Walnuts Lowered LDL Cholesterol in Seniors

Emilio Ros, MD, PhD led the Walnuts and Healthy Aging Study (WAHA) looking at healthy seniors in Loma Linda, California and Barcelona, Spain. He followed 636 patients who were randomly assigned to a walnut supplemented diet or walnut free diet.

Senior Citizens who ate a diet supplemented with walnuts lowered their LDL cholesterol significantly.  The walnut supplemented group exhibited a reduction of total cholesterol of 8.5 mg/dl with an LDL cholesterol reduction of 4.3 mg/dl.  Triglycerides and HDL cholesterol were not affected. In addition to lowering cholesterol, Dr. Ros said other studies showed a positive result in lowering blood pressure. 

Christie Ballantyne MD, chief of cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine, and director of cardiovascular disease prevention at Methodist DeBakey Heart Center, said nutritional studies are difficult to complete. The number of participants is usually small and the length of the study short. This study encompassed large numbers over two years in two different locales. 

Dr. Ros commented that adults are always wondering what can they eat as a healthy snack?  Walnuts can now be added to that list.

Safety & Efficacy of Lowering Lipids in the Elderly

I am bombarded regularly by older patients, their adult children and various elements of the media with complaints that elderly are taking too many medicines. Poly pharmacy is the word they use and the first prescription medications they want eliminated are their cholesterol lowering drugs – either a statin (Lipitor, Zocor, Pravachol, Crestor , Livalo or their generic form), Zetia ( Eztimebe) or the newer injectable PCSK9 inhibitors Repatha and Praluent. Is there an age that we should stop these medications? Is there benefit in the elderly to continue taking them? Should we start these medications in the elderly if we discover they have high cholesterol and vascular disease?

A recent study was published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal. The authors looked at 29 trials with 244,090 patients. From this pool there were 21,492 patients who were at least 75 years old. Half of them were on oral statin drugs and the others were on Eztimebe or PCSK9 inhibitors. They were followed from 2 – 6 years.

The results showed that for every reduction of LDL cholesterol of 1mmol/L there was a 26% reduction of in major adverse vascular events. These numbers were similar to those in younger patients. The data also pointed out that these patients had a significant reduction in cardiovascular deaths, myocardial infarction (heart attacks), strokes and the need for heart surgical revascularizations. It was extremely clear that if you are on a cholesterol lowering drug you should stay on that medication despite your age!

A study in JAMA internal medicine, authored by LC Yourman, answered the question of whether you are too old to start on a cholesterol lowering drug. They found that it took 2.5 years before the cholesterol lowering medicine reduced your risk of a major cardiovascular event. Their conclusion was that if you are 70 or older, and your lifespan appears to be greater than 2.5 years, you should start the medicine.

Can Smartphones & Fitbits Interfere with your Pacemaker or Defibrillator?

The February 8th edition of Medpage Today, an online magazine, published the concerns of cardiologist and electrophysiologist Joshua Greenberg, MD, about the magnet arrays in the new Apple iPhone 12 interfering with the function of pacemakers and defibrillators.

When a patient goes to their doctor, cardiologist, electrophysiologist, etc., and the physician wishes to turn off their pacemaker to look at the heart’s normal electrical activity, they normally place a magnet over the implanted device to deactivate it. The new iPhone 12 apparently uses an array of magnets around a wireless charging coil.

Dr Greenberg used the iPhone 12 to disable a Medtronic ICD. Once he brought the phone over the patients left chest the device deactivated. His findings were published in January in a letter to the editor of the journal Heart Rhythm. “This is a big deal because if the patient were to go into ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation during this time, they would just drop dead without receiving a life-saving shock from the ICD.”

Separately, electrophysiologist M. Eskander, MD tweeted a video showing an iPhone12 shutting off a pacemaker as well as if a magnet had been placed over it. Wristband magnets in Fitbit and Apple iWatches have been reported to deactivate Medtronic ICDs from 0.9” away due to their wristband magnets.

Phil Mar, MD , an electrophysiologist at Saint Louis University School of Medicine agrees that this is a previously unrecognized issue that needs to be dealt with. He suggests patients with implanted pacemakers and ICDs avoid purchasing an iPhone with magnets. He encourages their spouses or bed partners to follow the same advice to prevent deactivation when they roll over and get close. He emphasizes that this was not an issue with earlier model iPhones which didn’t have an array of magnets and was not seen in Apple iWatches without the magnetic wrist bands for charging. He is concerned that any cell phone, wrist band or watch using wireless charging may cause the same deactivation.

