Beware Of More Misinformation From The American Heart Association On Coconut Oil and Saturated Fats

In a “presidential advisory” to the American Heart Association (AHA)  a panel of experts last week  strongly endorsed the heart healthy benefits of replacing any and all saturated fats in our diet with vegetable oils (like corn , soy, and canola oil) which contain predominantly poly  or mono unsaturated fats.

Examining the metrics of this article it appears that the vast majority of news media reporting on it have lead with a headline that reads:

  Coconut oil isn’t actually good for you, the American Heart Association says     

Given this brazen attempt by the AHA to smear coconut oil’s reputation I felt compelled to revisit my analysis of coconut oil from a year ago. I’ve included new discussion on a key paper referenced by the AHA advisory and some words of wisdom from Gary Taubes.

Coconut Oil: Poster Child for Dietary Fat Confusion

Coconut oil (CO) is a microcosm of the dietary confusion present in the U.S. On one hand a CO Google search yields a plethora of glowing testimonials to diverse benefits: Wellness Mama lists “101 Uses for Coconut Oil,” Authority Nutrition lists “10 Proven Health Benefits.”

On the other hand, the  American Heart Association (AHA) and the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines For Americans warn us to avoid consuming coconut oil  because it contains about 90% saturated fat (SFA) which is a higher percentage than butter (about 64% saturated fat), beef fat (40%), or even lard (also 40%)

In many respects, the vilification of coconut oil by federal dietary guidelines and the AHA resembles the inappropriate attack on dairy fat and is emblematic of the whole misguided war on dietary fat. In fact, the new AHA advisory  after singling out coconut oil goes on to cherry-pick the data on dairy fat and cardiovascular disease in order to  support their faulty recommendations for choosing low or nonfat dairy..

The AHAs simple message to replace all saturated fats in your diet with poly unsaturated fats (PUFAs) or monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) is flawed because:

  1. All saturated fats are not created equal :the kinds of saturated fats in coconut oil differs markedly from both dairy SFAs and beef SFAs . Some  SFAs may have beneficial effects on blood lipids, weight, and cardiovascular health.

  2. The types of nonSFAs in vegetable oils differ markedly and may have differential effects on cardiovascular health.

All Saturated Fats Are Not Created Equal!

Saturated fats are divided into various types based on the number of carbon atoms in the molecule. Depending on length, they differ markedly in their metabolism, absorption and effects on lipid profiles.

The major SFA in coconut oil, lauric acid, has a 12 carbon chain and is thus considered a medium chain fatty acid (MCFA).

The AHA advisory makes a cursory attempt to address the huge hole in their logic primarily relying on a meta-regression analysis published in 2003 by Mensink, et al., and concludes:

The Mensink meta-regression analysis determined the effects on blood lipids of replacing carbohydrates with the individual saturated fatty acids that are in common foods, including lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic ac- ids. Lauric, myristic, and palmitic acids all had similar effects in increasing LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol and decreasing triglycerides when replacing carbohydrates

In summary, the common individual saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol. Their replacement with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats lowers LDL cholesterol. Differences in the effects of the individual fatty acids are small and should not affect dietary recommendations to lower saturated fat intake.

But if we examine what the actual paper by Mensink et al (available in full here) we find their conclusions are the exact opposite of the AHA:

Lauric acid greatly increased total cholesterol, but much of its effect was on HDL cholesterol. Consequently, oils rich in lauric acid decreased the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol. Myristic and palmitic acids had little effect on the ratio, and stearic acid reduced the ratio slightly.

The differences in the effects of the individual fatty acids are not small they are quite significant if we look at the totality of the effects on lipids relevant to cardiovascular disease. In their discussion, Mensink, et al go on to say:

Our results emphasize the risk of relying on cholesterol alone as a marker of CAD risk. Replacement of carbohydrates with tropical oils markedly raises total cholesterol, which is unfavorable, but the picture changes if effects on HDL and apo B are taken into account.

What’s more :

The picture may change again once we know how to interpret the effects of diet on postprandial lipemia, thrombogenic factors, and other, newer markers. However, as long as information directly linking the consumption of certain fats and oils with CAD is lacking, we can never be sure what such fats and oils do to CAD risk.

This graph from Mensink, et al. shows what would happen to the total/HDL cholesterol ratio if we substituted various foods in place of 10% mixed fat. Theoretically a lower ratio is more heart healthy. Look at the drastic differences between palm oil, coconut oil and butter, all of which are condemned by the AHA

 

Misguided Dietary Fat Recommendations

The  AHA experts have doubled down on their recommendation to use cooking oils that have less saturated fat such as canola and corn oil. They advise, in general, to “choose oils with less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 12.28.40 PMCanola and corn oil, the products of extensive factory processing techniques, contain mostly mono or polyunsaturated fats which have been deemed “heart-healthy” on the flimsiest of evidence.

The most recent data we have on replacing saturated fat in the diet with polyunsaturated fat comes from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment performed from 1968 to 1973, but published in 2016 in the BMJ.

