Category Archives: aging

What Can We Learn About Heart-Healthy Lifestyle From The Tsimane People of the Amazon Rainforest ?

The skeptical cardiologist has been in Washington, DC attending the Scientific Sessions of the American College of Cardiology for the last three days in an attempt to upgrade his cardiology knowledge and obtain CMEs for all the various areas he needs CME (echo/nuclear/CT/vascular).

I’ve written some posts for SERMO, a physician social media site,  on interesting presentations from the meeting.

Here’s my take on one paper (published simultaneously in The Lancet) that is of general interest:

I’m a big advocate of coronary artery calcium (CAC) scans for helping make decisions on individual patients with intemediate risk for CAD. Several speakers at this year’s American College of Cardiology Meetings presented convincing data supporting this approach, providing more information to get patients off the fence about taking statins.

However, CAC apparently would be a useless test in the Tsimane (pronounced chee-MAH-nay) people according to a study presented at  the ACC meeting and published simultaneously in The Lancet.

Researchers performed CT scans on 700 of  these “forager-horticulturalist”  people, indigenous to the Bolivian Amazon Rainforest and found very little calcium suggesting that they have an amazingly low rate of atherosclerosis compared to we who have to live in the industrialized world.

Obviously CT scanners are not portable so the Tsimane traveled by river and jeep from the Amazon rainforest to Trinidad, a city in Bolivia and the nearest city with a CT scanner. It took tribe members one to two days to reach the nearest market town by river, and then another six hours driving to reach Trinidad.

85% of the Tsimane people studied had CAC scores of 0. In those over age 75 years, 65% had CAC scores of 0, and just four individuals in their 80s had moderately elevated CAC (> 100). The incidence of CAC > 100 in the entire Tsimane population was 3%, which is about one tenth the prevalence in a matched industrialized population. In addition, incidences of obesity, hypertension, high glucose concentrations, and cigarette smoking were rare overall.

The Tsimane live a subsistence lifestyle that includes hunting, gathering, fishing, and farming. They don’t eat at McDonalds and the men spend almost 7 hours pers day on physical labor. Their diet consists mostly of unprocessed fiber-rich carbohydrates with rice, plantain, manioc, corn, wild nuts, and fruit composing their staples. Fat consumption is 9% of calories versus 23% in the U.S.

Supporters of plant-based diets, of course, seized on these data to support the unsubstantiated claim that meat and dairy consumption is the main cause of atherosclerosis in western civilization.

Hillard Kaplan, one of the authors and a Professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico said:

 “Their lifestyle suggests that a diet low in saturated fats and high in non-processed fibre-rich carbohydrates, along with wild game and fish, not smoking and being active throughout the day could help prevent hardening in the arteries of the heart. The loss of subsistence diets and lifestyles could be classed as a new risk factor for vascular aging and we believe that components of this way of life could benefit contemporary sedentary populations.”

However, the real cause of the low levels of coronary artery calcification in the Tsimane remains a mystery because this kind of observational study cannot establish causality. Perhaps it is the 17,000 steps a day that they walk  engaging in foraging and horticulturalism. Could it be due to the absence of processed food and added sugar? The Tsimane have high levels of parasitic infections: perhaps that is protecting them.

Of two things I am certain:

-The Tsimane don’t need statins.

-I prefer my lifestyle to munching on manioc and foraging all day.

Semihorticulturally Yours,

-ACP

 

Longevity: Lifespan, Healthspan and Swimming Underwater At Age 98

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Eugene and Naomi.

The skeptical cardiologist has a few nonagenarian patients who seemingly defy the ravages of aging and remain vibrant and active into their late 90’s.

Eugene, for example, still ballroom
dances regularly with his wife, Naomi and swims underwater significant distances.

In this video, recorded when he was 97, you can see him swim the length of a swimming pool underwater

As life expectancy at birth has increased  from 35 years in 1900 to over 80 years now, we see more and more individuals reaching their nineties. Ongoing research seeks to further extend our lifespan.

But just as important as increasing lifespan is increasing healthspan, the portion of the life span during which function is sufficient to maintain autonomy, control, independence, productivity and well-being.

