Sodium Chloride Salt Substitution Works in a Community Trial

At a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology, J. Jaime Miranda, M.D. PhD, of the University of Peruan Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru reported that substituting artificial salt substitute potassium chloride for table salt lowered the blood pressure of participants, reduced the number of new cases of hypertension and ultimately reduced stroke and heart disease mortality

For this study, researchers enlisted the assistance of six semi-rural agricultural fishing villages in the Tumbes region of Peru. All adults 18 and older were approached and over 91% of the 2,605 potential enrollees agreed to participate. Patients with chronic kidney disease, known heart disease or digoxin use were excluded because of the use of potassium and potential cumulative effects of this element.

The study area and residents historically have very little high blood pressure. In Peru, 140 systolic blood pressure and 90 diastolic blood pressure are considered the upper limits of normal.

The researchers replaced the sodium chloride used in food preparation with potassium chloride salt distributing it free to all families, shops, restaurants and bakeries over a three-year period. The results revealed a very small reduction in systolic blood pressure which still reduced the risk of stroke by 10% and ischemic heart disease by 7 %. The drop in blood pressure was more definitive in the 18% having hypertension at the time they entered the study and those 60 years of age or older.

This study raised the possibility of researchers approaching food manufacturers around the world to substitute potassium chloride artificial salt for sodium chloride as a means of lowering blood pressure and its stroke, cardiac, renal and vascular complications. It reinforced the suggestions to stop adding sodium chloride salt at the table or in food preparation if you wish to keep your blood pressure under control.

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Heartburn, Indigestion & Protein Pump Inhibitors

I have seen multiple adult patients with intractable heartburn, reflux, indigestion and chest pressure all related to food and digestive enzymes kicking back up the esophagus from the stomach through a lax group of muscles known as the lower esophageal sphincter.  All these patients receive a fiber optic upper endoscopy (EGD) at some point and are observed and biopsied to eliminate the possibility of ulcers, cancer, gastric polyps, esophageal cancer, potential esophageal cancer and Helicobacter Pylori bacteria as the cause.

They are all treated with weight control suggestions, avoiding a host of foods, most of which are quite healthy from a cardiovascular standpoint plus limits on alcohol, elimination of tobacco and other indulgences of adults. We ask these patients to wear loose clothing at the waistline, avoid reclining for three hours after eating and take a host of medicines including proton pump inhibitors (PPI) such as Nexium, Protonix, Prilosec.  Drugs like Tagamet, Zantac (H2 Receptor Blockers), Tums, Rolaids are far less effective.

In recent years, numerous articles have appeared in medical journals stating that protein pump inhibitors, when taken regularly, can predispose to increased and early death, pneumonia and dementia.  A large review article from a prominent GI group in Boston, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, tried to eloquently refute these claims but the doubt about long term safety lingers buoyed by numerous lay periodicals and online internet sites sensationalizing the down sides of these medicines.

To allay the patients fears, doctors and patients work together to try and stop the PPIs and substitute the older standbys like Tagamet and Zantac but they just don’t provide the symptom relief that the PPI’s do. Patient’s face the dilemma of taking the medicine that works best and incurring the potential risks or suffering.

In a recent edition of the journal Gastroenterology, Paul Moayyedi, MB ChB, PhD from McMaster University in Canada followed 17,000 patients for three years with half the group taking PPI’s. Those taking a PPI (Protonix) for three years had no more illness or adverse effects than those taking a placebo.  L. Cohen, MD, a reviewer at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in NY, concluded that the study provided strong evidence of the safety of PPIs for patients taking the drug for three consecutive years.

The controversy will continue. I am sure next week someone will produce data revealing some additional horrible consequences of taking these medications to relieve heartburn. It will ultimately come down to individual decisions about quality of life versus potential risks because the lifestyle changes necessary to control this problem are difficult for human beings to sustain over a long period of time.

Alzheimer’s Disease – More Insight

The August 1, 2019 issue of the journal Neurology carried a report of a team of researchers who have developed a blood test that can detect the presence of amyloid in the brain with 94% accuracy.  Amyloid is one of the chemical constituents found to be tangling up the neuron nerve communication pathways in humans with Alzheimer’s disease.