Data from this study, which substituted liquid corn oil in place of the usual hospital cooking fats, and corn oil margarine in place of butter and added corn oil to numerous food items, showed no overall benefit in reducing mortality. In fact, individuals over age 65 were more likely to die from cardiovascular disease if they got the corn oil diet.

Cherry-Picking Data

The new AHA presidential advisory doesn’t include this study or  data from the Sydney Heart Study, another study with negative results for substituting PUFAs for SFAs.

As Gary Taubes pointed out in a post for Larry Husten’s cardiobrief.org blog, the AHA experts cherry-picked four “core trials” that  agreed with their hypothesis and excluded the ones that don’t agree:

They do this for every trial but the four, including among the rejections the largest trials ever done: the Minnesota Coronary Survey, the Sydney Heart Study, and, most notably, the Women’s Health Initiative, which was the single largest and most expensive clinical trial ever done. All of these resulted in evidence that refuted the hypothesis. All are rejected from the analysis. And the AHA experts have good reasons for all of these decisions, but when other organizations – most notably the Cochrane Collaboration – did this exercise correctly, deciding on a strict methodology in advance that would determine which studies to use and which not, without knowing the results, these trials were typically included.

Coconut Oil: The Bottom Line

After all is said and done, it would appear that coconut oil, despite coming from a vegetable, resembles dairy fat in many ways.

It is more likely than not that coconut oil, like dairy fat, reduces your chances of obesity and heart disease, especially when compared to the typical American diet of highly processed and high carbohydrate foods.

Although containing lots of saturated fat, the SFAs in coconut oil are drastically different from other dietary sources of SFA.  The medium chain fatty acids like lauric acid which make up the coconut are absorbed and metabolized differently from long chain fatty acids found in animal fat.

The only explanation for dietary guidelines advising against coconut oil and dairy fat is the need to stay “on message” and simplify food choices for consumers, thus continuing the vilification of all saturated fats.

Substituting corn oil (or other vegetable oils with lots of linoleic acid) for foods containing saturated fats does not lower risk of heart disease and may promote atherosclerotic outcomes like heart attack and stroke.

Finally, I agree with Taubes that we deserve good scientific studies proving without a doubt that these drastic changes in diet are truly helping:

“telling people to eat something new to the environment — an unnatural factor, à la virtually any vegetable oil (other than olive oil if your ancestor happen to come from the Mediterranean or mid-East), …..is an entirely different proposition. Now you’re assuming that this unnatural factor is protective, just like we assume a drug can be protective say by lowering our blood pressure or cholesterol. And so the situation is little different than it would be if these AHA authorities were concluding that we should all take statins prophylactically or beta blockers. The point is that no one would ever accept such a proposal for a drug without large-scale clinical trials demonstrating that the benefits far outweigh the risks. So even if the AHA hypothesis is as reasonable and compelling as the AHA authors clearly believe it is, it has to be tested. They are literally saying (not figuratively, literally) that vegetable oils — soy, canola, etc — are as beneficial as statins and so we should all consume them. Maybe so, but before we do (or at least before I do), they have a moral and ethical obligation to rigorously test that hypothesis, just as they would if they were advising us all to take a drug.”

Cocovorically Yours,

-ACP

For those seeking more information.

This graph is from the BMJ paper which also included a meta-analysis of all randomized studies substituting linoleic acid for saturated fat.  The data do not favor substituting corn oil for saturated fat

F7.large

 

 

 

The Three E’s Of Interrupting Patients

The skeptical cardiologist was trained to listen carefully to patients who are relating their “history” as we term it and to minimize interruptions. However, there are only a limited number of minutes in the day and some patients are capable of monologues that rival a Shakespeare soliloquy.

If a physician doesn’t learn methods for getting the patient back on point he will spend his days stressed and running behind schedule.

A recent JAMA editorial describes the three E’s that physicians should employ when interrupting a patient.

The first “E” element is to excuse yourself. The second is to empathize with the topic being interrupted and the third is to explain the reason for the interruption.

For the patient who is repetitive, disorganized or circumcloquacious:

(circumloquacious (adjective): Using excessive language to evade a question, obscure truth or change the subject [comb. of ‘circumlocution’ and ‘loquacious’]

Always circumloquacious, she evaded defining the word and instead started a discourse on etymology and metalinguistics.

the writer suggests this typical “topic tracking” interruption:

Forgive me. You are sharing a lot and I can see you are really bothered about… your headache, fatigue, allergy, stomach pain… and this is frustrating and scary for you. I would like to switch gears and ask several specific questions, then do an exam to make sure we develop a plan that works best for you.

Excessively circumloquacious patients can be their own worse enemies as the office visit is spent on issues peripheral to their major problems.

Hopefully your doctor has learned some variation on the three E’s to deal with circumloquacity (I just invented that word!), otherwise he/she will continually be late and stressed.