Eugene is an example of someone with a long lifespan and healthspan and this is what we truly seek, the combination of living well and living long.

Peter Attila writes that lifespan is driven by how long one can avoid the onset of diseases caused by atherosclerosis such heart attacks and strokes (see my  discussions on subclinical atherosclerosis here), cancer and neurodegenerative disease.

Healthspan,  Attila writes, is about preserving three elements of life as long as possible:

  1. Brain—namely, how long can you preserve cognition and executive function

  2. Body—specifically, how long can you maintain muscle mass, functional strength, flexibility, and freedom from pain

  3. “Spirit”—how robust is your social support network and your sense of purpose.

Problems with the body result in frailty, recognized as a major cause of disability and related falls, hospitalizations and death in the elderly.

The single best tool for warding off frailty appears to be physical exercise.

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Eugene and Noami tripping the light fantastic in our exam room

So, if you want to life a long life with lots of quality years at the
end of that life be like Eugene: swim and dance with your loved ones. Keep moving, stretch and exercise in some manner regularly.

Gerontologically Yours,

-ACP

Should Fitness Be A Vital Sign?

The skeptical cardiologist routinely probes his patients’ activity and exercise levels and encourages them to engage in 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly. However, I’m somewhat skeptical of the benefit of treating such assessments as a vital sign (like blood pressure or heart rate)  as a recent AHA scientific statement suggests.

I can only envision still another item  on a chart checklist that will have to be recorded in the EHR or already over-worked physicians will have their payments withheld.

The AHA statement suggests that ideally we should be measuring  our patients’ fitness by obtaining  maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) utilizing an expensive and rarely utilized cardiopulmonary exercise test. Failing that we should consider doing a treadmill stress test. Failing that, rather than utilizing my simple question to patients: “How active have you been?”,  the statement recommends doctors utilize some sort of formal questionnaire to estimate their patients’ cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) such as the one at World Fitness Level.

I went online to take this CRF estimator (based on this paper) and I remain skeptical.

The online site and  a free smartphone app both ask the following questions:

  • Country and City
  • Ethnicity
  • Highest Level of Education
  • Gender/Age/Height/Weight
  • Resting and Maximal Pulse
  • How often do you exercise?
  • How long is your workout each time? (over/under 30 minutes)
  • How hard do you train? (I had to choose between “I go all out”or “Little hard breathing and sweating”)

 

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-11-33-13-amWhen you have finished answering the questions you are given an estimate of your fitness age. When I did this online a few days ago and answered truthfully I got the result to the right: I had the fitness of a 41 year old with an estimated VO2 max of 49 ! (interestingly this estimate corresponds exactly with VO2 max derived from a recent stress test I completed.)

I used the app (which unlike the online version did not ask me my waistline measurement) and changed a few parameters:

  • I increased my resting heart rate or pulse  from 60 to 68 beats per minute (BPM)
  • I increased my maximal heart rate from what I know is 158 BPM to what the app calculated (173 BPM, which makes no sense)
  • I switched from exercising 2-3 times per week  and longer than 30 minutes  at “all out” level to the lowest level for all 3 questions.

The change was dramatic and depressing: I went from 39 years old to 67 years old in the bat of an eyelid!img_8073

 

 

 

The app and online site direct you to a non-profit site where you can get information on a 7 week program to increase your fitness level. I haven’t checked this out.

I’ll be trying out this CRF estimator on my patients: assessing whether it adds anything to my usual line of questioning on activity and fitness.

I encourage you to give the CRF estimator a try. Let me know in the comments how you feel it works for you. Does it motivate you to exercise more knowing that, for example, your fitness age is substantially higher than your chronological age?

Happy Birthday, Nonagenarians!: Thoughts On Surgery In The Very Old

On February 26, my dad became a nonagenarian.

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My dad, tripping the light fantastic with grand-daughter-in-law Kelly.

My sister and I, and our offspring, had a brilliant celebratory gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma for my father’s 90th birthday which included playing “The Priest in the Parish has lost his Considering Cap,” taking photos with queen Elizabeth, dancing to music by Glen Miller and The Beastie Boys, singing karaoke, enchilada and beer consumption, and a Powerpoint presentation on his life.

