The Artificial Sweetener Conundrum

Years ago I attended a Weight Watchers meeting in Brooklyn, NY with the lecturer being their public founder Jean Nidetch. She joked about her sugar free gum, sugar free soda and sugar free snacks contributing to “artificial diabetes.” She drew a big laugh but little did she know her comedy may have a ring of the truth to it.

Researchers have now published reputable data that drinking a diet soda daily greatly increases your chances of having a stroke or developing dementia. In an observational study, researchers using data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring cohort noticed that individuals who drank diet soda and used artificial sweeteners were at an increased risk of ischemic stroke and all cause dementia when compared to individuals of similar age and risk factor stratification that did not use artificial sweeteners. Their data was published in the neurology journal Stroke. This is an observational study which cannot show cause and effect but uses the analogy and theory “where you see smoke there is fire”.

In an unrelated study, researchers looking at how we metabolize sugars noted that consuming artificial sweeteners may lead to larger food and beverage intake and ultimate weight gain. The data was not much better when they looked at individuals who consumed real sugar in sugary drinks. They noted that sugary drinks accelerated the process of aging in cells. This was somewhat in conflict with the original study referenced in which consumption of sugary beverages did not appear to have an association with stroke or dementia.

Clearly the data is confusing as to what to do. Once again moderation with diets with controlled portion size, limited chemical and antibiotic exposure and; rich in vegetables as well as fruits and nuts with a high quality protein seems to be the direction to go. No matter who studies the Mediterranean type diet the results are favorable.

Once again I lobby for nutritional training in the elementary, middle and high schools with healthy cooking and preparation classes as a sound investment for a healthier population in the future. The classes should go as far as teaching students how to create their own gardens and grow some fruits and vegetables on their own for home consumption. We may not be able to impact the adult population in mass but at least let’s give the children a chance.

Ambulatory Blood Pressure Checkups versus Clinic Blood Pressures

General internists and family practitioners have very little equipment to use in diagnosing our patients other than a light, a reflex hammer, a stethoscope, an EKG machine, a spirometer (to test breathing) and a pulse oximeter. Some offices still have an x- ray suite today but that is less common in small independent practices.

The ambulatory blood pressure cuff is a device introduced as a way to test whether patients with office-based hypertension had an isolated anxiety elevation of their blood pressure because of the physician’s “white coat” or an ongoing problem that needed to be addressed. The monitor itself is a routine blood pressure cuff with a computer device and timed inflation and deflation mechanism. It was designed to take six blood pressure readings per hour while you were awake and four readings per hour during the night.

Patients are asked to bathe and groom themselves prior to arriving for an appointment and we then placed the cuff on their arm and activated the device. They returned it the next morning and we connected the recording chip to our computer. We received multiple readings per hour and the machine calculated average blood pressure readings, made graphs and answered the question of what type of blood pressure elevation we had seen in our office.

We have performed hundreds of these procedures on patients and it is extremely rare to see a report of a sustained or average elevation of the systolic or diastolic blood pressure in a range that requires the use of medication. We only use the ambulatory monitor on patients who took their blood pressures at home and said it was normal but always had a dramatic elevation while in the doctor’s office.

I was entirely surprised to read the article in Circulation which looked at employees of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Columbia who had ambulatory blood pressures compared with “clinic” blood pressures. 893 individuals wore the ambulatory monitor and were compared to 942 who had clinic blood pressures taken. These were all young healthy individuals with none taking blood pressure treatments.

They found that the ambulatory monitor readings were higher (average 123/77) compared to clinic readings which averaged 116/ 75. The average BP was 10 mm higher in young healthy adults with a normal body mass index. This elevated ambulatory blood pressure was found to be most pronounced in young healthy individuals with the difference being less apparent with increasing age.

While the result was surprising it still supports the use of the machine in our older population of individuals who come in with a story of elevated blood pressures in the doctor’s office but normal blood pressures at home. We will continue to use the machine for just that purpose.

International Panel Questions the Wisdom of Strict Sodium Guidelines

A technical paper published in the online version of the European Heart Journal suggested that individuals should strive to keep their sodium intake to less than 5 grams per day. This is in marked contrast to the recommendations of the American Heart Association of 1.5 grams per day and American College of Cardiology recommendations of 2.3 grams per day. The authors of the papers included some of the world’s experts on the topic of hypertension including Giuseppe Mancia, MD, Suzanne Oparil, MD and Paul Whelton, MD.  They agreed that consuming more than five grams per day was associated with an increased cardiovascular risk. They believe there is no firm evidence that lowering the sodium intake to below 2.3 or 1.5 grams per day reduces cardiovascular disease without putting you at risk of developing other health issues from having too little sodium.

The report triggered a firestorm of controversy in the hypertension and cardiovascular field with proponents on each side of the issue. Both sides agreed that we need more meticulous research to determine the best lower end of daily sodium intake because current information makes recommending one level or another a guess at best with little data to back you up. That leaves clinicians and patients scrambling for clarity and the media reporting this paper in a manner threatening to further erode the public’s confidence in the scientific method and physicians in general.

As a practicing physician I will continue to recommend a common sense approach to salt intake. Those patients who have a history of congestive heart failure or hypertension which is volume related will still be encouraged to read the sodium content of the foods they are purchasing and try to avoid cooking with or adding sodium chloride to their food at the table. This will be especially important for patients with cardiomyopathies and kidney disease who are following their daily weights closely. For the rest of my patient population I will ask them to use salt judiciously and in moderation only. I will suggest not adding salt at the table and if they do to please add it in moderation. I will allow more salt intake in those patients who work outside all day and are exposed to our high temperatures and humidity.