The article emphasizes this is currently a strict research tool. It is not a laboratory test that your physician or clinic can order or use to detect this form of dementia early. The results of the blood test correlate well with imaging studies currently in use. It is one small step in the investigation of the causes of this progressive, and fatal, heartbreaking disease and hopefully will allow us to evaluate Alzheimer’s at its earliest stages.

In a journal specifically dedicated to this disease entitled Alzheimer’s and Dementia, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco discussed the increased tendency of patients with Alzheimer’s disease to nap and sleep inappropriately and ineffectively. Previously it was felt that this inappropriate sleep pattern when observed was in fact a risk factor and marker for the development of the disease.

Lea Grinberg, MD and her co-authors feel it is a symptom of the disease instead. They believe that the disease process has already destroyed or inhibited those neurons (brain nerve cells) responsible for wakefulness and alertness. In the absence of this stimulation, patients nap and sleep ineffectively and inappropriately.

Imaging of these areas is difficult to obtain because of their location in the skull and brain but, on detailed studies, more tau protein deposition in these wakefulness areas is visualized.   This concept now allows researchers to zero in on other brain chemicals associated with wakefulness, alertness and sleep as a potential form of treatment of Alzheimer’s disease in addition to those chemicals in the cholinergic system that most medications attack.

Collusion or Conspiracy?

A 67 year-old woman with a high stress job had a vigorous disagreement with her neighbors last week. She developed severe substernal chest pain and called 911 fearing a heart attack. She is thin, has never smoked, has normal blood pressure and normal cholesterol. She is not a diabetic and runs on a treadmill for two hours at five miles per hour with an elevation for two hours four times a week. She has few risks for developing heart disease.

The ER staff was quick and efficient. An EKG revealed changes consistent with a multivessel involved heart attack. Her cardiac isoenzymes were elevated and abnormal confirming muscle injury. The ER doctor called her PCP and the cardiologist on call. This experienced interventional heart specialists on call, has worked with and cared for many of the PCPs patients. He came right over, explained the options to the patient and, with her agreement and the PCPs blessing, took her to the heart catheterization lab to perform an angiogram to find the blockages and restore blood flow to the heart muscles.

To his surprise her arteries were perfectly normal with no blockages. The heart muscle was pumping weakly exhibiting the appearance of an octopus swimming through the sea proclaiming the unusual heartbreak stress syndrome known as Takotsubos cardiomyopathy. With rest, time and reduction of stress; she was projected to recover fully in days to weeks.

She was monitored overnight and observed until her heart enzymes were normalizing, her heart rhythm was normal, and; she could walk around the room easily. She was medicated with a low dose aspirin, a low dose of a beta blocker to blunt the stress induced surge of chemicals that caused the heart damage and mild antianxiety medicines. She was advised to cancel her work schedule for two weeks, cancel a cruise scheduled for the upcoming weekend and see a psychologist for stress reduction.

She opposed each of these suggestions and demanded that I call her relative’s cardiologist for a second opinion. The very type A characteristics that led to her stress, anxiety and illness was creating the request for a second opinion. The diagnosis and treatment were straight forward.

I called her cardiologist to explain the request never expecting the reaction I received. He is successful and experienced but when I brought it up he became anxious, angry and defensive. Why? He said he was leaving the case! I begged him not to and called the cardiologist she requested for a second opinion.

“We do not do in-hospital second opinions because we wish to maintain collegiality. Let her call my office when she is home and we will see her as an outpatient.” She called that office for an appointment and was told the next appointment is in six months. I called three other groups and received the same answer of no second opinions on inpatients to maintain collegiality.

As a primary care, physician my decisions are questioned and second guessed daily. Dr Google, Dr Cousin in NY or Boston, retired neighbor doctor offer opinions on my care regularly. It comes with the territory.

An anxious fit senior citizen suffering a frightening and unexpected heart malady should be able to obtain a second opinion without threatening the egos or collegiality of professionals. I called the medical staff office and hospital administration for help and was told to work it out with my colleagues.

As we examine our dysfunctional health system, we are quick to blame insurers, big pharmacy and government interference. Medical doctors are not without blame.

Glucosamine – Heart Disease and Osteoarthritis

Glucosamine associated with chondroitin Sulfate is a supplement taken for joint health and to relieve joint pain. Several studies have shown unclear results regarding its efficacy in arthritis, but it has been shown to be safe.