Nonagenarians, individuals aged 90 to 99 years, are the fastest growing age group in the world: nearly doubling from 6.7 million people in 1995, to 12.2 million people in 2010. Projections suggest that by 2050, there will be 71 million people aged 90 years or older.

Increase In Surgeries In The Very Old

Concomitant with the rise in nonagenarian numbers, we are seeing increasing procedures and surgeries performed on the very old.

My father has had 22 surgeries (itemized in detail in the appendix to Book 2 of his memoirs) including four spinal operations, four hip operations and one total knee replacement at the age of 87.

Obviously, he survived them all, but after one spinal operation, while recuperating at my home in Louisville, he awoke in the middle of the night with severe back pain and the inability to move his legs. He had developed an abscess at the wound site which caused overwhelming sepsis and he spent several weeks in an ICU recuperating from this life-threatening complication.

Is there an age at which individuals should not get elective surgery? Or is it the mileage that counts, not the model year?

Complications of surgery definitely go up with age, but we have all seen 90 year olds like my father who are functioning better mentally  and physically than individuals 20 years younger.

According to the Social Security online calculator, the average man his age can expect to live on average 4.3 more years longer.

A more sophisticated tool is the “Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator” which asks 40 questions about your health and family history. When my dad entered his information, it gave him a life expectancy of 98 years (I can expect to live to 99).

If we could be sure that he would continue to have a good quality of life after elective surgery for 4 to 8 years it might makes sense to consider elective procedures and operations that improve mobility and lessen pain.

However, I see a lot of deterioration in the quality of my patients’ lives between the age of 85 and 90, and even more between the age of 90 and 95.

By 95, those who have survived are living a fairly limited life; very few are independent and active, mentally and physically.

Excess and Rationing Of Surgery In The Very Old

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Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, shown with his surgical team in the mid-1960s, has operated on more than 60,000 patients, including Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who called him a “magician of the heart.”

Michael Debakey, the legendary cardiothoracic surgeon (read about his amazing medical contributions in this NYT obit here)  developed a tear in his aorta at the age of 97. He requested that the life-saving, but extremely high risk surgery for the disease (a procedure he had developed 50 years earlier), not be performed on him.

drdebakey01When he lapsed into unconsciousness, his wife insisted on the operation being performed. Dr. Debakey survived the 7  hour surgery but spent 8 months in the hospital recuperating at a cost of over a million dollars. He died two years later at the age of 99.

It’s hard to know what his quality of life was after the operation. The obituary and other reports say that he “returned to his office and an active schedule,” but the skeptic in me suspects that he was wheeled into his office in a wheelchair where he met with admirers as his strength allowed.

Alternatively, you can find cases exmplified by this headline: “Sentenced to death for being old: The NHS denies life-saving treatment to the elderly, as one man’s chilling story reveals.”  The     N HS or British National Health Service is a single payor system, about which concerns have often been raised regarding rationing surgery to the elderly.

In 2010 the anti-health reform group 60 Plus engaged former Surgeon General C.. Everett Koop to appear in a  video which suggests that Democrats were meeting in secret to craft “death panel” legislation that would ration certain surgical procedures.

Factcheck.org, however, debunks Dr. Koop’s claims:

Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop claims that the United Kingdom’s health care system would consider seniors “too old” to qualify for the artificial joints, heart pacemakers and coronary stent that he’s received in the U.S.

U.K. guidelines make clear that patients of “any age” may receive pacemakers, for example. And in fact, official statistics show 47 patients aged 100 or older got new or replacement pacemakers in a single recent year.

My dad now tells me he is pondering replacement of his other knee..

Like most treatment decisions doctors make with patients, computers can aid in providing statistics about average complication rates, longevity, and recovery time but ultimately the recommendations for each individual should be based on their unique, often unmeasurable physical, mental and emotional characteristics.

Age alone should never determine our treatment approach.

I  have a feeling my dad will be tripping the light fantastic with his great grandchildren on two artificial knees when we celebrate with profound joy his 95th birthday.

-May you all become  happy centenarians!

-ACP

To learn the answer to questions like, “Why is the actual heart beat so old-fashioned, you know, boom-boom, boom-boom?” watch this Ali G interview of Dr. Koop: