving a stroke without a disability. This finding makes it even more important to recognize the warning signs of stroke. Think FAST: Face (when the person smiles, does one side droop?), Arms (when the person lifts both arms, does one drift down?), Speech (is the person’s speech slurred or incomplete?), and Time (if one or more stroke signs are present, call 911 right away and get the person to the nearest hospital with an emergency department—better yet, to one with a stroke center).