Tag Archives: heart attack

What Can You Really Learn From Celebrity Bob Harper’s Heart Attack And Near Sudden Death?

Until recently I had never heard of Bob Harper (The Biggest Loser) but apparently he is a celebrity personal trainer and had a heart attack and nearly died.  He  is known “for his contagious energy, ruthless training tactics, and ability to transform contestants’ bodies on The Biggest Loser” (a show I’ve never seen.)

When celebrities die suddenly (see Garry Sanders, Carrie Fischer) or have a heart attack at a youngish age despite an apparent healthy lifestyle this get’s people’s attention.

The media typically pounce on the story which combines the seductive allure of both health and celebrity reporting.

It turns out Harper inherited a high Lipoprotein (a) (see here) which put him at high risk for coronary atherosclerosis (CAD) which ultimately caused the heart attack (MI)  that caused his cardiac arrest.

To his credit, Harper has talked about Lipoprotein (a) and made the public and physicians more aware of this risk factor which does not show up in standard cholesterol testing.

Since his heart attack, Mr. Harper of “The Biggest Loser” has embarked on a newfound mission to raise awareness about heart disease and to urge people to get tested for lp(a).

Harper As Brilinta Shill

Unfortunately , he has also become a shill for Brilinta, an expensive brand name anti platelet drug often prescribed in patients after heart attacks or stents.

At the end of the TV commercial he says “If you’ve had a heart attack ask your doctor if Brilinta is right for you. My heart is worth Brilinta.”

At least this video is clearly an advertisement but patients and physicians are inundated  by infomercials for expensive, profit-driving drugs like Brilinta.

This Healthline article pretends to be a legitimate piece of journalism but is a stealth ad for Brilinta combined with lots of real ads for Brilinta.

Harper As Lifestyle Coach.

Harper also changed his fitness and diet regimens after his MI reasoning that something must have been wrong with his lifestyle and it needed modification.  For the most part he talks about more “balance” in his life which is good advice for everyone. His fitness regimens pre-MI were incredibly intense and have been toned down subsequently.

After his heart attack, Bob abandoned the Paleo lifestyle for the Mediterranean diet, as it’s been proven to improve heart health and reduce the risk of a heart attack, stroke, and heart-disease-related death by about 30 percent. But recently, he’s moved closer to a vegetarian regimen.

Of course, vegans and vegetarians have seized on this change in his diet as somehow proving the superiority of their chosen diets as in this vegan propaganda video:

Unfortunately there is no evidence that changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet will lower his risk of repeat MI.  Those who promote the Esselstyn, Pritikin or Ornish type diets claim to “reverse heart disease” and to be science-based but, as I’ve pointed  out (see here) the science behind these studies is really bad.

In fact, we know that neither diet nor exercise influence lipoprotein(a) levels which Bob inherited.  Some individuals just inherit the risk and must learn to deal with the cardiovascular cards they’ve been dealt.

What Can We Really Learn From Bob Harper’s Experience?

  1. Lipoprotein (a) is a significant risk marker for early CAD/MI/sudden cardiac death. Consider having it measured if you have a a) strong family history of premature deaths/heart attack (b) if you have developed premature subclinical atherosclerosis (see here) or clinical atherosclerosis (heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease) or (c) a family member has been diagnosed with it.
  2. Everyone should learn how to do CPR and how to utilize an AED. (see here for my rant on these two incredibly important 3-letter words). Harper was working out in the gym when he collapsed. Fortunately a nearby medical student had the wherewithal to do CPR on him until he could be defibrillated back to a normal rhythm and transported to a hospital to stop his MI.
  3. Dropping dead suddenly is often the first indicator that you have advanced CAD. If you have a strong family history of sudden death or early CAD consider getting a coronary artery calcium scan to better assess your risk.

Focus on celebrities with heart disease helps bring awareness to the public about important issues but we can only learn so much about best lifestyle or medications from the experience of one individual, no matter how famous.

Brilliantly Yours,

-ACP

Has REDUCE-IT Resurrected Fish OIl Supplements (And Saved Amarin)?

The answers are no and yes.

There is still no reason to take over the counter fish oil supplements.

In fact, a study published Saturday found that fish oil supplementation (1 g per day as a fish-oil capsule containing 840 mg of n−3 fatty acids, including 460 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and 380 mg of docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]

did not result in a lower incidence than placebo of the primary end points of major cardiovascular events (a composite of myocardial infarction, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes) and invasive cancer of any type.

However, another study  published Saturday (REDUCE-IT) and presented at the annual American Heart Association Scientific Sessions to great fanfare found that an ethyl-ester formulation (icosapent ethyl) of eicosapentanoic acid (EPA, one of the two main marine n-3 fish oils)  reduced major cardiovascular events by 25% in comparison to placebo.

When I wrote about Icosapent ethyl (brand name Vascepa) in a previous blog post in 2015 there was no data supporting its use:

A fish oil preparation, VASCEPA,  available only by prescription, was approved by the FDA in 2012.

Like the first prescription fish oil available in the US, Lovaza, VASCEPA is only approved by the FDA for treatment of very high triglycerides(>500 mg/dl).

This is a very small market compared to the millions of individuals taking fish oil thinking that  it is preventing heart disease.

The company that makes Vascepa (Amrin;$AMRN)would also like to have physicians prescribe it to their patients who have mildly or moderatelyelevated triglycerides between 200 and 500 which some estimate as up to 1/3 of the population.

The company has a study that shows that Vascepa lowers triglycerides in patients with such mildly to moderately elevated triglycerides but the FDA did not approve it for that indication.

Given the huge numbers of patients with trigs slightly above normal, before approving an expensive new drug, the FDA thought, it would be nice to know that the drug is actually helping prevent heart attacks and strokes or prolonging life.

After all, we don’t really care about high triglycerides unless they are causing problems and we don’t care about lowering them unless we can show we are reducing the frequency of those problems.

Data do not exist to say that lowering triglycerides in the mild to moderate range  by any drug lowers heart attack risk.

In the past if a company promoted their drug for off-label usage they could be fined by the FDA but Amarin went to court and obtained the right to promote Vascepa to physicians for triglycerides between 200 and 500.

Consequently, you may find your doctor prescribing this drug to you. If you do, I suggest you ask him if he recently had a free lunch or dinner provided by Amarin, has stock in the company (Vascepa is the sole drug made by Amarin and its stock price fluctuates wildly depending on sales and news about Vascepa) or gives talks for Amarin.

If he answers no to all of the above then, hopefully, your triglycerides are over 500.

And although elevated triglycerides confer an elevated CV risk nearly all prior trials evaluating different kinds  of triglyceride-lowering therapies, including extended-release niacin, fibrates, cholesteryl ester transfer protein inhibitors, and omega-3 fatty acids have failed to show reductions in cardiovascular events

REDUCE-IT, Amarin trumpeted widely in September (before the actual data was published)  now provides impressive proof that it prevents cardiovascular disease. Has the skeptical cardiologist changed his mind about fish oil?

Vascepa Is Not Natural Fish Oil

Although Amarin’s marking material states “VASCEPA is obtained naturally from wild deep-water Pacific Ocean fish” the active ingredient is an ethyl ester form of eicosapentoic acid (EPA) which has been industrially processed and distilled and separated out from the other main omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil (DHA or docosohexanoieic acid).

Natural fish oil contains a balance of EPA and DHA combined with triacylglycerols (TAGS).

So even if the REDUCE-IT trial results can be believed they do not support the routine consumption of  over the counter fish oil supplements for prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Does REDUCE-IT  Prove The Benefit of Purified High Dose EPA?

REDUCE-IT was a large (8179 patients) randomized, double-blind placebo controlled trial

Eligible patients had a fasting triglyceride level of 150 to 499 mg per deciliter  and a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol level of 41 to 100 mg per deciliter  and had been receiving a stable dose of a statin for at least 4 weeks. In 2013 the protocol was changed and required a triglyceride level>200 mg/dl.

Participants were randomized to icosapent ethyl (2 g twice daily with food [total daily dose, 4 g]) or a placebo that contained mineral oil to mimic the color and consistency of icosapent ethyl and were followed for a median of 4.9 years. A primary end-point event occurred in 17.2% of the patients in the icosapent ethyl group, as compared with 22.0% of the patients in the placebo group.

More importantly, the hard end-points of CV death, nonfatal stroke and heart attack were also significantly lower in the Vascepa arm compared to the “placebo” arm.

These results are almost unbelievably good and they are far better than one would have predicted given only a 17% reduction in triglycerides.

