Hypertension Guidelines Versus Life Experiences

One of the advantages of practicing clinical medicine, and seeing patients daily for many years, is you develop your own long-term study regarding certain medical health issues. In the area of hypertension, I have been taught by the best since my internship with pioneers such as Eliseo Perez Stable and Barry Materson at the University of Miami affiliated hospitals, Jackson Memorial Program, ensuring that their trainees were up to the task.

The goals and guidelines have changed. Lifestyle changes including salt restriction (sodium chloride), weight reduction, smoking cessation, reducing alcohol intake and regular exercise will always be mainstays of non-pharmacologic treatments.  We used to be taught to keep the systolic blood pressure at less than 140 and the diastolic blood pressure at less than 85.  These numbers have changed over the years, having been lowered, with everyone over 120 systolic now being classified as having some degree of increased risk of cardiac, cerebrovascular or vascular disease and hypertension.

We originally were taught to start with a diuretic and keep raising the dosage until the blood pressure was controlled or the patient developed adverse effects. We learned that when we used one medication, pushing it to its limit inducing adverse effects along the way, patients just stopped taking their medications. This resulted in a change in strategy to using several medicines each with another pathway to controlling blood pressure but all at a lower dosage which did not produce any ill feeling adverse effects.  The downside of more medications was additional costs and more pills to remember to take.  As hypertension experts pushed us to lower systolic blood pressure to 120 or less in our geriatric population I was concerned that lowering the pressure that much would again create adverse effects which were as or more troublesome than the risk  of having a BP between 120 and 140 systolic.  An article in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at this issue. They looked at patients over 65 years of age who were hospitalized for non-cardiac related problems and whose blood pressure was over 120. They studied these patients at Veterans Administration hospitals over two year period. Patients with elevated blood pressure above 120 were given more medications and higher dosages to bring their pressure down to meet the more stringent guidelines. The result was that there were no fewer cardiac events than anticipated and no better blood pressure control at a year.  In addition, these patients suffered from an increased number of re-admissions to the hospital and “serious“ adverse events within 30 days.

The new guidelines for blood pressure control may be applicable in a younger healthier population.  In the geriatric population we may need to readjust our goals to account for the physiologic changes that occur in men and women who age in a healthy manner. More specific data on why there were more re-admissions and what serious adverse effects occurred needs to be made public to determine if the effort to tightly control blood pressure is to blame.

Winter is the Season for Upper Respiratory Tract Infections and Influenza

It’s the season for winter viral upper respiratory tract system infections. It is also influenza and influenza- like illness season.

Winter brings crowds of people indoors together and holiday travel places crowds together in indoor areas as well. These viral illnesses are transmissible by hand to mouth transmission and airborne particle transmission with coughing. The viral particles can live with minimal water on surfaces for long enough periods of time to infect patients who unknowingly touch a foreign surface and bring their hands up to their mouths. Hand washing frequently is an essential part of preventing the transmission of these diseases. Common courtesy such as covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough and not coming in close contact with others when ill is essential.

Research has shown that consuming an extra 500 mg a day of Vitamin C can prevent colds and reduce the intensity of a cold if you catch one. You must take the Vitamin C all the time and in advance of exposure. Waiting until you have symptoms has no positive effect. Viral upper respiratory tract infections usually include fatigue, runny nose (coryza), sore throat (less than 90 % of adult sore throats are not a strep throat).

If you have been around a sick child age 2-7 who has a fever, swollen neck glands and an exudative sore throat your chances of having a strep throat are increased. Fever is usually low grade, less than 101, and short lived. Very often patients develop viral inflammation of the conjunctiva or conjunctivitis. While this is very contagious to others, it is self-limited and rarely requires intervention or treatment.

Caring for a cold involves listening to your body and practicing common sense solutions. Rest if tired. Don’t go to the gym and workout if you feel ill. If you insist on going, warm up slowly and thoroughly and, if you do not feel well, stop the workout.

Sore throat can be treated with lozenges. Warm fluids including tea and honey (honey is antimicrobial and anti-viral), chicken soup, saline nasal spray for congestion and acetaminophen for aches and pains or fever are mainstays of treatment. Over the counter cough medications like guaifenisin help.

