Heart Health

Daniel Pendick

Some doctors oversell artery-opening angioplasty

A heart attack in progress is a medical emergency. The leading way to stop it is with artery-opening angioplasty. But many angioplasties are done for reasons other than heart attack. Some are performed to ease chest pain that appears with physical activity or stress. This is the chest pain known as stable angina. Sometimes the prospective patient has no symptoms at all — just test results that indicate one or more clogged arteries. Cardiologists continuously debate when it’s appropriate to do non-emergency angioplasty. Two studies in JAMA Internal Medicine add some provocative new information: that incomplete or even misleading advice from doctors contributes to unnecessary angioplasties. And that’s a problem because angioplasty can harm as well as help.

Robert Shmerling, M.D.

Sodium studies blur the picture on what is heart healthy

We often look to science to solve life’s difficult questions. But sometimes it hands us more uncertainty. Take three reports in today’s New England Journal of Medicine. One shows that eating less sodium (a main component of salt) could save more than a million lives a year worldwide. A second came to a nearly opposite conclusion — that current average sodium intake is okay for cardiovascular health while getting either too little or too much is a problem. The third study essentially agreed with the second, but found that getting too little potassium may be as bad as getting too much sodium. The findings are certain to fuel the already heated debate on sodium and the international efforts to get people to take in less of it. But until there are good answers to the questions raised by the studies, it’s too soon to throw out recommendations to reduce sodium intake, especially in high-risk groups. Another lesson from the three New England Journal articles worth keeping in mind: getting more potassium from fruits, vegetables, and other foods is a good way to help keep your heart and arteries healthy.

Julie Corliss

Highlights from the American College of Cardiology annual meeting

Cardiologists from around the world have gathered in Washington, DC, for the 65th annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology in Washington, DC. During the opening lecture, Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, talked about the “challenge of success.” What does that mean? Since 1950, death rates from cardiovascular disease have plummeted by 70%, thanks to two major trends. One is the decline in smoking and improvements in cholesterol and blood pressure. The other is the boom in new therapies, including better medications, surgeries, and high-tech procedures to repair an array of heart problems. The challenge today is finding a new drug or procedure that raises this already high bar. Here’s a summary of four reports, two negative and two positive, of studies on new treatments for heart disease.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Keeping blood pressure under control reduces risk of second stroke

For anyone who has had a stroke, working to prevent a second one should be Job No. 1. Keeping blood pressure under control is an important part of that job. A study published yesterday in the journal Stroke shows that good blood pressure control after a stroke cuts the chances of having a repeat stroke by more than half. But the study also brought some bad news: less than one-third of stroke survivors in the study managed to get their blood pressure under control. Measuring blood pressure at home is one way to help control blood pressure—seeing that it is high can help you take steps to bring it down. These include lifestyle changes and medications.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Prehypertension increases stroke risk

How bad can a little high blood pressure be? It turns out that it might be worse than we thought. Researchers from Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, examined the results of 19 high-quality studies looking at links between prehypertension and stroke. The studies included more than three-quarters of a million people, whose health and wellbeing was followed for 36 years. Those with “high-range prehypertension” (blood pressure between 130/85 and 139/89) had a 95% higher stroke risk compared to people with healthy blood pressures. Those with “low-range prehypertension” (blood pressure between 120/80 and 129/84) had a 44% higher stroke risk. The size of the study and the length of the followup make the results believable. They don’t mean that we should elevate prehypertension to a disease. But they do signal that we need to take it seriously. The best way to treat prehypertension is with lifestyle changes.

Julie Corliss

Big arm-to-arm difference in blood pressure linked to higher heart attack risk

The next time you have your blood pressure checked, ask your health care to check it in both arms, rather than just in one. Why? A big difference between the two readings can give you an early warning about increased risk of cardiovascular disease, a new study suggests. Harvard researchers found that people who have a 10-point difference in blood pressure from one arm to the other are 38% more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or a related problem than those with arm-to arm differences less than 10 points. Small differences in blood pressure readings between the right and left arm are normal. But large ones suggest the presence of artery-clogging plaque in the vessel that supplies blood to the arm with higher blood pressure. Clogging there means there’s a good chance the arteries in the heart and brain are also clogged, boosting the odds of having a heart attack or stroke.

Stephanie Watson

Death of a spouse or partner can lead to heart attack or stroke

The grief of losing a spouse or partner affects not just emotional and mental health, but physical health as well. The surviving spouse or partner often develops health problems in the weeks and months that follow. A study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine found that individuals who had lost a spouse or partner were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke within the next 30 days. Grief activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for revving up the body’s fight-or-flight response. That can lead to stress-induced changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood clotting. There is also a tendency after such a profound loss for the surviving spouse or partner to disregard his or her own health. It can take several months to a year to work through grief and grieving. If it lasts much longer, and is interfering with daily life—seeing friends, doing once-pleasurable activities—it’s possible that grief has morphed into something more serious, like depression.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

New guidelines aim to help women prevent stroke

The first-ever guidelines for preventing stroke in women don’t fool around. They offer ways to prevent this disabling and potentially deadly event from adolescence to old age. More than half of the 800,000 Americans who have strokes each year are women. Nearly 4 million American women are living with the aftermath of a stroke. And because women live longer than men, their lifetime risk of having a stroke is higher. Those numbers are why stroke prevention is especially important for women. The guidelines cover the use of oral contraceptives, high blood pressure during pregnancy, the use of hormones after menopause, and migraine with aura. They also cover the fundamentals of stroke prevention, like controlling blood pressure, exercising more, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking.

Julie Corliss

Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease

A sugar-laden diet boosts the chances of dying of heart disease even among people who aren’t overweight. So says a major study published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. Over the course of the 15-year study, individuals who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar. Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet—and that was true regardless of a person’s age, sex, physical activity level, and body-mass index (a measure of weight). Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks are by far the biggest sources of added sugar in the average American’s diet. They account for more than one-third of the added sugar we consume as a nation. Other important sources include cookies, cakes, pastries, and similar treats; fruit drinks; ice cream, frozen yogurt and the like; candy; and ready-to-eat cereals.

Patrick J. Skerrett

New study adds caution to testosterone therapy for “low T”

Mass marketing of testosterone therapy may have men eager to try this seemingly simple fix. But the latest science should have them scratching their heads and putting away the credit card—at least for now. A new study published in the online journal PLOS One shows an increase in the risk of having a heart attack in the months after starting testosterone therapy. The potential for danger was highest in older men. A report in the November 6, 2013, issue of JAMA showed that men who used testosterone therapy didn’t fare as well after artery-opening angioplasty as men who didn’t take testosterone. Neither was the type of study that can prove cause and effect. They can only show associations, or links. That means there’s no smoking gun here that testosterone therapy is harmful. But the studies do suggest caution. Given the uncertainly over the benefits and risks of testosterone therapy, what’s a man to do? Take a cautious approach, advises the Harvard Men’s Health Watch.