Every so often, a medical advance comes along that rewrites the script for treating a disease or condition. After today’s announcement of impressive results of a new type of cholesterol-lowering drug, that scenario just might happen in the next few years. The results of three clinical trials presented today at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, and simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that a class of new drugs called PCSK9 inhibitors can dramatically reduce the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream and prevent heart attacks, strokes, and other problems related to cholesterol-clogged arteries. The drawbacks are that PCSK9 inhibitors must be given by injection every 2 to 4 weeks, may cause mental confusion or trouble paying attention, and, if approved, will likely be expensive.
Nuts have been gaining traction as an all-natural health food. Tree nuts like almonds, pecans, and walnuts are especially prized for their rich cargo of vitamins, minerals, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The downside is that tree nuts tend to be pricey. But a study published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine puts the humble peanut squarely in the same nutritional league as its upscale cousins. This work makes the health benefits of nuts more accessible to lower-income shoppers. An international team of researchers found that in more than 200,000 people from Savannah to Shanghai, those who regularly ate peanuts and other nuts were substantially less likely to have died of any cause — particularly heart disease — over the study period than those who rarely ate nuts. A key take-home message from this study is that eating peanuts appears to be just as potent for preventing heart disease as eating other nuts.
Sitting in a sauna is one way to chase away the cold. A new report in JAMA Internal Medicine makes this pastime even more appealing: regularly spending time in a sauna may help keep the heart healthy and extend life. Among 2,300 middle-aged Finnish men, those who took a sauna bath four or more times a week were less likely to have died over a 20-year period than those who took a sauna once a week or less. Frequent visits to a sauna were also associated with lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and stroke. Sauna baths are generally safe and likely beneficial for people with well-controlled coronary artery disease or mild heart failure, but may not be so hot for those with unstable angina or a recent heart attack. The high temperature in a sauna can boost the heart rate to a level often achieved by moderate-intensity physical exercise. Is sitting in a sauna the equivalent of exercising? No. But exercising and then taking a sauna seems like a very healthy routine.
Warnings against eating foods high in cholesterol, like eggs or shrimp, have been a mainstay of dietary recommendations for decades. That could change if the scientific advisory panel for the 2015 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has its say. A summary of the committee’s December 2014 meeting says “Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” Translation: You don’t need to worry about cholesterol in your food. Why not? There’s a growing consensus among nutrition scientists that cholesterol in food has little effect on the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream. And that’s the cholesterol that matters. Doing away with the beware-cholesterol-in-food warning would simplify the art of choosing healthy foods. And it would let people enjoy foods that contain higher amounts of cholesterol, such as eggs, shrimp, and lobster, without worrying about it. A better focus is on reducing saturated fat and trans fat in the diet, which play greater roles in damaging blood vessels than dietary cholesterol.
Over the past decade, a barrage of reports linking low vitamin D levels to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other ills led many doctors to routinely test vitamin D levels in their healthy patients. But there is no good reason to do that, according to a new recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) published in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine. The task force concluded that it isn’t helpful for most people to know their vitamin D level, and that even if you have a “low” vitamin D level there’s little evidence that taking a vitamin D supplement will do most people any good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.