A study in the Annals of Rheumatologic Disease suggested it reduced the symptoms of knee pain from osteoarthritis by modifying the inflammatory response not suppressing the symptoms as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs do.  In the MOVES trial, glucosamine was compared with Celebrex (celecoxib) for relief of knee pain in osteoarthritis. At six months the two were noted to be equivalent in reducing pain. Glucosamine did not produce the gastrointestinal side effects that Celebrex and other NSAIDs can while reducing pain.

In an editorial, written in the online journal Primary Care, Dr. David Rakel looked at 466,000 patients entered into the United Kingdom Biobank database who took glucosamine products for arthritis. They were followed for seven years.  Over that period, the glucosamine users had a 15% lower incidence of cardiac events than non-users. Smokers showed a higher reduction in cardiac events – almost 37%.  They attribute this to a reduction in systemic inflammation as evidenced by a decrease in the inflammatory marker levels of C Reactive Protein in glucosamine users.

In general, glucosamine is usually taken at a dose of 750 mg twice a day.  It is combined with chondroitin which increases the viscosity of the synovial (joint) fluid. Glucosamine helps retain fluid in the joint. It usually takes about six to eight weeks to see a positive effect.   For reasons that are not entirely clear, it works best in lean individuals rather than obese ones.

Glucosamine is made from Crustacean shells so those people with a shellfish allergy should avoid it.

Tick-Borne Powassan Virus Infections Are Increasing

As we begin the summer months, and people spend more time outside, we experience more tick-borne illnesses. Mention tick-borne illnesses and you immediately think of Lyme Disease which is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States.

A new tick-borne illness is emerging in the same geographic area that Lyme Disease is seen.   Powassan Virus (POWV) has increased from two cases reported in 2008 to well over 30 reported in 2017.  Two cases have been reported recently in New Jersey, including one fatality.

In Lyme Disease the tick attaches to the human body for 36-48 hours prior to the bacterium being transmitted to humans. In Powassan Virus this occurs within the first 15 minutes that the tick latches on. The incubation period can range from one week to one month with patients experiencing fever, vomiting, headache, weakness, loss of coordination, confusion, difficulty speaking and or seizures. The virus affects the central nervous system and can cause encephalitis and meningitis. One in 10 cases is fatal.  Recovery with permanent neurological damage can occur.

There are no medications or vaccines available to prevent or treat POWV infections. Treatment is supportive. Scientists believe the increase in ticks and POWV is a direct result of climate change.

Prevention is the key especially if you are going to be in an area known to have ticks. Experts suggest:

  1. Wear long sleeves and pants with socks pulled up over the bottom of the leg pants.
  2. Wear light colored clothes so ticks can be spotted on your clothing
  3. Use insect repellant with at least 20% DEET. Spray it on the exterior of your clothing and apparel
  4. Upon returning inside perform a thorough tick check.

This is an infection and virus most practicing physicians know very little about. There are no telltale warning rashes as in Lyme Disease.  Until more is known, prevention is the best option.

Tidbits on Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

A few years back I attended a lecture given by the director of geriatrics and memory / wellness program at the Massachusetts General Hospital. She began the program by asking the audience for a show of hands as to how many doctors and health care providers were suggesting that their older patients try brain teasers and brain games and puzzles to keep their geriatric patients mentally sharp and stave off dementia.  Everyone’s hand shot up indicating that we all were trying this method to stave off memory loss. She responded with, “Your patient’s will all be great problem solvers when we diagnose their dementia.”   She delivered a message of the importance of older patients maintaining a social network of friends and family that provided the stimulation rather than relying on computer games and brain teasers.  Like everything else in medicine, time and research modify your approach as to what works.

Two studies published in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry promoted the use of regular puzzle attempts by seniors. The first by Helen Brooker, Ph.D. from Exeter in the United Kingdom showing that older adults who regularly use word and number puzzles have higher cognitive functioning than those who do not.  She looked at 19,000 plus cognitively healthy individuals aged 50-93 years.  Participants self-reported their frequency of playing word puzzles.  Their frequency of performing word puzzles correlated positively with 14 measures of cognitive function.  They then compared individuals who used number puzzles against those who did not and found similar positive results for the puzzle participants.

Clearly being able to enjoy solving puzzles is correlated with beneficial cognitive performance. It is probably one piece of a larger puzzle including socialization, healthy lifestyle choices, genetics and human interaction that contributes to overall health.