Empathetically Yours,

-ACP

 

Urban Cycling, Part 2: Hit and Run Drivers and Bike Helmets

A doctor colleague of the skeptical cardiologist was riding his bike on a quiet road here in St. Louis recently when he suddenly awoke in a hospital bed. His friend who was riding in front of him heard a crash, turned and saw a black car making a U-turn and speeding off. Fortunately, the good doctor, suffered only the concussion and multiple bruised ribs and will live to ride again

He is in his seventies and I asked him if he would, indeed, climb onto the saddle of a two-wheeled vehicle in the future and he indicated yes, but never again on roads shared with cars.

I also inquired as to the state of his bike helmet post-trauma: it was shattered into multiple pieces.

In a previous post I pondered the question: Does cycling to work make you more or less likely to die?

cycling to work for many individuals would provide the daily physical activity that is recommended for cardiovascular benefits. However, cycling in general, and urban cycling in particular, carries a significant risk of trauma and death from accidents and possibly greater exposure to urban pollutants.

In the Netherlands cycling to work likely makes you less likely to die.

One study quantified the impact on all-cause mortality if 500,000  people made a  transition from car to bicycle for short trips on a daily basis in the Netherlands and concluded

For individuals who shift from car to bicycle, we estimated that beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3–14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8–40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5–9 days lost). Societal benefits are even larger because of a modest reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents.

In St. Louis, however, I suspect my longevity would be substantially reduced by cycling the 15 miles of heavily trafficked roads from University City to St. Lukes Hospital in Chesterfield. I would be cheek to jowl with SUVs, pick-up trucks, and mini-vans full of distracted, texting and chatting commuters.

Should  Bike Helmets Be Mandated?

Like most people I know, my colleague wears a bike helmet religiously when cycling. He, like many who have shared their bike accident stories with me, believes the bike helmet saved his life. I certainly can’t refute that possibility but it is impossible to know with certainty.

I’ve posted my analysis of the wisdom of mandating bike helmets here and even after hearing the good doctor’s story,  I still refuse to wear one.

Typical skeptical cardiologist bike riding garb. No helmet but safari (not bee-keeper) hat because sun is not his facial friend.

A commonly cited statistic is that bike helmets reduce serious head injuries by 85% and brain injuries by 88%.  This comes from an observational  study  published in 1989 which has serious limitations and has never been reproduced. For an exhaustive critique of these data see here.

I think a fair summary is in this British Medical Journal editorial which is behind a paywall but can be reviewed as a PDF here (bmj-june-2013.pdfbicycle helmets and the law).

 

Larry Husten, a journalist, who writes an excellent cardiology blog at cardiobrief.org apparently agrees with me and has recently written about “The Unintended Consequences of Bike Helmets.”

I encourage everyone to read his post which can be found here.

Here is his main point:

I am opposed to public health campaigns that focus on helmets, thereby implanting in people’s minds the dangers of cycling. Instead, in my view, the public health agenda regarding cycling should be to promote the far greater health benefits of cycling. The overarching goal of any public health campaign should be to dramatically increase cycling in the US, thereby encouraging physical activity and helping to reduce obesity and diabetes.  In tiny Denmark, by way of example, one expert, Lars Bo Andersen, PhD, of Western Copenhagen University of Applied Sciences, reports that “26 persons were killed in the whole country in cycle accidents last year, but more than 6000 deaths were avoided due to the huge amount of physical activity this behavior is a result of.”

Circuitously Yours,

-ACP

Speaking of Holland, the skeptical cardiologist will be visiting this hotbed of cycling, tulips and dikes in July.

I’ll be staying in Haarlem but wandering around the country researching cycling, assisted suicide and the Dutch dairy industry which may be responsible for the Dutch having gone from being among the shortest people in Europe to being the tallest in the world.

Nonskeptical Musical Thoughts On Dick Dale and the Dead While Running For Longevity

Since determining that running would lower my cardiovascular risk and that it was actually good for my wonky knees (running is associated with a lower risk of ostearthritis or hip replacement, see here), I’ve been trying to do it regularly.

It has become therapeutic in many ways, aiding sleep and reducing stress levels. And, unlike my bike riding adventures, I have yet to fall and injure myself running and I don’t get dirty looks for not wearing a helmet.

I’ve even contemplated running 5 kilometers,  although not as part of any formal exhibition: just a personal , private goal. To this end I have for the first time recently run 4 kilometers.

Listening to music during these longer runs greatly helps the time pass and sometimes I am able to find songs which fit my running cadence, albeit not through any systematic analysis but through mere serendipity. I let my entire musical collection (nicely streamed by Apple music) be my running playlist and this ranges from the Talking Heads to Thelonius Monk to Bach.

This morning’s run (the second time I reached 4K) I was aided by two songs: one by the king of surf guitar, the other by the kings of psychedelic jam rock.

Dick Dale and Miserlou

Although, Dick Dale was huge in the early sixties, he did not register on my musical radar until  I watched Pulp Fiction and in its dazzling opening scene and  was jolted by Dale’s staccato machine gun guitar riffs alternating with his plaintive trumpet solo on  “Miserlou“.

I immediately strapped on my Strat and began trying to emulate his unique playing style.