The author of the article, Anthony Pearson, MD made the suggestion that patients with pacemakers and ICDs should have their cardiologist or electrophysiologist routinely test their cell phones, Fitbits and iWatches’ effect on their devices at a planned routine visit and certainly immediately after implantation. He reminded us this does not occur in devices that do not have a magnet array which is most cell phones and watches.

There has always been a recommendation that if you have a pacemaker or AICD you use your cellphone in the ear opposite your pacemaker or device pocket and never bring it within six inches of the device.

Blood pressure measurement, its importance in reducing vascular disease & remote patient monitoring

An article published in the prestigious journal Hypertension looked at following blood pressure over a decade and the reduction in heart attacks, strokes and deaths if you were able to keep blood pressure under control. It talked about extending your life by over four years and the preventing vascular disease from developing for at least five years.

The authors looked at multiple blood pressure trials and noted the difficulty in relying on one office visit measurement periodically. They too noticed that certain patients were always higher in the office than at home and noted the problems with home blood pressure monitors including trying to decide if they were accurate and being recorded correctly. The result was that whatever reading they obtained at your visit, when looked at over a 10-year period, influenced your survival and cardiac events.

We too have struggled with this issue in our office. We ask patients to bring in their home blood pressure equipment so we can correlate the readings they get in our office on our equipment and their equipment. Just last night a patient with no symptoms and feeling well took his blood pressure and found it elevated. Rather than contact me or his cardiologist he ran to the Emergency Room. He waited hours, had multiple tests and by that time his blood pressure lowered they referred him to his doctors without intervening at all.

When needed, we have a patient use a 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure monitor. They wear it on their arm like a blood pressure cuff and it inflates six times per hour during daytime and four times per hour during sleep while measuring their pressure. There is a small recording device worn on their belt. After 24 hours, it is returned to our office and we print out the readings and obtain averages to help us determine just what your blood pressure really is. The equipment has a diary so the patient can note when stressful events occur and we can correlate it with the readings. The minor drawbacks to the equipment are its bulkiness, the need to keep it dry and the disturbance to sleep it causes as the cuff inflates and deflates.

To improve measurements, as well as capture other health metrics, we are introducing a remote monitoring smart wristband. We have identified a vendor who will supply you with the high-tech wrist band at no out-of-pocket expense to you. The wristband interacts with your iPhone or android phone.

The device measures and captures pulse, heart rhythm, blood pressure, blood oxygen level, and steps.  It even has built-in fall detection. The 2021 model, which will be introduced in a few months, has an EKG component to help us follow patients who get dizzy, faint or have documented heart issues. It will also capture body temperature. There is an optional blood glucose sensor monitoring device. The wristband is water resistant so you may shower with it.

Due to the Pandemic, and development of tele-health, Medicare pays for the monitoring if you wear the device a minimum of 16 days each month. Patients are asked to identify emergency contacts so that if you fall or if you have an arrhythmia, abnormal blood pressure, abnormal blood sugar, the monitoring call center contacts your emergency contact on record.

Your physician can view all the data on our computers. Certain private insurances pay for these services as well as Medicare. I will start wearing one and my wife will as well.

I will personally discuss this with each of you whom I feel will benefit from wearing the wristband as remote monitoring is proven to reduce hospital admissions and ER visits. If you have a chronic condition, disease or certain risk factors; it’s likely I will encourage you to wear the band.

Some patients have asked if the band has a panic button for you to push if you feel you need to such as after a fall. The technology senses if you fell and have not gotten up or if you are ill and calls your emergency contacts but it does not have a unique panic button to push.

We look forward to introducing this new remote high technology to improve your health, safety and peace of mind.

Cholesterol Lowering Statin Drugs DO NOT Encourage Cognitive Decline

Statin drugs are used to lower cholesterol levels in the hope of preventing vascular disease including heart disease, strokes, peripheral arterial vascular disease. They have been safely prescribed to millions of people for years showing great effectiveness.  However, a cloud hangs over them over side effects glorified in the lay media and on the internet.  Oftentimes patients don’t even fill their prescriptions due to their concerns. One of the myths is that statins lead to a premature decline in cognitive function and dementia.