Some of the viruses affect your gastrointestinal tract causing cramps and diarrhea. Nausea and vomiting are sometimes present as well. The key is to put your bowel to rest, stay hydrated and avoid contaminating or infecting others. Clear liquids, ice chips, shaved ices, Italian ices or juice pops will keep you hydrated. A whiff of an alcohol swab will relieve the nausea as well. If you are having trouble keeping food or fluids down call your doctor. If you are taking prescription medications, call your doctor and see which ones, if any, you can take a drug holiday from until you are better.

Influenza is more severe. It is almost always accompanied by fever and aches and pains. Prevention involves taking a seasonal flu shot. Flu shots are effective in keeping individuals out of the hospital from complications of influenza. They are not perfect but far better than no prevention. If you run a fever of 100.8 or higher, and ache all over, call your physician. An influenza nasal swab can confirm influenza A and B 70 % of the time.

The new molecular test which can provide results in under an hour is far more accurate but not available at most urgent care or walk in centers or physician offices. Immediate treatment with Osetamivir (Tamiflu) and the newer Peramivir are effective at reducing the duration and intensity of the infection if started early. Hydration with clear fluids, rest, acetaminophen or anti-inflammatories for fever in adults 101 or greater and rest is the mainstay of treatment. Prolonged fever or respiratory distress requires immediate medical attention. Call your doctor immediately.

I get asked frequently for a way to speed up the healing. “My children are coming down to visit. We have a cruise planned. I am flying in 48 hours on business.”  I am certainly sympathetic but these illnesses need to run their course. They are not interested in our personal or professional schedule and everyone you come in contact with is a potential new victim. If you are congested in the nose or throat, and or sinuses, then travelling by plane is putting you at risk of severe pain and damage to your ear drum. See your doctor first. Patients and pilots with nasal congestion are advised not to fly for seven to ten days for just this reason.

If you have multiple chronic illnesses including heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease and you run a fever or feel miserable then call your doctor and make arrangements to be seen. It will not necessarily speed up the healing but it will identify who actually requires antibiotics and additional follow up and tests and who can let nature take its course.

Wasting Taxpayers Money, Medicare Advantage and the RAC’s

My wife and I try to catch up on TV shows on Thursday evenings. We sit down with a cup of decaffeinated coffee on the couch together petting our dogs and watching mindless entertainment after a day at work. Now that the election is over, almost every commercial in my South Florida market is an advertisement for a Medicare Advantage Health Plan. We are nearing the completion of the “open enrollment” period between October 15 – December 7 when senior citizens can change their Medicare Part D Prescription Plan to one that covers their formulary of medicines and they can choose to leave the Medicare system and join a private health plan for a capitated Medicare Advantage Plan. These plans were initiated by the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) as a way to save money on the health care of seniors. The theory was that if they offered a product with a fixed monthly and yearly cost budgeting would be simpler and at least they would know what they are paying.

These programs are run by private insurance companies such as Humana, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Aetna. Over the years, research has shown that they now cost the Medicare system more money per year, per patient, than the traditional Medicare system. The private insurers are probably making a great profit on this program because the money and energy spent on advertising to attract patients is relentless. I have been receiving multiple daily promotional letters in the mail for weeks now. Full page ads are run daily in major newspapers and magazines. Prime time television is filled with expensive ads with noteworthy spokespersons like basketball hall of famer Ervin “Magic” Johnson in addition to actors, actresses and former elected officials.

The insurers make their money by rationing and denying care provided by doctors and hospitals which agree to see patients in volume for a discounted fee. Patients have no deductibles; have no out-of-pocket expenses for physician care or generic pharmaceutical products if they stay in network. If they happen to get sick out of the service area, coverage is spotty and varies by program with the advice truly being “buyer beware.”

It seems to me that if these programs are actually more expensive per patient than traditional Medicare then why is CMS continuing them and allowing the millions of dollars spent on advertising to attract patients to continue? The information they need to choose a plan is available on the easy to use http://www.Medicare.gov website at no cost.

