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Fish, Fish Oils and Cardiovascular Disease

Years ago the scientific researcher responsible for the promotion of fish oils as an antioxidant and protector against vascular disease recommended we all eat two fleshy fish meals of cold water fish a week. He continued to endorse this dietary addition and included canned tuna fish and canned salmon in the types of fish that produced this positive effect.

Over the years I heard him lecture at a large annual medical conference held in Broward County and he fretted about the growth of the supplement industry encouraging taking fish oils rather than eating fish. He worried about the warnings against eating all fish to women of child bearing age because of the fear of heavy metal contamination and knew that the fish oils and omega 3 Fatty Acids played a developmental role in a growing fetus and child.

I then attended lectures, in particular one sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic, during which they promoted Krill oil as the chosen form of fish oil supplements because it remained liquid and viscous at body temperature of 98.6 while others solidified. I listened to this debate only to hear the father of the science speak again and this time advocate that one or two fleshy fish meals a month was adequate to obtain the protective effect of Omega 3 Fatty acids. He felt that the supplements did not actually provide a protective effect as eating real fish did. Since I love to eat fresh fish I had no problem with this message but others are not comfortable buying and preparing fish at home or eating it at a restaurant. Supplements to them were the answer.

Steve Kopecky, M.D. examined the question in an article published in JAMA Cardiology this week. He looked at 77,917 high risk individuals already diagnosed with coronary artery disease and vascular disease who were taking supplements to prevent a second event. His study concluded that taking these omega 3 supplements had no effect on the prevention of recurrent cardiovascular events. The study did not discuss primary prevention for those who have not yet had a vascular illness or event.

Once again it seems that eating fish in moderation, like most anything, is the best choice. I will continue to eat my fresh fish meals one or two times per week, not necessarily for the health benefit but because I enjoy eating fresh fish.

I advise those worried about preventing primary or secondary heart and vascular disease to find a form of fish they can enjoy if they want this benefit. If you really wish to reduce your risk of a cardiovascular event; I suggest you stop smoking, control your blood pressure and lipid profile, stay active and eat those fresh fish meals.


More on Shingrix, the Shingles Vaccine

Recently, the FDA approved a new shingles vaccine called Shingrix. It is a two shot series with the suggestion made that the second shot should be taken 2 – 6 months after the first one. Shingrix will replace the original shingles vaccine Zostavax. Shingrix is recommended in all patients over 50 years old.

For those of you who have had the original shot, Zostavax, the new vaccine is still recommended. It is covered by Medicare Part D which means you must take it in a pharmacy or walk in center not in your doctor’s office. While this makes NO sense, it is the rule. If you have had shingles it is still recommended you take the new vaccine (Shingrix).

Shingles is a skin rash and painful skin condition caused by the chicken pox virus Varicella. When you have chicken pox and complete the infection course you are immune but the virus remains alive forever, living in sensory nerve endings along the spinal cord. One third of adults will have an outbreak of this varicella virus which will appear along the path of a sensory nerve or dermatome on one side of your body. It will go through the full cycle of rash, pustule and then scab that the chicken pox did. A significant number of patients will continue to have pain over the involved skin for prolonged time periods in what we call post herpetic neuralgia. The pain is described as severe as an eye scrape, passing a kidney stone or going through labor and delivery.

The original shingles vaccine, Zostavax, protected against the rash 51% of the time and against post herpetic neuralgia 67% of the time. This efficacy dropped to about 30% after four years. The new vaccine, Shingrix protects against the rash over 90% of the time and against the pain syndrome 85-90% of the time while lasting for more than four years.

Only five percent (5%) of patients receiving Shingrix develop side effects. The most common are fever, myalgia and chills. In view of this, I am suggesting to my patients we allow the vaccine to be on the U.S. market for a year to see the adverse event profile and, if safe, we then start the series of shots.

Emergencies and the Rational For Our Treatment Algorithm

We are a primary care medical office that tries to deliver personalized attentive care. We define emergencies as chest pain, significant breathing difficulty and loss of consciousness, uncontrolled bleeding or pain, sudden change in mental status and behavior or major trauma. In these situations, my office staff receiving a phone call interrupts me so I can speak with you and determine whether or not to advise you to call 911. We do this because we know with life threatening situations time is of the essence.

Emergency Medical Services at 911 can arrive within 5 minutes. They are all Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) trained and carry the equipment and medications to provide life sustaining care while you are transported to a hospital Emergency Department that has the staff, medications and equipment to keep you alive while we diagnose the problem and create a plan to rectify it.

The office staff is trained in Basic Cardiac Life Support. We do not have a defibrillator. We do not maintain and store medications to correct low blood pressure – cardiac arrhythmias. We do not have endotracheal tubes to intubate you and breathe for you. In the past, when we tried to maintain these supplies, they became outdated due to infrequent use and were expensive to replace. Since we do very few resuscitations day to day we are not as experienced or efficient as EMS and emergency department personnel are.

I realize the wait for care and institutional care settings are not pleasant. We sacrifice that for the best chance to keep you healthy. Trust me, it is no fun cancelling a scheduled patients to run to the ER and then return already behind. We do it for your comfort and security and safety.