This concern was addressed in the Journal of American College of Cardiology highlighting a study authored by Katherine Samaras, MBBS, PhD of St. Vincents Hospital in Sydney Australia.  They looked at adults aged 70 – 90 over a period of seven years.  Over 1,000 subjects in the study included individuals who did not take statins, individuals who were already using statins and individuals who were started on statins during the study period. The subjects first took a standard mini mental status test which allowed them to exclude anyone already showing signs of dementia. They then did state of the art cognitive testing and memory testing on the subjects over a seven-year period.

They found that there was no difference in the rate of decline of memory or intellectual function between statin users and non-users.  In a small subgroup of patients, they used imaging techniques to look at the brain volume comparing it over time between statin users and non-users. They found that users had more brain volume at the six-year mark than non-users.  They found that users with heart disease who took statins had a slower rate of decline of learning memory than non-users.  This also included users and non-users who have the APOE-4 genotype associated with cognitive decline.

While statins may not be a perfect class of drug, the study clearly demonstrated that the idea that they encourage cognitive decline and dementia at an accelerated rate is completely false.

Is TMAO the New LDL CHOLESTEROL?

Prevention of heart disease has centered on smoking cessation, controlling blood pressure, achieving an appropriate weight, regular exercise, control of blood sugar and control of your cholesterol.  Despite addressing and controlling these items individuals still have heart attacks and strokes and vascular events. Researchers are now directing their attention to a dietary metabolite of red meat called trimethlamine N-oxide or TMAO.

Recent peer reviewed and published studies have shown an association between high blood levels of TMAO and increased risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease.  A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found a 60% increased risk of a major cardiovascular event and death from all causes in individuals with elevated TMAO.  Other research has linked high TMAO levels to heart failure and chronic kidney disease.

Our bodies make TMAO when choline and L-carnitine are metabolized by our gut bacteria in the microbiome. Red meat is particularly high in L-carnitine.  A study group at the Cleveland Clinic found that red meat raised the TMAO levels more than white meats or non-meat protein. They also discovered that red meat allowed more bacteria in the gut microbiome to be switched to producing TMAO. Of interest was the fact that the amount of fat in the food, particularly saturated fat, made no difference on the TMAO levels obtained.   Stanley Hazen, M.D. PhD, section head of preventive cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, feels the TMAO pathway is “independent of the saturated fat story.”  The important issue to Dr Hazen is the presence of the gut bacteria to produce the TMAO from foods eaten.

Not all scientists buy into the TMAO theory of cardiovascular disease because of the relatively high level of TMAO found in many fish.  Some experts believe the beneficial effects of omega 3 fatty acids in fish offset the negative effects of TMAO. The leading researcher on TMAO says it is an evolving study and he is supported by experts who believe TMAO is “atherogenic, prothrombotic and inflammatory” per Kim Williams, M.D., chief of cardiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

There is even a blood test to measure TMAO levels developed by the Cleveland Clinic and available through Quest Labs.  Do not get too excited about asking your physician to order it on your blood because it requires eliminating meat, poultry and fish plus other food items for several days in advance of the test.

For many years researchers at the Cleveland Clinic and Emory University recognized that 50% or more of heart attacks occurred in men who followed all the risk reduction guidelines including stopping smoking, controlling blood pressure and lipids, losing weight and getting active. Perhaps the answer as to why will be in the TMAO research and the solution will be changing the gut bacteria or their ability to convert L-carnitine to TMAO.

Scientific Reports, Media Reports and Ambiguity

Last week I read an article in a peer reviewed journal citing the benefits of a few eggs per week as part of a low carbohydrate dietary intervention for Type II Diabetes.  The information was so meaningful about a controversial food source of protein that I decided to write about it in my blog and pass it along to my patients.  Three days later the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology discussed the increased risk of cardiovascular events and mortality in individuals consuming three or more eggs regularly. They talked about the detrimental cholesterol being concentrated in the yolk making egg white omelets look healthier than traditional omelets.