This makes me strongly consider prescribing Vascepa (something I heretofore have never done) to my higher risk patients with triglycerides over 200 after we’ve addressed lifestyle and dietary contributors.

Perhaps the high dose of EPA (4 grams versus the 1 gram utilized in most trials) is beneficial in stabilizing cell membranes, reducing inflammation and thrombotic events as experimental data has suggested.

Lingering Concerns About The Study

Despite these great results I have some concerns:

  1. The placebo contained mineral oil which may not have been neutral in its effects. In fact, the placebo arm had a significant rise in the LDL cholesterol.
  2. Enrolled patients were predominantly male and white. No benefit was seen in women.
  3. Higher rates of serious bleeding were noted in patients taking Vascepa
  4. Atrial fibrillation developed significantly more often in Vascepa patients (3.1%) versus the mineral oil patients (2.1%)

Finally, the trial was sponsored by Amarin Pharma. This is an aggressive company that I don’t trust.  The steering committee consisted of academic physicians (see the Supplementary Appendix), and representatives of the sponsor developed the protocol,  and were responsible for the conduct and oversight of the study, as well as the interpretation of the data. The sponsor was responsible for the collection and management of the data. All the data analyses were performed by the sponsor,

After i wrote my negative piece on Vascepa in 2015 a number of Amarin investors attacked me because Vascepa is the only product Amarin has and any news on the drug dramatically influences its stock price. Here is the price of Amarin stock in the last year.

The dramatic uptick in September corresponds to the company’s announcement of the topline results of REDUCE-IT. Since the actual results have been published and analyzed the stock has dropped 20%.

High Dose Purified and Esterified EPA-Yay or Nay?

I would love to see another trial of high dose EPA that wasn’t totally under the control of Amarin and such trials are in the pipeline.

Until then, I’ll consider prescribing Amarin’s pills to appropriate patients* who can afford it and who appear to have significant residual risk after statin therapy*.

But, I will continue to tell my patients to stop paying money for useless OTC fish oil supplements.

Megaskeptically Yours,-

ACP

N.B.* Appropriate patients will fit the entry criteria for REDUCE-IT described below.

Patients could be enrolled if they were 45 years of age or older and had established cardiovascular disease or were 50 years of age or older and had diabetes mellitus and at least one additional risk factor. Eligible patients had a fasting triglyceride level of 150 to 499 mg per deciliter (1.69 to 5.63 mmol per liter) and a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol level of 41 to 100 mg per deciliter (1.06 to 2.59 mmol per liter) and had been receiving a stable dose of a statin for at least 4 weeks;

So either secondary prevention (prior heart attack or stroke) or primary prevention in patients with diabetes and another risk factor.

 

 

Coronary Artery Calcium Scan Embraced By New AHA/ACC Cholesterol Guidelines: Will Insurance Coverage Follow?

The skeptical cardiologist has been utilizing coronary artery calcium (CAC) scans to help decide which patients are at high risk for heart attacks, and sudden cardiac death for the last decade. As I first described in 2014, (see here) those with higher than expected calcium scores warrant more aggressive treatment and those with lower scores less aggrressive treatment.

Although , as I have discussed previously, CAC is not the “mammography of the heart” it is incredibly helpful in sorting out personalized cardiovascular risk. We use standard risk factors like lipids, smoking, age, gender and diabetes to stratify individuals according to their 10 year risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) but many apparent low risk individuals (often due to inherited familial risk) drop dead from ASCVD and many apparent high risk individuals don’t need statin therapy.

Previously, major guidelines from organizations like the AHA and the ACC did not recommend CAC testing to guide decision-making in this area. Consequently, CMS and major insurers have not covered CAC testing. When my patients get a CAC scan they pay 125$ out of their pocket.. For the affluent and pro-active this is not an obstacle, however those struggling financially often balk at the cost.

I was, therefore, very pleased to read that the newly updated AHA/ACC lipid guidelines (full PDF available here) emphasize the use of CAC for decision-making in intermediate risk patients.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For those patients aged 40-75 without known ASCVD whose 10 year risk of stroke and heart attack is between 7.5% and 20% (intermediate, see here on using risk estimator) the guidelines recommend “consider measuring CAC”.

If the score is zero, for most consider no statin. If score >100 and/or >75th percentile, statin therapy should be started.