In the recent past patients with chest pain resembling heart disease, trouble breathing and excessive bleeding have refused to call 911 and were upset when we did not bring them into the office. We do this for your health and safety not our convenience. If you would like to discuss this feel free to contact the office.

End of Life Decisions Are Tougher Than We Think

As an internist and geriatrician I deal with elderly patients all the time. We always end up talking about end of life issues such as “Should I be resuscitated if my heart stops and I stop breathing?”. “Do I want a feeding tube or gastrostomy tube if I stop eating and require nutrition?” “Should I be kept alive on machines and for how long if there is no reasonable hope of recovery?” “When should we refuse tests for diagnosis and subsequent treatments due to frailty, age and quality of life.” These are all immensely difficult decisions for patients and their loved ones. We have documents available such as living wills and medical directives and we appoint health care surrogates to carry out our wishes when we cannot direct care ourselves due to health reasons. Despite this, disagreement often happens between family members and loved ones when the time comes to institute the plans outlined by the incapacitated patient. There are different interpretations of “living”, “terminal condition”, “life prolonging treatment”, etc. Is having a heartbeat and a spontaneous respiration truly living if you cannot eat by mouth, walk to the bathroom, recognize your loved one?

I faced these decisions as a caregiver and co-healthcare surrogate earlier this year and, despite being a professional, felt the decision making was extraordinarily painful and difficult. I share decision making with my brother who lives out of state but will hop on a plane at a moment’s notice to help out. He is an extraordinary son to my chronically ill mom. Widowed a few years back, and suffering from severe and chronic lower extremity issues, she became wheel chair bound and incontinent in the last year. Mom has been living in a highly rated senior facility with its own on-site medical staff in a complex supported by a religious philanthropic organization. Her doctor is a “fellowship trained geriatrician” from an Ivy League institution supported by a team of nurse practitioners. For this reason I decided to interact strictly as her son, not her doctor. Since dad passed away several years ago, she became withdrawn, angry and stopped participating in facility functions. The care team brought in psychiatrists who prescribed medications that left her calmer but clearly hallucinating frequently.

With isolation came increasing cognitive dysfunction with poor decision making and extremely fuzzy thinking. Four months ago she complained to me about having foot pain. I reported it to the nurse rather than undress her and examine her. The LPN reported it to the nurse practitioner. She was seen by a podiatrist several days later and several hours after that visit a nursing aide called my brother in NYC to ask permission to apply betadine (iodine solution) to an infection on her toes. He granted it. Several weeks later while visiting her I smelled decaying flesh. I noticed that when she moved her feet under her sheets she grimaced. I walked over and lifted the sheets and gasped. I was looking at seven gangrenous toes with a blue cool foot and absent pulses in both feet. No one had told my brother or me that mom had vascular insufficiency with gangrenous feet and toes. I called in the nurse and she called the nurse practitioner. The nurse practitioner had no answer as to why no one had told my brother or me that mom had a serious vascular problem going on for months. We had participated in the monthly team telephone conference calls where we listened to social workers, dietitians and therapists discuss her eating habits, socialization and participation. No one discussed gangrene.

Mom had a living will and a State of Florida DNR form. At best she enjoyed holiday trips to my home for family dinners, reading a book and watching TV. Injuries to her hands from repeated falls had made reading a book difficult. Sensitivity about wearing adult diapers and having an accident while visiting my home or out to a restaurant had made those trips a thing of the past. No one at the facility or care team discussed gangrene, evaluation and care for it or the option of palliative care. The Nurse Practitioner said that they hoped the iodine applied to the toes would stem an infection and the bloodless toes would just fall off.

I had numerous discussions with my brother about asking Hospice to intervene and provide comfort measures only at that point. My thinking was colored by my experiences as a resident at a big city hospital where a man with a gangrenous leg chose not to amputate it for religious reasons. We treated his infection but packed his gangrenous leg in ice so the decaying tissue would not rapidly deteriorate and to reduce the horrible odor. I did not want my mother to become that gentleman dying a horrible death, packed in dry ice while caregivers avoided her room due to the horrible odor.

A kind vascular surgeon in the area with excellent credentials offered to see her and offer an opinion. He said that without a diagnostic angiogram he would recommend an amputation above the knee on one side and below the knee on the other. I could not see amputating two legs. Had mom been rational and competent she would not have wanted that. Hospice seemed like the rational decision but that decision required two health care surrogates to reach agreement. “Steve I called her on the phone yesterday and the nurse brought her the phone. We had a wonderful conversation about your nephew and your kids. She seemed with it.” Grandchildren called her and had rational conversations with her. There was resistance to calling in Hospice within the family and their concerns created seeds of doubt in me. I am not blaming my relatives at all. I never stood up to them and strongly said, “She is infirm, with a miserable quality of life and no hope of improvement and you are all crazy for wanting to intervene.” So she went for an angiogram and they opened up three arteries in the right leg and then two on the left. The vascular doctor recommended amputating the gangrenous toes while the circulation was good and creating a clean margin of tissue receiving blood. That procedure took about an hour and was done right after the angiogram. All looked well when I saw her back in her room and snuck in a forbidden corned beef sandwich and kosher pickle. One week later the pain returned to the left foot. It looked dusky and pale. Noninvasive vascular studies showed the arteries that had been opened were now closed. The vascular surgeon recommended above the knee amputation. During this period of time my brother had made multiple trips back and forth from NYC to visit Nana. Our children had flown in from out of town to rally her and support her. They saw her deterioration. They saw her go from recognizing them to confusing them for our wives and her mother and sister. The decision to call Hospice this time met with no family resistance. Hospice arrived as Hurricane Matthew bore down on this area. We went home to prepare our homes for the storm and mom died during it.