In the early 1970’s a VA study was published showing that veterans over 45 years of age who took an aspirin a day had fewer heart attacks and strokes and survived them better than those who don’t.  Fast forward almost 50 years and we have different recommendations for people who have never had an MI or CVA or evidence of cardiovascular disease compared to secondary prevention in individuals who have known coronary artery disease, cerebrovascular disease or diabetes. Throw in the controversial discussions of aspirin preventing colorectal adenomas from developing, aspirin preventing certain types of skin cancers and today’s report that suggests it may prevent liver cancer. Now three studies suggest that in older individuals (70 or greater) the risk of bleeding negates the benefits of cardio and cerebrovascular protection and aspirin may not actually prevent heart attacks and strokes in that age group.

We then turn to statins and prevention of heart attacks and numerous articles about not prescribing them to older Americans.  I saw articles on this topic covered by CNN, the Wall Street Journal, ARP Journal, AAA magazine and in several newsletters published by major national medical centers.  In each piece they caution you to talk to your doctor before stopping that medicine.

I am that seventy year old patient they all talk about.  I have never smoked. I exercise modestly on a regular basis, getting my 10,000 or more steps five or more days a week.  I battle to keep my weight down and find it difficult to give up sweets and bread when so many other of life’s pleasures are no longer available due to age and health related suggestions.

There are clearly no studies that look at patients who took a statin for 15 years and aspirins for over 20 years, stopped them and then were followed for the remainder of their lives.   How will they fare compared to patients who never took them?

I have this discussion every day with my patient’s pointing out the current guidelines and trying to individualize the suggestions to their unique lifestyle and issues. On a personal level, I still have no idea what the correct thing is to do even after discussing it with my doctors.  How can I expect my patients to feel any differently?

Eggs and Diabetes – New Information

Diabetes has been known as a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases for years. Egg consumption was discouraged by experts.   Our perception of eggs as they relate to diabetes and heart disease may have to be reconsidered based on a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in May 2015

The Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study enrolled 2,332 men, aged 42 -60 years old, and followed them for more than nineteen years.  Four hundred thirty-two participants developed Type 2 Diabetes.  Men who ate the most eggs demonstrated a 38% lower risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes in this study.  Higher egg intake was associated with lower levels of fasting plasma glucose and serum C – reactive protein.

The researchers published a follow up paper in the Journal of Molecular Nutrition and Food Research this year and came up with similar results stating that “moderate egg consumption of eggs can be part of a healthy dietary pattern for preventive action against Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.” Their definition of moderate was an average of one egg or less per day.

This is preliminary data involving eggs will be discussed and battled over for years to come. What is important is that once again a modest intake of a protein in moderation is probably not deleterious as previously thought.

When dealing with diabetes, lifestyle issues such as weight control, smoking status, alcohol intake, regular exercise and simple carbohydrate intake are far more important issues to address than egg consumption in moderation.  This topic was reviewed in the latest online publication of Medscape Medical News. 

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.

Inflammation and Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

For years, experts have noted that up to 50% of men who have a heart attack do not have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, do not smoke and are active. This has led to an exploration of other causes and risk factors of cardiac and cerebrovascular disease.

In recent years, studies have shown an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, in untreated psoriatic arthritis and in severe psoriasis. We can also add atopic eczema to the list of cardiovascular risk factors.

In a publication in the British Medical Journal, investigators noted that patients with severe atopic eczema had a 20% increase risk in stroke, 40 – 50% increase risk of a heart attack, unstable angina, atrial fibrillation and cardiovascular death. There was a 70% increased risk of heart failure. The longer the skin condition remained active the higher their risks.

The study looked at almost 380,000 patients over at least a 5 year period and their outcomes were compared to almost 1.5 million controls without the skin conditions. Data came from a review of medical records and insurance information in the United Kingdom.

It’s clear that severe inflammatory conditions including skin conditions put patients at increased risk. It remains to be seen whether aggressive treatment of the skin conditions with immune modulators and medications to reduce inflammation will reduce the risks?

It will be additionally interesting to see what modalities cardiologists on each side of the Atlantic suggest we should employ for detection and with what frequency? Will it be exercise stress testing or checking coronary artery calcification or even CT coronary artery angiograms? Statins have been used to reduce inflammation by some cardiologists even in patients with reasonable lipid levels? Should we be prescribing statins in men and women with these inflammatory skin and joint conditions but normal lipid patterns?

The correlation of inflammatory situations with increased risk of vascular disease currently raises more questions with few answers at the present time.