Alzheimer’s Disease – Recent Data

Researcher’s gathered in Paris, France this month to present their data on new developments with Alzheimer’s disease.  In reviewing the meeting’s material, it is clear that much of what is “new” is old.

In the past we were taught that patients placed on medications for Alzheimer’s Disease would derive a benefit about 50% of the time. This benefit would last for six to twelve months.

One of the world’s authorities on this topic is Susan Rountree, M.D. of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.  She has followed 641 patients since the late 1980’s.  In 2008 she reported that patients treated with medicines such as donepezil (Aricept) and rivastigmine (Exelon) survived about three years longer than patients who did not take these medications.  She re-analyzed that data, updated it and came to the conclusion that “using anti-dementia drugs doesn’t seem to prolong survival.”   She did however recommend continuing their use because her data showed that patients taking them had improved cognition and ability to function.

At the Paris event there was material presented that was not surprising but needs the legitimacy of a well planned study to turn theory into scientific evidence and fact.

The study showing that military personnel who suffered traumatic brain injuries during the Vietnam War were more likely to develop dementia has great implications for today’s veterans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan where brain injuries are on the rise.  It will clearly help us as well in terms of long-term planning for the development of dementia in private citizens suffering from traumatic brain injuries.  It was not surprising either when certain medications were cited as being more likely to contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s Disease. This year’s culprits seem to be anticholinergic drugs which make a patient’s mouth dry and cause constipation.

What was not surprising were the studies that showed that elderly individuals who engaged in regular and vigorous physical exercise were less likely to develop cognitive impairment.  Those patients who get regular and vigorous exercise who show signs of cognitive problems declined at a slower rate than those who don’t.

While much of the material discussed confirmed the fact that healthy lifestyle is the best defense against this disease; there was also much hopeful discussion of research which is untangling the relationship between brain chemicals, development of plaques in the brain and its relationship to Alzheimer’s. On an encouraging note, we are much closer to early detection and therapeutic intervention than we were a decade ago.

“Colonoscopies Are Overdone In The Entire Population.”

Current recommendations by the American College of Gastroenterology call for colonoscopy as a screening test for colon cancer beginning at age 50 for Caucasians and 45 years old for African Americans. If the initial test is negative, and you have no symptoms, the recommended interval for follow-up colonoscopy is 10 years.  Despite this, a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed that nearly half of the the Medicare patients with negative findings on colonoscopy underwent repeat exams much sooner than the guideline recommended interval of 10 years.

The study looked at 24,000 Medicare enrollees who had a negative colonoscopy from 2001 through 2003.  Forty six percent of these individuals had a repeat exam in less than seven years.  According to lead author James S. Goodwin, M.D. of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, there was “no clear indication for the early repeated examination “in just under half of the recipients.   He said that even in patients 80 years of age and older repeat exams were done within 7 years in 32.9 % of the study group even though these patients were much more likely to die of something other than colorectal cancer in the near future.

Goodwin and his associates were surprised by the frequency of the repeat colonoscopies since Medicare regulations preclude reimbursement for screening colonoscopy within 10 years of a negative examination result. Despite this, only 2% of the repeat exams were denied by Medicare and not paid.

Brooks Cash, M.D., chief of medicine at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD said, “I think colonoscopies are overdone in the entire population. “  He believes some of the frequent studies are provider driven and many are patient driven.

Colonoscopy is an invasive test with risks. The preparation can lead to fluid and electrolyte and volume problems in some individuals and the chance of a bowel perforation is rare but always present.  Patients need to talk to their personal physician about the need for a follow-up colonoscopy and the appropriateness of the timing suggested by the gastroenterologist before scheduling one.

Cervical Cancer Screening Guidelines – Role of HPV Testing

The American Cancer Society says women over 30 years old who have had three normal Pap smear test results in a row can get screened every 2-3 years rather than annually. They can be screened with a conventional Pap smear test or a liquid based Pap test or the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) test.

A recent study at Kaiser Permanente Northern California from 2003 through 2005 suggested that HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) testing may be more accurate than Pap smears. Their analysis showed that:

>  For all women with a normal Pap smear test there were 7.5 cervical cancers detected per 100,000 woman/ years.

>  For all women who were HPV-negative the rate was 3.8 cervical cancers per woman/years.

>  For women who were both HPV-negative with normal Pap smears the rate was 3.2 cervical cancers per 100,000 woman /years.

Hormuzd Katki, PhD, of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland recognized the increased accuracy of HPV testing over Pap testing but encouraged co-testing.

“ Most women still undergo annual screening out of habit” according to Brent DuBeshter, M.D. of the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester NY. Even stranger is the case of women post hysterectomy with no cervix continuing to see their gynecologists on an annual basis for pap testing?

