Artificial Sweeteners: Good for Weight Loss but Possible Increased Cancer Risk

J. L. Sievenpiper, MD, PhD of St. Michaels Hospital in Toronto, Canada and his associates published a review article in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open which looked at 17 controlled studies aimed at showing that using artificial sweeteners led to loss of weight, lower Body Mass Index (BMI) and reduction in cardiovascular risk factors. One week later, Charlotte Debras, a PhD candidate at the Sorbonne, and her colleagues published in PLoS Medicine a study showing that several of these products result in an increased risk of cancer. They noted that aspartame and acesulfame potassium carried the increased risk while sucralose did not.

Consumption of certain artificial sweeteners caused a 13% increased risk for developing obesity-related malignancies including colorectal, stomach, oral, liver, esophageal, breast, ovarian and prostate cancers. A 15% higher risk of obesity-related cancers was seen for aspartame alone and a 22% increased risk for breast cancer. They then looked at those consuming low doses of these sweeteners. They still faced a higher risk of cancers. Sucralose products did not carry a higher cancer risk at any dosage.

The message is clear. If you must consume artificial sweeteners, Sucralose is the best choice. Sucralose is used in Splenda and NutraSweet. The authors, from Paris, made it clear that they hoped a larger study of this issue would be undertaken to confirm their findings.

Dementia – Multiple Trials & Interventions to Delay Cognitive Decline

There have been multiple studies presented at scientific meetings recently that look at what influences the development of dementia and what may delay it. We have known for years that anything that interferes with sensory input to the brain can lead to increased risk of dementia. Improving hearing with hearing aids was found long ago to improve your chances to avoid dementia as you age.

A recent study published by Cecelia Lee, MD MS in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that individuals undergoing improvement of vision with cataract surgery reduced their risk of dementia significantly. The study looked at over three thousand patients undergoing cataract surgery and or glaucoma treatment between the years 1994 and September 2018. Patients were evaluated every two years during the study with Cognitive Abilities Screening Instrument (CASI) and those with scores indicating a cognitive decline were referred for more detailed testing. Although having cataract surgery reduced your risk of dementia treating glaucoma, it did not provide the same risk reduction for dementia. There were numerous theories on why cataract repair helped based on the type and quality of light reaching the retina and brain, but it was an improvement to normal in another of our senses.

Another study looked at the effect of taking a daily multivitamin on the risk of developing dementia. This study funded in part by Centrum Silver and called the COSMOS trial looked at 2262 men and women all older than sixty-five with a mean age of seventy-three. They were evaluated before entry into the study with cognitive tests and again every year for three years. Those taking a multivitamin exhibited a “slowing of cognitive aging by 60%”. Taking a multivitamin seems like an easy inexpensive intervention to preserve cognitive function and hopefully these results will be confirmed and reproduced in future studies.

Recent studies looked at the benefits in maintaining brain volume and cognitive function when drinking coffee and tea containing caffeine. The studies showed that coffee drinkers benefitted more than tea drinkers but they both benefitted in reducing the risk of cognitive decline. A recent publication took the research a step further by having test subjects drink several cups of coffee and several cups of tea per day. The benefits of drinking both beverages on the same day were far greater than drinking individually.

    Last but not least , a study executed by the Cleveland Clinic Genomic Medicine Institute under the direction of F. Cheng, PhD, looked at insurance data to determine if taking Viagra (Sildenafil) modified your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (one form of dementia)  The study over a 6-year period suggested that Viagra users were 69% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than non-Sildenafil users. This study, which was announced and covered extensively on television news and the print media, resulted in more phone calls to my office than the other studies. This was an observational type of study and further research is needed before prescribing this medication for this preventive reason.

Of interest to me was the fact that most of the men who called asking for Viagra after reading this article were on other medications for other medical illnesses that prevented them from safely using Sildenafil products.

Alcohol & Gastrointestinal Cancer

For many years now we have been taught that adult consumption of alcohol in moderation is an acceptable life practice. We have been told that women can safely drink one alcoholic beverage per day, if not pregnant, while men can drink two per day. Of course, driving a car or handling machinery while under the influence is not acceptable. We were also taught that our alcoholic beverages were highly caloric and that they, in fact, were considered “empty” calories providing little if any nutritional benefit.