Here’s Dick and the Del-Tones performing their version for the movie “A Swinging’ Affair”

This version contains none of the rhythmic power and electrifying guitar attack of the single and the band appears to be on tranquilizers. To make matters worse, Dick  doesn’t play that magical melodic moaning trumpet solo which contrasts so brilliantly with the pile-driving reverb-drenched guitar riffs on the original version.

You can see some of the power of the left-handed Dale in this live performance of Miserlou from 1995 but alas, no trumpet solo.

Dick Dale, remarkably, is still touring and playing well at age 80.

As fortune would have it the beats per
minute of this song is 173 which fits my preferred running speed stride cadence perfectly.

The Other One (Not Cryptical Envelopment)

The next song to aid me on my run was a live performance from the Grateful Dead’s 1972 European Tour  which is 36 minutes long.

I was slow to revere the Dead but when I first listened to their live album Europe ’72 I was hooked. Instead of studying in college, I spent way too many hours playing Sugar Magnolia (and Blue Sky, et al..)  thereafter.

The Other One highlights their free and wild improvisational style. While running I could focus on what Keith Godchaux was doing on the piano and that takes me to a psychic place in which I feel no pain.

Please excuse my hubris but I am convinced that I could have done a good job as the Dead keyboardist.  It’s probably a good thing I never got that gig, however, as it carries a very high mortality rate (not to mention that I’m a much better cardiologist than keyboardist.)

As Billboard pointed out in its obituary on the last keyboardist, Vince Welnick (who committed suicide by slitting his throat at age 55 in 2006):

Welnick was the last in a long line of Grateful Dead keyboardists, several of whom died prematurely, leading some of the group’s fans to conclude that the position came with a curse.

Welnick had replaced Brent Mydland, who died of a drug overdose in 1990. Mydland succeeded Keith Godchaux, who died in a car crash shortly after leaving the band. And Godchaux had replaced the band’s original keyboard player, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who died at 27 in 1973.

Last week a very good Grateful Dead documentary (Long Strange Trip) was released on Netflix. I’ve been somewhat mesmerized by what I’ve watched so far.  For example, at one point, Phil Lesh reveals that Jerry Garcia asked him to join the band as their bassist even though he had never played the instrument. (If only he had asked me!)

Strangetrippingly Yours

-ACP

N.B. Miserlou is a very old folk song with a scale that sounds exotic to Western ears: the double harmonic scale

per Wikipedia

The song’s oriental melody has been so popular for so long that many people, from Morocco to Iraq, claim it to be a folk song from their own country. In fact, in the realm of Middle Eastern music, the song is a very simplistic one, since it is little more than going up and down the Hijaz Kar or double harmonic scale (E-F-G#-A-B-C-D#). It still remains a well known Greek, Klezmer, and Arab folk song.

 

 

 

Unsure About Taking A Statin For High Cholesterol? Consider A Compromise Approach

In an earlier post the skeptical cardiologist introduced Geo, a 61 year old male with no risk factors for heart attack or stroke other than a high cholesterol. His total cholesterol was 249, LDL (bad) 154, HDL (good) 72 and triglycerides 116.

His doctor had recommended that he take a statin drug but Geo balked at taking one due to concerns about side effects and requested my input. My first steps were to gather more information.

-I calculated his 10 year risk of stroke or heart attack at 8.4% (treatment with statin typically felt to benefit individuals with 10 year risk >7.5%) and as I have previously noted, this is not unusual for a man over age 60.

-I assessed him for any hidden  or subclinical atherosclerosis and found

The vascular ultrasound showed below normal carotid thickness and no plaque and his coronary calcium score was 18,  putting him at the 63rd  percentile. This is slightly higher than average white men his age.

So Geo definitely has atherosclerotic plaque in his coronary arteries. This puts him at risk for heart attack and stroke but not a lot higher risk than most men his age.

Strictly speaking, since he hasn’t already had a heart attack or stroke, treating him with a statin is a form of primary prevention. However, we know that atherosclerotic plaque has already developed in his arteries and at some point, perhaps years from now it will have consequences.

What is the best approach to reduce Geo’s risk?

It’s essential  to look closely at lifestyle changes in everyone to reduce cardiac risk.

The lifestyle components that influence risk are

  1. Cigarette Smoking (by far the strongest)
  2. Diet
  3. Exercise
  4. Obesity (Obviously related to #1 and #2)
  5. Stress
  6. Sleep

Patients who try to change to what they perceive as a heart healthy diet by switching to non-fat dairy and eliminating all red meat will not substantially lower risk (see here.) Even if you are possess the rock-hard discipline to stay on a radically low fat diet like the Esselstyn diet or the Pritikin diet there are no good data supporting their  efficacy in preventing cardiac disease.

Geo was not far from theMediterranean diet I recommend but would probably benefit from increased veggie and nut consumption. He was not overweight and he doesn’t smoke. I encouraged him to engage in 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly.

Low Dose, Intermittent Rosuvastatin

I engaged in shared decision-making with Geo.  Informing him, as best I could, of the potential side effects and benefits of statin therapy.

After a long discussion we decided to try a compromise between no therapy and the guideline recommended moderate intensive dose statin therapy.