Like everyone else, I will wait for the meticulous research studies to be performed over time to determine how low and high our sodium chloride consumption should be without hurting ourselves.

Flu Activity at Its Local Height. Flu Shot Effectiveness Set at 48%.

The most recent epidemiologic data from the Center for Disease Control states that this year’s flu shots reduced a patients chance of catching the flu by 48% compared to no vaccine at all. The party line is that those individuals who were vaccinated and still contract Influenza A or B get a milder version. In this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Brandon Flannery, PhD, of the CDC and associates believe the flu vaccine is about 43% effective against influenza A and 73% versus Influenza B. Most flu infections this season have been caused by Influenza A (H3N2). This particular virus has the ability to change its genetic composition frequently thus making updates to vaccines necessary more frequently than current manufacturing methods can accommodate.

We are heading into the peak weeks of Influenza A infection in Palm Beach County, Florida. Individuals with flu and upper respiratory tract infection type symptoms should see their doctor. An Influenza Nasal swab test can determine if you have the flu. It takes about fifteen minutes to learn the test result after obtaining a nasal swab. If you have the flu we can place you on a dose of Tamiflu to cut the duration and symptom spectrum of the infection. We can also recommend a ten day course for family members and intimate partners as an effective prevention against the disease. Call the office if you have any questions.

Hospitalized Seniors Say No One Coordinates Their Care

Anthem Healthcare had a survey conducted of over 1,000 senior citizens older than 65 years of age in the hospital between September 26 and October 13, 2016. This Harris Poll found that 85% of the participants had a real medical issue. The poll also indicated:

Sixty-four (64%) percent said they had at least three different health care providers (at one time these were called doctors.)

  • Sixty-nine (69%) percent rely on a family member or themselves to organize and coordinate their care.
  • Sixty-four percent (64%) of those recently hospitalized said no one helped coordinate their care after their hospital discharge for months at a time.
  • Less than half of those surveyed (<50%) said that they were asked about medications or treatments provided by other physicians that might impact their current care. With no one checking drugs and drug interactions this raises major safety issues.

The findings are not surprising to me and reinforce why I limited my practice size and leave sufficient time to learn about who else is caring for my patients and what, and why, they are recommending their specific care plan. It requires reviewing medication lists painstakingly including accessing pharmaceutical data bases and asking patients and their caregivers to bring all their medications and supplements to the office in their original pill bottles. For instance, you can’t tell how much potentially dangerous fat soluble vitamins your patients are ingesting without reading the labels. You need to run the drug-drug interaction software to insure that medicine combinations are not making your patient ill

It’s important to know who else is providing care to this patient and why. As their primary care physician, you need to ask patients to request old medical records and request a consult summary from their other doctors.   You then need to invest the time necessary to review these documents.  It’s a two-way street; providing your patients’ other physicians with your office notes as well as lab and test results. Sometimes a phone call to another doctor is necessary to clarify treatment recommendations and to then assist and educate your patient concerning the reasoning and goals of the treatments.

Often, family conferences in person or by phone are needed to inform caring relatives about what support and assistance the patient requires and how they can be of help. It takes time listening to your patients’ concerns, advocating on their behalf and preventing well-meaning treatment from others from causing harm because they are unaware of the patient’s medication or problem list.

In today’s world, concierge and direct pay primary care practices are providing these services while polls sponsored by mega-health entities confirm those organizations are falling far short in doing so!

Non Invasive CT Angiography Preferable To Stress Testing

Coronary CT Angiography appears to be a better tool than stress testing alone for identifying patients with chest pain requiring invasive angiography. The SCOT-HEART investigators showed that patients showing disease on CT Angiography were less likely to show normal coronary arteries when they had the subsequent cardiac catheterization or angiogram. The SCOT-HEART study included 4146 patients who were randomized to receive standard care with or without coronary CT Angiography. David E Newby, MD, of the University of Edinburgh in the UK and associates concluded in the April on line edition of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology “in patients with suspected angina due to coronary heart disease, coronary CT angiography leads to more appropriate use of invasive angiography and alterations in preventative therapies that were associated with a halving of fatal and non-fatal myocardial infarction(s).” Reviewers of the study in editorial comments said that CT angiography had an edge over stress testing because of,” The ability to identify, quantify and characterize atherosclerosis.” CT angiography allows measurement non- invasively of fractional flow reserve providing a clear advantage to traditional stress testing. The major draw backs to CT angiography include cost of about $460 more than stress testing and exposure to ionizing radiation. A traditional CT scan exposes you to about 10 years’ worth of Chest X Ray level radiation.

For the practicing community physician this data will result in our patients with chest pain being sent for Coronary CT Angiography in the Emergency Department when presenting with chest pain, risk factors for heart disease and no clear cut diagnostic EKG changes instead of waiting for a cardiologist and technical team to be available to perform a stress test.

Legalization of Medical Marijuana and Traffic Fatalities

The State of Florida has legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Marijuana has now been legalized for medical use in 28 states.

We know that marijuana and or alcohol impairs ones driving ability. Surprisingly, the traffic fatality rate dropped by an average of 11% in states that have legalized medical marijuana since 1996. At the moment researchers have no explanation for this finding. They believe marijuana users stay home off the road and use their medication while individuals drinking alcohol are more likely to drive to or from an establishment serving alcohol.

The state of Colorado has legalized marijuana for general recreational use. They do not yet have data on traffic fatalities and marijuana usage.