The recommendation for annual pap smears had been present for so many years that many doctors and patients aren’t “comfortable with the new guidelines that call for screening every three years in those at low risk for cervical cancer” according to DuBeshter.  “Many providers have a hard time changing habitual practice and adopting new evidence and practice guidelines,” says Ranit Mishori, M.D. of Georgetown University School of Medicine.

What is clear is that screening every three years in low risk patients works. What will need to be determined is the evidence based role of HPV testing in conjunction with, or as a replacement for, Pap smears.

Smoking Increases the Risk of Breast Cancer, Lung Cancer and Colon Cancer in Women

The Surgeon General of the United States issued another report on the dangers of smoking and its addictive potential last year.  At the time of release I was quite skeptical about the cost of the report and the need to remind Americans again that smoking is dangerous for you.  Then along comes a detailed review of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project. According to Stephanie Land, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, long-time smokers had a 59% increase in the risk of invasive breast cancer compared with nonsmokers.  The study looked at the links between four types of malignancy: breast, lung, colon, and endometrial cancer with smoking, alcohol use and leisure time activity.  The findings suggested that:

1.       Women who had smoked between 15 and 35 years had a 35% increase in the risk of breast cancer compared to non smokers. In that same group, if a woman smoked more than a pack a day she had a five – fold higher risk than non smokers.

2.       Women who had smoked 35 years or more had a 59% increase in the risk of breast cancer. These long-term smokers had a 30 times higher risk of lung cancer than non smokers.

3.       The risk of colon cancer among long–term smokers was five times higher than among non smokers.  A drink of alcohol a day reduced the risk of colon cancer by 65% compared to non drinkers.

4.       Inactive women had a 72% increased risk of uterine endometrial cancer compared to active participants in the study.

The study of almost 14,000 women highlighted the benefits of improving life style choices.  While researchers search for drugs and medication to prevent these life threatening illnesses, the study pointed out the benefits of altering the life style choices of women to prevent the development of cancer.

It is clear that smoking prevention and smoking cessation programs can do far more to prevent these cancers than pharmaceuticals. With cutbacks on funding for public health and the elimination of most health and hygiene classes in middle schools and high schools due to financial constraints, I wonder if we are being penny wise and pound foolish.

United States Preventive Task Force – Recommendations for Breast Cancer Screening Creates Confusion

Since I started practicing medicine in 1976 the American Cancer Society, The American College of Radiologists, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have all been in agreement on the necessity for breast cancer screening in adult women.  Annual breast exams by a trained examiner were recommended beginning at age 19.  Breast self-exam was taught in most hygiene classes and by educators in physicians’ offices and was felt to be an inexpensive screening test.

It made great sense that early detection saved lives. It made greater sense that individual patients who educated themselves about the normal feeling of their breasts during different phases of the menstrual cycle were more likely to detect an early change and seek medical attention.

Mammograms were recommended for women on an annual or every other year basis beginning at age 40 and then annually from age 50 and above.  There were always individual variations for women who were at high risk or who had a family history of breast cancer at a young age but, for the most part, breast cancer screening suggestions were not controversial or forever changing.

In November 2009 the United States Preventive Task Force, the same group who questioned the efficacy of yearly physical exams and chest X rays annually on cigarette smokers, issued its revised guidelines. They cited the large number of biopsies done of women between forty and fifty for what turned out to be benign fibrocystic breast disease rather than cancer. The biopsies were often the result of an abnormal breast self exam finding a new lump, an abnormal professional exam and or a spot on a mammogram which was equivocal.

Citing the cost and anxiety involved in evaluating a breast abnormality and using research studies as evidence they suggested not teaching or using breast self exam. They additionally recommended changing the initial mammogram back to age 50 unless there was agreement between the patient and physician that their individual needs justified the test.   With women living longer and breast cancer occurring frequently in the elderly, they suggested no longer performing screening mammograms after age 75.

These recommendations have led to great controversy and confusion in the profession and general public. In a recent Harris Interactive Poll 45% of the women questioned felt the USPTF pushed back the recommended age to 50 to reduce health care costs and avoid administering tests. Eleven percent of those polled thought mammograms should begin at age 20 even for women with no risk factors, while 29 percent believe mammograms should start in their 30’s.

What is clear is that confusion reigns. Consultation with your doctor using your family history, personal history of age at the start of menses, pregnancy history, smoking history and medication history will all contribute to the decision when to start breast imaging screening and how often.

I still support breast self exam and an annual exam by a trained practitioner who examines the same patient annually. As physicians and educators, we need to do a far better job of educating ourselves and the public about the reasoning behind recommended changes to health screenings.