This approach utilizes a low dose of rosuvastatin taken intermittently with the goal of minimizing any statin side effect but obtaining some of the benefits of statin drugs on  cardiovascular risk reduction.

I have many patients who have been unable to tolerate other statin drugs in any dosage due to statin related muscle aches but who tolerate this particular  treatment and I  see substantial reductions in the LDL (bad) cholesterol with this approach.

Studies have shown that rosuvastatin 5–10 mg or atorvastatin 10–20 mg given every other day produce LDL-C reduction of 20–40 %

Studies have also shown that In patients with previous statin intolerance, rosuvastatin administered once or twice weekly (at a mean dose of 10 mg per week) achieved an LDL-C reduction of 23–29% and was well tolerated by 74–80 % of patients.

In a recent report from a specialized lipid clinic, 90 % of patients referred for intolerance to multiple statins were actually able to tolerate statin therapy, although the majority was at a reduced dose and less-than-daily dosing.

Results in Geo

After several months of taking 5 mg rosuvastatin twice weekly Geo felt fine with no discernible side effects. He obtained repeat cholesterol  levels:

His LDL had dropped 52% from 140 to 92.

Hopefully, this LDL reduction plus the non-cholesterol lowering beneficial properties of statins (see here) will substantially lower Geo’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

We need randomized studies testing long-term outcomes using this approach to make it evidence-based. But in medicine we frequently don’t have studies that apply to  specific patient situations. In these cases shared decision-making in order to find solutions that fit the individual patient’s concerns and experience becomes paramount.

Faithfully Yours,

-ACP

 

 

 

Study Shows EpiPens Effective Up to 50 Months After Expiration Date

The skeptical cardiologist recently revealed that he had been relying on an EpiPen that expired in 2011. Apparently, I was not entirely wrong to keep that old EpiPen around.

A research letter published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that EpiPens:

 did lose potency over time. Even 50 months past expiration, however, the EpiPens retained 84 percent of epinephrine concentrations – enough to prevent anaphylactic shock,.

Per Reuters based on an email from Julie Knell, Mylan’s senior director for global product communications:

The expiration dates stamped on EpiPens reflect “the final day, based on quality control tests, that a product has been determined to be safe and effective when stored under the conditions stated in the package insert,” Knell said. “Given the life-threatening nature of anaphylaxis, patients are encouraged to refill their EpiPen Auto-Injector upon expiration, approximately every 12 to 18 months.”

Pharmacists indicate they may not get EpiPens until 6 months after manufacture meaning that patients must replace them annually. Extending the shelf-life to 24 months therefore would halve the annual cost of the devices.

-ACP

Dear Kaldi’s, Please Stop Serving Candied Bacon: It Is A Health And Gastronomic Abomination

The skeptical cardiologist enjoys bacon (in moderation), often with quiche, despite the fact that The Who (World Health Organization, not the band that John Entwhistle played for) classifies it as a carcinogen.

Enjoying bacon has become more difficult these days due to the development of a most disturbing fad: the adulteration of bacon  with sugar in some way, shape, or form.

The Eternal Fiancee’ recently ordered a bacon, egg and cheddar on croissant sandwich at my favorite St. Louis coffee spot, Kaldi’s when to our horror, candied bacon was served.

An inquiry at the serving counter  revealed that Kaldi’s only serves candied bacon; you can’t get any that hasn’t been turned into a monstrosity!

I find candied bacon to be an abomination.  All I can taste is sugar and any subtleties of the bacon or its preparation are eclipsed by the saccharine bulk of the sugar.

If this graphic (from my fitness pal.org) is to be believed, the three slices in her sandwich added 40 grams of sugar. This is the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar and the amount of sugar in a bottle of Coke.

 

 

 

 

Readers of this blog know that I consider sugar, not fat, as the major toxin in our diet, contributing to obesity, diabetes and ultimately heart attack and stroke. I’ve also pointed out that huge amounts of added sugar are hidden in smoothiescoffee drinks, and non fat yogurt.

The massive amount of sugar in this candied bacon is not exactly stealth: you can tell it from the first bite. However, there is nothing in the description of the croissant sandwich that alerts you to the fact that your bacon will be transmogrified into candy.

Serving only candied bacon in my opinion is the equivalent of only serving coffee that has had sugar added to it and Kaldi’s should know better.

Kaldi’s is proud of their community commitment which includes support for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. What about supporting healthier food choices (with no added sugar)  for kids so they are less likely to get diabetes and if they have diabetes will be  less likely to be poorly controlled?

I implore Kaldi’s to stop this madness.

Antisucroporcinely Yours,

-ACP

N.B. The Eternal Fiancee’ just tried to order a smoothie at the Clayton Kaldi’s and discovered to her horror that their peanut butter contains hydrogenated oils and added sugar. Yikes!

Is There A Difference in Blood Pressure Between Your Right and Left Arms?

The skeptical cardiologist has a question for all patients who have elevated blood pressure: has your doctor ever taken your BP in both the right and left arms?

Have you ever noted a difference in the systolic BP between arms (interarm difference or IAD) when you do home recordings?