I open some non-critical advertisement mail as well. One letter from the Center for Medicare Services addressed to me personally as a patient, not as a physician, was extremely interesting. In December 2014 I was involved in a serious auto accident with my vehicle totally damaged due to the negligence of another driver. I was taken by ambulance to the local emergency room, examined, treated and released. At the time I was 64 years old and several months short of being eligible for Medicare. My auto insurance paid my medical bills. My private insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield was not billed.

The letter from CMS was a form letter saying that a claim from December 2014 had been investigated by them and although no payment was made on this claim, which was paid by Traveler’s Insurance (my auto insurer), they were now referring it to the Recovery and Audit Division for further investigation. The threatening nature of the letter suggested that if I was compensated by Medicare for this claim I would be required to pay back the money with interest and penalties. Considering I was not yet on Medicare, and considering the charges were billed by the local hospital health system, I am not quite sure why the letter was generated and forwarded to me?

Once again a government agency is spending taxpayer money on a frivolous item. How many more of these letters go out yearly at our expense?

The second letter I opened was from Social Security. It said that since I was still working and generating income, my wife and I would be required to each pay an additional fee per month for our Medicare health insurance and for our Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. This is in addition to the tax on my salary that goes directly to Medicare. I have been paying this tax on each paycheck since I started working at age 14 (I am now approaching 69). I read this letter just after hearing one of our elected officials to the Senate refer to Medicare as an “entitlement program.”

My Medicare bills now approach what private insurers charge patients for health insurance. I paid into this system for 51 years before I became eligible to use it. I hardly think the Medicare system is an entitlement.

Statin Related Muscle Pain and Coenzyme Q 10

Statins are used to lower cholesterol levels in an effort to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. They are used after a patient has exhausted lifestyle changes such as changing their diet to a low cholesterol diet, exercising regularly and losing weight without their cholesterol dropping to levels that are considered acceptable to reduce your risk of vascular events.

Patients starting on statins often complain of muscles aches, pains and slow recovery of muscle pain after exercising. In a few individuals the muscle pain, inflammation and damage becomes severe. One of the known, but little understood, negative side effects of statin medications are the lowering of your Coenzyme Q 10 level. CoQ10 works at the subcellular level in energy producing factories called mitochondria. Statin drugs, which inhibit the enzyme HMG-CoA Reductase lower cholesterol while also lowering CoQ10 levels by 16-54 % based on the study reporting these changes.

The November 16, 2018 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review article by David Rakel, MD and associates that suggested that supplementing your diet with CoQ 10 would reduce muscle aches and pains while on statin therapy. Twelve studies were reviewed and the use of CoQ10 was associated with less muscle pain, weakness, tiredness and cramps compared to placebo. The studies used daily doses of 100 to 600 mg with 200 mg being the most effective dosage. Finding the correct dosage is important because the product is expensive with forty 200 mg tablets selling for about $25.

Since CoQ10 is fat soluble, you are best purchasing formulations that are combined with fat in a gel to promote absorption. As with all supplements, which are considered foods not drugs , it is best if they are UPS Labs certified to insure the dosage in the product is the same as listed on the label and that it contains no unexpected impurities.

Vitamin D Supplements Do Not Reduce Falls, Fractures or Improve Bone Density

Much has been written about the benefits of supplementing Vitamin D in patients. The World Health Organization sets its normal blood level at 20 while in North America it is listed at over 30. Under normal circumstances when your skin is exposed to sunlight your kidneys produce adequate amounts of Vitamin D.

Over the last few years low vitamin D levels have been associated with acute illness and flare-ups of chronic illness. The Vitamin D level is now the most ordered test in the Medicare system and at extraordinary expense. Supplementing Vitamin D has become a major industry unto itself.

The October 4th edition of the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology contained an article written by New Zealand researchers that looked at 81 randomized research trials containing almost 54 thousand participants. “In the pooled analyses, researchers found that Vitamin D Supplementation did not reduce total fracture, hip fracture, or falls – even in trials in which participants took doses greater than 800 IU per day.” Vitamin D supplementation did not improve bone mineral density at any site studied (lumbar spine, hip, femoral neck, forearm or total body).