Unfortunately, the purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages during the COVID-19 Pandemic has markedly increased as a result of isolation, stress and quarantine.  We have also seen individuals binge drink large quantities of alcohol and even seen individuals become toxic with alcohol poisoning. Moderation and being responsible are always stressed with regard to alcohol consumption.

A study in JAMA Network Open may make us reconsider those ideas. This study looked at the adult South Korean population from 2009- 2017 who did not have a gastrointestinal cancer diagnosed. They followed almost 12,000 adults aged 40 or older with 40% agreeing they drank alcohol. Participants were divided into mild, moderate and heavy drinkers based on the volume of alcohol consumed. They were then followed and compared to the non-drinking portion of the group for the development of GI cancers.

The study found that the frequency of drinking is more of a risk factor for developing GI cancers than the actual volume consumed. In fact, among mild drinkers, those who had an alcoholic drink 3-4 nights a week had a greater chance of developing a GI cancer than those who drank heavily but less frequently.

In life nothing comes without a price. The question I raised and have not received an answer to is “Just how high is this risk?” Is the risk of developing a GI cancer with a cocktail with dinner equivalent to the risk of being killed in an auto accident on a major highway? Is a cocktail with dinner riskier than smoking a pack of cigarettes per day, or sky diving?

Until someone can present the data in a manner that I understand the true risk, it’s difficult to develop a health recommendation. Were these results an outlier unique to the Korean population? When I know based on evidence, I will let you know. Until then “cheers.”

Exercising With a Mask is Safe

My daughter was trying to come to terms regarding what to do about school with our 3.5year old grandson. Her friends were applying peer pressure to send him to school citing permanent psychological and developmental damage from staying isolated at home. She signed him up for a school that does not have a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff but does require that the children wear a mask indoors and in close contact situations outside. “Don’t you know that masks are unhealthy for children. They have to breathe more carbon dioxide.” said another mom. 

Rising carbon dioxide levels produce a reaction to breathe, which is a good thing. So, I searched the literature to find something that provides evidence that masks are safe.

Matthew Kampert, D.O. and colleagues from the Cleveland Clinic performed exercise stress tests on active young men wearing no mask, wearing a N95 mask and wearing a cloth mask with a charcoal filter. Their results were published as a letter in one of JAMA’s online forums.

These men each exercised until they were exhausted in three scenarios. Without a mask they exercised for a mean duration of 591 seconds versus 548 seconds with a cloth mask and 545 seconds with an N95 mask. They all felt that breathing resistance and humidity was higher with either mask.

There were no arrhythmias nor were there ischemic EKG changes. Their conclusion, based on the small difference in time exercising, is that wearing a mask did not limit physical exercise capacity.

Thus, wearing a mask does not adversely affect your ability to exercise or participate in activities.

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.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Surgery vs. CPAP? Daytime Anti-Snoring Device?

Obstructive sleep apnea is now epidemic in a population where it runs hand-in-hand with obesity, which is also an epidemic. The consequences of untreated sleep apnea include daytime somnolence, cardiovascular, neurological and endocrine complications.   One of the hallmark signs of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is snoring. 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved an oral device to be worn during the daytime to reduce and/or eliminate snoring. The device is called eXciteOSA made by Signifier Medical Technologies.  The device is a prescription item which will be used by sleep specialists, dentists and ENT physicians.  It has four electrodes that deliver a series of electrical stimuli to the tongue with rest periods in between. The stimulation over time improves tongue function preventing the tongue from collapsing backward into the airway and obstructing it during sleep.  The device is used for 20-minutes once a day, while awake, for six weeks and then once a week thereafter. It is designed to be used in adults 18 years of age or older with snoring and mild OSA. Think of it as physical therapy for the tongue.

The device was tested on 115 patients, 48 of whom had mild obstructive sleep apnea plus snoring. The others were all snorers. The snoring was reduced in volume by more than 20% in 87 of the 115 patients. In the group of patients with the diagnosis of OSA and snoring, the apnea-hypopnea index score was reduced by 48%

It is recommended that a thorough dental exam be performed prior to trying this device. The major side effects noted from its use were excessive saliva production, tongue discomfort or tingling, metallic taste, jaw tightening, tooth filling sensitivity.  No mention of the cost was included in the printed review.