Although UK and USA national hypertension guidelines recommend measuring BP in both arms on  a first visit and most PCPs are aware of the recommendation, only 30% agree with it and few actually adhere to it. (2007) Hypertension guideline recommendations in general practice: awareness, agreement, adoption, and adherence. Br J Gen Pract 57(545):948952.

It’s important to measure the difference between right and left arm BP at least once because:

  1. An IAD >10 mm Hg often indicates peripheral artery disease (such as a blocked subclavian artery to the arm with the lower BP) and is associated with higher cardiovascular disease risk.(Clark, et al (2006) Prevalence and clinical implications of the inter-arm blood pressure difference: a systematic review. J Hum Hypertens 20(12):923931)
  2. A blocked subclavian artery can cause neurological symptoms, dizziness or loss of
    Graphic depiction of blockage of left subclavian artery indicating that the collateral flow is stolen from the brain via reversed flow down the vertebral artery. Thus subclavian steal syndrome.

    consciousness (termed subclavian steal syndrome and typically occurring after using the arm with the blocked artery.)

  3. A consistently  lower BP in the left arm compared to the right arm  can be a sign of a serious and correctable congenital heart disease called coarctation of the aorta.
  4. The true BP (i.e. the one we should be treating) is the higher of the two. Thus, if you do have a consistent IAD, you should only measure the higher one for monitoring BP.

In 2009, Parker and Glasziou noted that whereas 13 of 15 national hypertension guidelines recommend measuring BP in both arms:

“only seven guidelines gave some justification, with only one quantifying the prevalence of substantial arm differences and only one providing a reference to the evidence. No guideline provided a description of appropriate techniques for reliably measuring blood pressure in both arms. “

they speculated that if PCPs were given better justification and precise details on how to reliably measured the IAD they would be more likely to do it.

I’ve mentioned the “why” for measuring IAD above.

The “why” is so compelling that if you have hypertension or pre-hypertension (SBP 120-140) and you’ve never had the BP compared in both arms you should do it yourself.

The “how” of IAD is more complicated.

In a subsequent post I will give my recommendations on how to reliably measure IAD and I will tell the story of a 75 year old competitive ice hockey player with a totally blocked subclavian artery to his right arm.

Dextrosinistrally Yours,

-ACP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Really Caused Garry Shandling’s Death: The Exploding Heart That Wasn’t

In March , 2016, Garry Shandling died suddenly and unexpectedly. At the time, TMZ reported that  “Sources familiar with the situation tell TMZ Shandling died from a massive heart attack, with no prior warning whatsoever”

This alleged cause of death  was reported widely.

 Radar Online (a site I strongly recommend avoiding) wrote

“According to an insider close to the comedian, “We are hearing that Garry had a massive and sudden heart attack.” and

“The word is that his heart basically exploded.”

LAPD, LAFD, Shandling’s rep, and LA coroner Ed Winter all declined to comment on the specifics of Shandling’s passing.

 

 

 

 

Beware The Insider’s Information

In a post I wrote entitled “Do You Know What is on Garry Shandling’s and Your Parent’s Death certificate?” I pointed out that his cause of death was unknown and that:

Although a heart attack resulting in ventricular fibrillation is the most common cause of a sudden, unexpected death in individuals over the age of 40, it is not the only one.

In fact, People  magazine reported that Sanders experienced shortness of breath and pain in his legs just a day before his death, and that he spoke to a doctor friend about his symptoms, who stopped by that night to check on him,

Shortness of breath and pain in the legs raise the possibility of a clot or DVT in the leg, which can break loose and embolize into the pulmonary arteries. Such a pulmonary embolism, if massive, can result in swift and sudden death.

What Did Shandling Die Of?

In a post dated 12/27/2016 (which I was unaware of until last week) TMZ reported the details of Shandling’s medical examination .

It turns out that Shandling did not die of a massive heart attack or an explosion of his heart.

His autopsy revealed that he  died from a pulmonary embolism, the disease I had raised as a likely  alternative cause of his sudden death in my post in April, 2016. The actual death certificate can be viewed here.

The medical report on his death reveals that Shandling had a prior
history of clots in the leg (s) (DVT) and that previously he had had an IVC filter implanted.

An IVC filter is an umbrella shaped device that is inserted into the major vein draining blood from the the lower half of the body (the inferior vena cava) to physically obstruct the vein and thereby prevent clots from reaching the pulmonary artery. These are used in cases where the normal medical treatment for blood clots (anticoagulants or blood thinners) can’t be utilized due to bleeding risk or have proven ineffective.

Although effective 95% of the time in preventing legs clots from migrating to the pulmonary artery there are reported failures and Shandling was clearly one.

Risk factors for DVT and PE include cancer, surgery and immobility. Shandling, it appears, was recently in Hawaii and long plane flights like the one he must have taken back to LA are notorious causes of immobility that can lead to DVT.

What Can We Learn From Shandling’s Death

Some take home points

-When some one dies suddenly and unexpectedly  it is not automatically due to a massive heart attack. Do not assume your family member or spouse who  was found dead in bed suffered a myocardial infarction.