New Suggestions for Managing High Blood Pressure in Senior Citizens

The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association have issued the first suggestions specifically for the treatment of high blood pressure in patients 65 and older. In the past, most research studies excluded patients 65 or older so it was difficult to extrapolate suggestions for treating younger patients to older patients.  The Hypertension in the Very Elderly (HYVET) trial changed that. It showed that when we lower the blood pressure in patients 80 years and older there is a decrease in deaths from stroke, a decrease in heart failure deaths and, decrease in death from all causes.

The consensus panel made the following suggestions:

1.  The general targeted blood pressure is less than 140/90

2.  Patients with coronary artery disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease should aim for a BP less than 130/80 mm Hg.

3.  Lifestyle changes should be encouraged to manage milder forms of hypertension. This includes increasing exercise, reducing salt intake, controlling weight, stopping smoking and limiting alcohol to 2 drinks or less per day.  If this doesn’t work then medication treatment is indicated

The group supported the use of the “step care medication choice program” with the introduction of a thiazide diuretic as the first step in blood pressure medication usage.  They then went on to describe the appropriate usage of two medications at once, the use of beta blockers in cardiac patients and the use of calcium channel blockers.

They also supported screening patients’ urine for the presence of protein which would indicate that kidney problems need evaluation.  The group further suggested that the diagnosis of high blood pressure be made based on at least 3 blood pressure readings performed at two or more office visits.

The suggestions were not the more formal evidence based guidelines we have become accustomed to. They were a compromise agreement of a panel of experts from two organizations.  They encouraged further studies of these suggestions in the elderly so that they can accumulate the data they need to make future, firm, evidence-based guidelines.

For the average patient, nothing should change dramatically. As physicians, we will need to identify patients with elevated blood pressure and convince many of the elderly that there are significant benefits to taking medication to control their hypertension. This has been exceptionally difficult in the healthy elderly who develop hypertension in their mid to late 70’s and do not want to deal with the cost or side effect profile of taking “another pill.” Improving their lifestyle will always be the first option to control the elevated blood pressure.  However, the use of medications was strongly supported to control the pressure in those who need additional treatment.

Free Health Screening – A Service to our Community’s Health

Last weekend I had the privilege of supervising University of Miami Miller School of Medicine students at a free public health screening in Pompano Beach, Florida.  The screening was sponsored by the medical school, with the assistance of community leaders, and held in a local public school. The program organization, recruitment of student and faculty volunteers and management of the program was undertaken and implemented by the students. It is one of several programs of this nature undertaken by these students in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County Florida.

Stations were set up to screen for vital signs, weight, body mass index, glucose and cholesterol. A women’s center with breast exam, cervical pap smears and dexa heel bone density tests was available. There was an ophthalmology station with physicians from Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. A dermatology section was available with fellows from the world class dermatology program at the University of Miami. Pediatric and neurology sections were available as well as mental health screening. The program was enhanced by the participation of the Broward County Health Department and numerous other community organizations.

After the patients rotated through each station they exited at a checkout area manned by students and faculty. The students organized all the data for the patient participants, explained what their exam findings meant and established mechanisms for the patients to receive follow-up care in the Public Health setting.

This was the fifth year I have participated as a voluntary faculty member. I noticed the patients were younger, sicker and presenting with more social and health problems than in previous years. Several times during the screenings, the fire rescue squad was called to transport individuals to the hospital because their initial entry into the health system detected a serious enough condition to require immediate hospitalization. The patients were proud, hard working American citizens of all races, colors and creeds who were devastated by the recession with loss of jobs and health insurance benefits.  For many, this screening was their first trip to the doctor in years. Although well received, this screening was the most rudimentary of safety nets available for this community from the health care field.

Some 225 patients were examined in an eight hour period. I was proud of the students for a job well done. After it was over I went home and took time to read the local newspaper. There was a front page article about how our new governor had just proposed a budget which cuts all funding for primary medical care at Public Health Facilities. I wondered how many of those patients we referred for follow-up to Public Health facilities would now have to wait until next year’s screening program to obtain it?

I wish those Tea Party and righteous cost cutting conservative politicians and our governor had spent the day interviewing, examining and counseling the patients I saw today. I wonder how they would react to a frightened fifteen year old hoping to get a pregnancy test and too poor to afford a store bought test?  I wonder what they would say to a 5th grade teacher who had lost her home to foreclosure and couldn’t afford to pay an ophthalmologist in the private setting to check her glaucoma. I wonder what Governor Scott and the Tea Party would say to a 50 year old former triathlon performer who lost his construction and landscape business during the recession, lost his health insurance, gained forty pounds due to the stress of life and was now unemployed, diabetic and hypertensive with no access to health care?

It’s easy to pontificate about the flaws of health care reform until you sit down with the sickest and most vulnerable and realize they are no different than you and I.