They concluded that there is little justification for the use of Vitamin D Supplements to maintain or improve musculoskeletal health, and clinical guidelines should reflect these findings.

Sleep and Cardiovascular Health

Several recent publications and presentations of data on the relationship between sleep patterns and vascular disease occurred at the recent meeting of the European Society of Cardiology. The PESA (Progression of Early Subclinical Atherosclerosis) study performed by Dr Fernando Dominguez, MD, of the Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research in Madrid talked about the dangers of too little or too much sleep.

The principal researcher, Valentin Fuster, MD PhD, looked at 3,974 middle-aged bank employees known to be free of heart disease and stroke. They wore a monitor to measure sleep and activity. Interestingly, while only about 11% reported sleeping six or fewer hours per night, the monitor showed the true figure was closer to 27%. They found those who slept less than six hours per night had more plaque in their arteries than those people who slept six to eight hours. They additionally looked at people who slept an average of greater than eight hours.

Sleeping longer had little effect on men’s progression of atherosclerosis but had a marked effect of increasing atherosclerosis in women. Researchers then adjusted the data for family history, smoking, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes and other known cardiovascular risk factors. They found that there was an 11% increase in the risk of diagnosis of fatal or non-fatal cardiovascular disease in people who slept less than six hours per night compared to people who slept 6-8 hours per night. For people who slept an average of greater than eight hours per night they bore a 32% increased risk as compared to persons who slept 6-8 hours on average. Their conclusion was distilled down into this belief: “Sleep well, not too long, nor too short and be active.”

In a related study, Moa Bengtsson, an MD PhD student at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden presented data on 798 men who were 50 years old in 1993 when they were given a physical exam and a lifestyle questionnaire including sleep habits. Twenty one years later 759 of those men were still alive and they were examined and questioned. Those reporting sleeping five hours or less per night were 93% more likely to have suffered an MI by age 71 or had a stroke, cardiac surgery, and admission to a hospital for heart failure or died than those who averaged 7-8 hours per night.

While neither study proved a direct cause and effect between length of sleep and development of vascular disease, there was enough evidence to begin to believe that altering sleep habits may be a way to reduce future cardiovascular disease.

Shortening the Discomfort of Sore Throats

There has been a strong movement in the United States to limit resistance to antibiotics by insuring that we prescribe them appropriately for bacterial infections only and make sure we educate our patients to complete the course of the antibiotics to prevent the bacteria from surviving and developing resistance patterns. We have been taught that a “strep throat” is rarely seen in adults unless they are caring for children age 2-7 that are sick with a sore throat.

The patient should have a fever, swollen glands in the neck and an exudate on the tonsils or oropharynx. This constellation of findings and symptoms represents “Centors’ Triad” which conveys a high probability that a quick streptococcal assay or culture will be positive. For all other sore throats we are taught to treat it with lozenges, warm fluids and time. There is a definite and distinct effort to train doctors to not prescribe an antibiotic or a “Z Pack” for these non-beta hemolytic streptococcal sore throats.

It is with this background or preamble that I report on an article out of the October 17, 2018 International Journal of Clinical Practice that discusses the use of an experimental throat lozenge versus a placebo throat lozenge. The experimental troche contained a small dose of an antibiotic, tyrothricin plus benzalkonium chloride and benzocaine (an anesthetic). Tyrothricin is an antibiotic used overseas to treat gram positive organisms. It is incorporated into lozenges designed for children with non-streptococcal sore throats. This antibiotic has not demonstrated any issues with bacteria developing resistance yet.

In a clinical trial, patients 18 years of age and older with a painful sore throat which was not due to “strep” were randomly assigned to the study drug or placebo. The results were striking with more relief of pain at two hours in the study group than placebo, less difficulty swallowing and more resolution of symptoms at three days with the study drug than a placebo.

The medication used in the study is not currently available in the USA. If it is as successful as this study implies then when will it be introduced in the USA for symptomatic relief of those uncomfortable non-strep sore throats?