-Unless the victim was quite old or had advanced cancer consider asking for an autopsy to find out the true cause of death. Whatever disease caused the death could be  inherited by the victim’s offspring.

-Pulmonary embolism can be a rapidly lethal disease. Consider a medical evaluation for it if you are experiencing leg pain/swelling, sudden, unexplained shortness of breath or chest pain which worsens upon taking a breath. If you have risk factors for leg clots or prior leg clots be even more vigilant.

Antithrombotically Yours

-ACP

N.B. Carrie Fisher was also reported to have suffered a “massive heart attack” by Radar Online (a most despicable website) and multiple other media outlets:

The Star Wars star, 60, suffered a massive heart attack on a United Airlines Flight from London on December 2, 2016, and was rushed to the hospital in LA upon landing, where she died four days later. Her death certificate was released by the Los Angeles County Department of Health and her cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrest/deferred,” which means it was likely a heart attack, but the final result is pending investigation.

No Radar Online! Cardiac arrest is the final mechanism of almost all deaths no matter what the cause. It does not mean she had a heart attack.

The CDC does not want cardiac arrest listed as a cause on death certificates:

In Part I, the immediate cause of death is reported on line (a). This is the final disease, injury, or complication directly causing the death. An imme­ diate cause of death must always be reported on line (a). It can be the sole entry in the cause-of-death section if that condition is the only condition causing the death.

The immediate cause does not mean the mechanism of death or terminal event (for example, cardiac arrest or respiratory arrest). The mechanism of death (for example, cardiac or respiratory arrest) should not be reported as the immediate cause of death as it is a statement not specifically related to the disease process, and it merely attests to the fact of death. Therefore, the mechanism of death provides no additional information on the cause of death.

We may never know the cause of Debbie Fisher’s death because the autopsy (with accompanying toxicology) may never be released.

More Incredibly Bad Science From Dr. Esselstyn’s Plant-Based (Vegan) Diet Study

A while back the skeptical cardiologist exposed “The incredibly bad science behind Dr. Esselstyn’s plant-based diet.

The diet has the catchy slogan “eat nothing with a face or a mother” and Esselstyn was featured in the vegan propaganda film “Forks Over Knives.”

After detailing the lack of science I concluded:

Any patients who were not intensely motivated to radically change their diet would have avoided this crazy "study" like the plague.

This "study" is merely a collection of 18 anecdotes, none of which would be worthy of publication in any current legitimate medical journal.

Three of the 18 patients have died, one from pulmonary fibrosis, one presumably from a GI bleed, and one from depression. Could these deaths be related to the diet in some way? We can't know because there is no comparison group.

The post garned little attention initially but in the last few months several hundred visitors per day apparently read it and Essesltyn followers have started leaving me testimonials to the diet along with nasty comments.

Here’s are some typical ones (with my comments in red)

“If your (sic) not backed by some meat industry or cardiac bypass group I would be much surprised.”

I am completely free of bias. Nobody is paying me anything to do the research and writing I do. My only purpose is to find the truth about diet in order to educate my patients properly. I have  saved many more patients from bypass surgery than I have referred for the procedure.

“it is so arrogant to think the only science could come from clinical studies which may be funded by an interested party.”

Doctors like randomized (and preferably blinded) clinical studies because they minimize the bias introduced by interested parties like patients and zealous investigators (like Dr. E)  motivated to see positive outcomes. Small, non-randomized studies can only generate ideas and hypotheses which larger, randomized studies can prove with a greater degree of certainty.

“the entire nentire western medical system is skewed due to the big pharma influence…unfortunately western medicine believes the only science is the pen and the scalpel..whereas …history is the best teacher of all…”

By pen I assume you mean medications. If we examine history as  you suggest we see that life expectancy was 50 years in 1945  but today in developed countries it is around 80 years. This advance corresponds to (among other things) advances in vaccines, antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs, cardiac and blood pressure medications and surgery: the pen and the scalpel. It does not correspond to following a vegan diet.

“Your foolishness is the embarrassment.”

Thank you for this insightful comment! I’m considering it as my epitaph.

One man felt that changing to the Esselstyn diet dramatically improved his cardiac situation and commented:

“Nothing like bashing something that works just because you want to eat meat. .”

I do enjoy meat in moderation but I also really enjoy vegetables, nuts, fish, legumes, olive oil and avocados. I looked into Esselstyn’s diet in detail because it stands out as particularly misguided in banning nuts, avocados, fish and olive oil to heart patients.

..”.So sicking (sic) to see people talk trash about something that works so well… It saved my life…”

I’m happy you are doing well with your cardiac condition but it is impossible to know what would have happened to you on a more reasonable diet such as the Mediterranean diet (which actually has legitimate scientific studies supporting it). And again criticizing Esselstyn’s ideas and “study” can hardly be considered trash talk.

“I personally have followed dr. esselstyn’s program for what will be 5 years in 11/17 and have made tremendous gains in my cardio pulmonary function….my cardiologist looks at me in wonder…why are you here? and often says , if everyone did what you have…Id be out of business…so…isnt that telling and sad?”