The online journal Practice Update reviewed a JAMA Otolaryngology publication on the use of surgery to treat Obstructive Sleep Apnea versus using a CPAP machine. There are many patients who just can not wear the CPAP mask which is the first-line “gold standard” for treating OSA.  Most patients who spend 90-days adjusting to the mask sleep far better and look forward to using the device to obtain a restful night’s sleep. The study looked at patients who were at high risk for not being able to adhere to a CPAP use regimen. Soft tissue surgery to the uvula was found to reduce the rates of cardiovascular, neurological and endocrine systemic complications compared with prescriptions for CPAP in patients less likely to adhere to or use the CPAP mask. 

The takeaway message is clear. When a patient is unlikely to adhere to CPAP mask use offering soft tissue oral surgery should be offered early while treating the disease.

PreDiabetes in The Elderly – Not to Worry

As physicians and educated adults we realize that developing diabetes increases our risks of heart disease, narrowing of our arteries or vascular disease, injury to the retina of our eyes leading to poor low vision or blindness, peripheral neuropathy or burning pains in our feet and elsewhere. We additionally have been taught the correlation between controlling our blood sugars and trying to reduce the risk of developing these complications.

In my early years in practice if a patient came in for fasting bloodwork and their glucose level was elevated above 110 on two occasions they met the legal definition of diabetes. Patients always had an excuse. “It was my birthday so I had cupcakes at work, cake and mixed alcoholic drinks at home, etc.” There were always rational reasons for being a human being, enjoying life and not being a disciplined diabetic patient.

The development of the hemoglobin A1c eliminated those excuses. It recognized that the higher your daily average blood sugar the more sugar would bind with a hemoglobin molecule and increase your hemoglobin A1C. That has given us a measure of your average blood sugar over the previous 90-days. Normal values were established as well as values in the diabetic range. The intermediate values were labeled “pre-diabetes”.

The question became “How do you keep “pre-diabetics” from becoming diabetics and risking all those complications.” Did the same rules apply to middle aged adults as to the elderly?

For the most part I counseled pre-diabetics that they had an increased risk of developing diabetes but if they stayed active, kept their weight down and improved their dietary choices they would be fine.

A research paper in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) online edition now supports that position. Mary Rooney, PhD of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, published her data looking at 3,142 individuals 70 -90 years old with 44% being diagnosed with prediabetes. They were followed for six years.

During that time-period, only 9% of them went on to become diabetic. Thirteen percent (13%) improved into the normal glycemic range. Nineteen percent (19%) died of other causes.

The message is clear. If you are 70 years of age or older, and your hemoglobin A1C moves into the 5.7 or greater range, you are considered pre-diabetic. Stay fit and active. Keep your weight down. Meet with a dietitian and learn how to eat well and healthy, stop smoking and go for regular checkups. Diabetes will not do you in!

Do Cipro and Levaquin Cause Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms?

Melina Kibbe, MD, of the University of North Carolina Medical Center at Chapel Hill published an article in JAMA Surgery reviewing any possible relationship between taking fluoroquinolones antibiotics such as Cipro or Levaquin and the subsequent development of an abdominal aortic aneurysm.  An aneurysm is a weakening in the wall of a blood vessel that balloons out like the defect on a damaged tire or basketball and has the potential to rupture causing exsanguination and sudden death. Dr Kibbe is also the editor of JAMA Surgery.

The study looked at health insurance company data on antibiotics and aneurysm diagnosis and repair.  They found that 7.5 aneurysms formed per 10,000 fluoroquinolone prescriptions filled at 90 days. This was significantly higher than the 4.6. per 10,000 aneurysms formed after patients took non-fluroquinolone antibiotics.  Patients filling fluroquinolone prescriptions were more likely to undergo repair of aneurysms than those who took other types.

The study used data from IBM MarketScan health insurance claims from 2005 to 2017 in adults aged 18-64.  The study included data on 27,827,254 individuals. The data did not include smoking or hypertensive history or family history of vascular disease. The authors were hoping the FDA would require a warning or caution to high-risk individuals for developing an aneurysm.