Her death clearly relieved her of suffering with a horrible quality of life. That fact is comforting. Losing a mom is an irreplaceable loss. Should I have been more forceful in demanding palliative care earlier? I am still not sure. I am very comfortable with the effort to restore blood circulation to her feet to relieve pain and suffering. I would make that decision again. Other families and clinicians might not have decided that was the best course of action for their loved ones. I will say I had no guidance or help from her medical care team. I think patients and families need guidance at times like these because the choices are not black and white. There is much grey and much pain and many life experiences and emotion coloring your decisions.

I still sit down with my patient’s families and review the end of life options. We talk more about what “living” actually means to their loved ones. The decisions are never easy.

To Floss or Not To Floss? Making Recommendations Without Data

The U.S. Department of Health has announced that there is no data that flossing your gums has any benefit.  This has led to an Associated Press review of the paucity of randomly controlled trials with evidence that flossing is beneficial. The result is a new recommendation that flossing daily is not necessary. We are living in an era where the only justification for research and observational studies seems to be to justify saving money by not teaching patients something or encouraging them not to do something. Cost containment is the key as the US Government tries to lower the percentage of dollars spent on health care as a percentage of the Gross National Product.

Experts at the Cleveland Clinic spurred on by the “Bale and Doneen” philosophy that inflammation in arterial vessels leads to acute heart attacks and strokes have pushed for greater periodontal care and health. Flossing is part of that philosophy. Cleaning in-between your teeth with hand held pics or water pics provides cleaning of the gums and spaces between teeth as well.  There are few or any studies on this subject because the benefit is so obvious that there has been no need to perform them.  Dentists assure me that proper tooth and gum care is essential to your general health and wellbeing.  This is common sense like not crossing a busy street against the light, not drinking alcohol and driving a car or truck or not jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. It’s time for our dental schools to organize and perform these studies but I suggest you keep caring for your gums and teeth while the data is being accumulated.

Telomeres and Healthy Aging. The Tufts Perspective

Telomeres are bits of DNA genetic material that sit atop DNA strands and keep vital genetic material intact when cells divide or replicate. Think of them as the little plastic piece on top of the shoe laces. When they fall off or become damaged the shoelaces get damaged or frayed. Healthier older individuals have longer DNA strands with intact telomeres compared to people with shorter life spans and chronic diseases who have smaller and shorter telomeres. Whether the shorter telomeres are the “chicken or egg” is unclear but clearly those with shorter telomeres are more likely to die from heart disease or infectious processes.

There does seem to be a relationship between telomere size and nutritional and vitamin levels. Ligi Paul Pottenplackel is a researcher at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts New England Medical Center. She has looked extensively at the humans’ intake and concentration of folate and telomere length and health. She found that those with an exceptionally high folate level and intake have shorter telomeres and worse health. While many researchers believe that folate being water soluble is flushed out if you don’t need it and causes no cumulative toxicity, she believes the short telomeres may be the result of excessive folate intake.

Physical exercise seems to keep telomeres from eroding. In an article in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers showed that telomeres were longer in those who were active. Over time, all participants telomeres shortened but less so in the physically active groups.

While Tufts takes a closer look at nutrition and healthy aging we urge all to stay physically active while eating a balanced diet

Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate Preserves Knee Cartilage in Osteoarthritis

My brother in law is a well-respected researcher and biochemist. Thirty years ago he treated his post exercise aching knees with glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate and felt better. Since then he is a fan. Although he is a firm believer in the scientific method and double blind controlled research studies, we could not find any research to support his observations.   The discussion then turned to, “it helps me and it doesn’t hurt me so why not?”

In a double blind study sponsored by the National Institute of Health known as GAIT, 1500 or more patients with osteoarthritis and a painful knee were randomized to either receive glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, each substance individually, Celebrex or placebo for six months. The results showed neither led to reduced pain.

Several other studies were as non-conclusive. In the few studies where pain was reduced the study methods and design were criticized and the results were felt to be questionable as were the conclusions of the researchers.   There was nothing positive to say about glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate until a recent study by Martel- Pellitier, Canadian researchers published in Arthritis Care and Research those individuals who took the combination for six years or greater tended to preserve their knee cartilage better than those who did not.  While the knee cartilage was maintained there was no difference in pain or complaints of symptoms between the treated and non- treated group. They believe that by preserving knee cartilage over time there may be less necessity for that joint to be replaced eventually.

I am sure over time this will be studied as well. In the meantime glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate seems to have little toxicity and ultimately my brother in law may be on to something positive.