I’m glad you’re doing well with the program, most patients can’t follow this kind of diet for more than a few months.  But perhaps we shouldn’t judge its effectiveness until  we make sure you don’t suffer a heart attack next week. Your cardiologist is wrong: see what I wrote about “dealing with the cardiovascular cards you’ve been dealt.” Some individuals inherit genes that guarantee progressive and accelerated atherosclerosis that will kill them at an early age despite the best lifestyle.

“…the phrase “follow the money” comes to mind…and since theres no big money to be made….science will attempt to dispell the results and thousands of years of history that proves this dietary system works…”

Using a scientific approach to analyze Esselstyn’s diet (which tries to claim a scientific basis) seemed appropriate to me but I wasn’t motivated by money. I’m looking for what is best for my patients, pure and simple.

The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Data

One man wrote:

“But since this is only anecdotal evidence – it must be junk science…”

Esseslstyn devotees like to post what their personal experience is with the diet but as skeptical medicine has pointed out “the plural of anecdote is not data.” 

One woman described in detail a good response her husband had after starting the diet following a heart attack:

I’m concerned about the skeptical cardiologist going after the person of dr. Esselstyn versus the science, such as quoting how you States dr. Esselstyn came up with the diet. So there may be a personal bias there. I’m sure there are more people out there on the esselstyn diet that are not noted in the study years ago. I hope there is another book coming out

I’ve reviewed in detail my comments about how Esselstyn came up with the diet but I am at a loss to find any ad hominem attack.

This woman went on to say

We will keep you posted, as my husband is willing to get another cardiac Cath and 12 months to visually see the difference after the diet.

I have to point out that if his cardiologist performs a cardiac cath (which carries risks of stroke, heart attack and death) for the sole purpose of checking the effect of the diet he is engaging in unethical medical behavior and likely insurance fraud. By the way, I hope that your husband is on a statin like most of Dr. Esselstyn’s are!:)

and a man wrote

Calling Essylstein ilk shows a little too much biased hatred on your part

Please note the definition of ilk “a type of people or things similar to those already referred to.” No pejorative there. And no ad hominem attack.  I wrote:

 It is possible that the type of vegan/ultra-low fat diets espoused by Esselstyn and his ilk have some beneficial effects on preventing CAD, but there is nothing in the scientific literature which proves it.

I should be able to criticize the methods and ideas of Dr. E without it being considered an attack on his person

Completely wrong. Esselstyn has saved my life. His book explains it all, how the endothelium cells get ruined, inflammation … heart attack proof (his words). One does not continue as head of the Cleveland Wellness Center if one is a quack.

Words are easy to come by on the interweb but Dr. E’s are not supported by science and as for the “Cleveland Wellness Center” it is probably not wise to get me started. Dr. E ‘s program is listed as being part of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Center which is an attempt to capitalize on the market for pseudoscientific enterprises. He is not the director. The director recently came under intense criticism for promoting anti vaccine quackery. (See here).

The Wellness Center promotes so-called functional, integrative, complementary and alternative approaches. (Functional medicine is fake medicine!) These are approaches that have not been proven to work and could arguably be called quackery. (Let me be clear, however, I am not calling Dr. Esselstyn a quack but the fact that he is part of the Wellness Center does not add any scientific validity to his work.)

“I’m sure there are more people out there on the esselstyn diet that are not noted in the study years ago. I hope there is another book coming out”

Fake News, Fake Science

As a matter of fact, Dr. E has been hard at work over the last 30 years and has added a grand total of 176 patients who are considered “adherent” to the diet: about 6 per year. The “original research” was published in The Journal of Family Practice in 2014. Unfortunately the bad science present in the original publication has only been amplified.

In addition to any randomization or suitable control group for comparison, the data collection techniques are unacceptable:

“In 2011 and 2012 we contacted all participants by telephone to gather data. If a participant had died, we obtained follow-up medical and dietary information from the spouse, sibling, off-spring or responsible representative.”

In other words, there was no actual systematic review of medical records, autopsies or death certificates, just word of mouth from whomever answered the phone.

“Patients who avoided all meat, fish, dairy, and knowingly, any added oils throughout the program were considered adherent.”

Imagine, if you will, that your husband died 10 years ago and you received a call from Dr. E’s office or perhaps Dr. E himself and he asks you if your husband “avoided all meat, fish, dairy and added oils.”  For one thing, it would be very difficult for you to answer that question with any degree of accuracy: was your husband cheating on Dr. E’s diet when you weren’t looking, do you remember his entire diet from 10 years ago?

For another thing, you know that the caller has an agenda. If your husband died of a heart problem the caller is not going to be happy until he/she gets you to admit that your husband had some guacamole on Cinco de Mayo in 2002. If he’s alive and doing well, the caller is likely to be satisfied with a simple answer that , yes, he’s following the diet.

Yes, we have more data from Dr. E but it turns out to be even more incredibly bad than the first lot.

Let the anecdotes and ad hominem attacks begin!

-ACP

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