We already see an increase in ruptured tendons in patients taking fluroquinolones – especially women who have taken corticosteroids. They are also associated with C difficile colitis, nerve damage, emotional health issues and low blood sugar events. 

Despite these known draw backs to these medications, patients continually demand to have Cipro or Levaquin on hand in case they develop a urine infection or upper respiratory infection or are travelling and concerned about traveler’s diarrhea. 

More research is needed to determine the exact risk of prescribing these medications. Should we be doing scans on patients with hypertension and or smoking history who frequently use these drugs to screen for an abdominal aortic aneurysm?  This is a question that will be addressed by a study soon.  While the research is in process, we need to make sure that our prescribing of these antibiotics is the safest choice for our patients.

COVID-19 & Local Disease

We receive periodic updates on the census and status of the COVID unit at Baptist Health Boca Raton Regional Hospital. There have been under 25 COVID-19 patients per day for several weeks now. As of Friday, October 23, there were no patients with COVID-19 in the ICU.

On the downside, they are still very short on chemical reagents and nasal swabs to perform quick accurate on site COVID tests limited to about 30 per day and are sending out most tests to BioReference Labs. BioReference has a 48 – 72-hour turnaround time and is dealing with unexpected false positive tests.

In discussion with an official of Holy Cross Medical Center, they are very pleased with the accuracy of their four hour in house COVID detection test and have sufficient chemical supplies so that they do not send out any COVID tests. I have no idea why Holy Cross is flush in supplies and Baptist Health system short.

Lately, the number of respiratory cases showing up at the Emergency Department is increasing. The number of diagnosed cases of COVID locally is increasing. The number of positive tests performed, regardless of which method is used, is increasing. Hospitalizations in Florida are increasing.

As a result, I suspect in 3 – 4 weeks we will be discussing hospital bed availability, bed capacity and elective surgery. I’m sure this will be discussed during our morning staff educational zoom meetings regarding our local COVID status.

At the current time, Boca Raton Regional is participating in studies with remdesevir, dexamethasone, mesenchymal stem cells, convalescent plasma, radiation to the lungs of COVID-19 pneumonia patients and Regeneron monoclonal antibodies. The high-tech treatments you read about are available locally if you qualify.

The ballyhooed Abbot $5, 15-minute, testing kits are reported to have been distributed to local state testing sites. If you find them, please let me know where.

In a major review of quick COVID-19 tests published in JAMA this week, it is made clear that this was never meant to be a screening test. It is meant to be used on patients who are ill with symptoms. There are far more false negative tests with this product than are acceptable for screening situations. The last thing you want is a contagious person to test negative and then behave in a social setting as if they are free and clear of disease.

Palm Beach County Commissioners extended their Executive Order mandating wearing of masks at all indoor facilities. Be considerate, save some lives, wear a mask please.

PLCO Data Support Protective Effect of Aspirin in Preventing Deaths

In recent months, the US Preventive Task Force has recommended adults without diabetes or documented coronary artery disease avoid taking baby aspirin to prevent heart attacks and strokes. They believe the risk of bleeding outweighs the benefit derived. They still recommend aspirin prevention in men with known cardiovascular, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes.

The Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Trial (PLCO) just made the decision-making much more complex. In their study, reported in this month’s JAMA Network Open, they found that taking aspirin as infrequently as 1 to 3 times per month reduced the risk of all-cause and cancer related mortality compared to no aspirin in their study with 146,152 patient participants.

Weekly use of aspirin significantly reduced the risk of mortality from both GI and colorectal cancer and all mortality endpoints irrespective of how heavy you were. When the study looked at 12.5 years of aspirin use 1 to 3 times a month, compared to none, the all-cause mortality was reduced by 16%. The results were even more encouraging when aspirin was taken three or more times per week.

The PLCO Cancer Screening Trial involved participants aged 55-74 who were randomized to a cancer screening group or a control group at 10 United States Medical Centers. This review looked at men and women 65 years or older at baseline. While this study showed a beneficial effect of aspirin in the elderly, other recent studies have been less favorable. The ASPREE study, Aspirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly, found that individuals taking 100 mg of aspirin daily were at increased risk for all-cause mortality compared to those taking a placebo.

The decision to take low dose aspirin, or not, is something you should discuss with your physician so that you can tailor the situation and risks to your personalized needs.