I don’t agree totally with this use of CAC but it is a step forward. For example, how I approach a patient with CAC of 1-99 depends very much on what percentile the patient is at. A score of 10 in a 40 year old indicates marked premature build up of atherosclerotic plaque but in a 70 year old man it indicates they are at much lower risk than predicted by standard risk factors. The first individual we would likely recommend statin therapy and very aggressive lifestyle changes whereas the second man we could discuss  taking off statins.

Neil Stone, MD, one of the authors of the guidelines was quoted  as saying that the imaging technique is “the best tiebreaker we have now” when the risk-benefit balance is uncertain.

“Most should get a statin, but there are people who say, ‘I’ve got to know more, I want to personalize this decision to the point of knowing whether I really, really need it.’ … There are a number of people who want to be certain about where they stand on the risk continuum and that’s how we want to use it,”

Indeed, I’ve written quite a bit about my approach to helping patients “get off the fence” on whether or not to take a statin drug.

I recommend reading “Are you on the fence about taking a statin drug” to understand the details of using CAC in decision-making and the follow up post on a compromise approach to reducing ASCVD risk.

Deriskingly Yours,

-ACP

Full title of these new guidelines includes an alphabet soup of organization acronyms

2018 AHA/ACC/AACVPR/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ADA/AGS/APhA/ASPC/NLA/PCNA Guideline on the Management of Blood Cholesterol

N.B. For your reading pleasure I’ve copied the section in the new guidelines that discusses in detail coronary artery calcium.

Two interesting sentences which I’ll need to discuss some other time

-When the CAC score is zero, some investigators favor remeasurement of CAC after 5 to 10 years

CAC scans should be ordered by a clinician who is fully versed in the pros and cons of diagnostic radiology.

In MESA (Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis), CAC scanning delivered 0.74 to l.27 mSv of radiation, which is similar to the dose of a clinical mammogram 

-4.4.1.4. Coronary Artery Calcium

Substantial advances in estimation of risk with CAC scoring have been made in the past 5 years. One purpose of CAC scoring is to reclassify risk identification of patients who will potentially benefit from statin therapy. This is especially useful when the clinician and patient are uncertain whether to start a statin. Indeed, the most important recent observation has been the finding that a CAC score of zero indicates a low ASCVD risk for the subsequent 10 years (S4.4.1.4-1–S4.4.1.4-8). Thus, measurement of CAC potentially allows a clinician to withhold statin therapy in patients showing zero CAC. There are exceptions. For example, CAC scores of zero in persistent cigarette smokers, patients with diabetes mellitus, those with a strong family history of ASCVD, and possibly chronic inflammatory conditions such as HIV, may still be associated with substantial 10-year risk (S4.4.1.4-9–S4.4.1.4-12). Nevertheless, a sizable portion of middle-aged and older patients have zero CAC, which may allow withholding of statin therapy in those intermediate risk patients who would otherwise have a high enough risk according to the PCE to receive statin therapy (Figure 2). Most patients with CAC scores ≥100 Agatston units have a 10-year risk of ASCVD≥7.5%, a widely accepted threshold for initiation of statin therapy (S4.4.1.4-13). With increasing age, 10- year risk accompanying CAC scores of 1 to 99 rises, usually crossing the 7.5% threshold in later middle age (S4.4.1.4-13). When the CAC score is zero, some investigators favor remeasurement of CAC after 5 to 10 years (S4.4.1.4-14–S4.4.1.4-16). CAC measurement has no utility in patients already treated with statins. Statins are associated with slower progression of overall coronary atherosclerosis volume and reduction of high-risk plaque features, yet statins increase the CAC score (S4.4.1.4-17). A prospective randomized study of CAC scoring showed improved risk factor modification without an increase in downstream medical testing or cost (S4.4.1.4-18). In MESA (Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis), CAC scanning delivered 0.74 to l.27 mSv of radiation, which is similar to the dose of a clinical mammogram (S4.4.1.4- 19). CAC scans should be ordered by a clinician who is fully versed in the pros and cons of diagnostic radiology.

Downloaded from http://ahajournals.org by on November 11, 2018

from Grundy SM, et al.
2018 Cholesterol Clinical Practice Guidelines

Revisiting Who Should Take Aspirin

Four years ago the skeptical cardiologist wrote the (in his extremely humble  and biased opinion) the definitive post on aspirin and cardiovascular disease.  Entitled “Should I take aspirin to prevent stroke or heart attack“,  it pointed out that although Dr. Oz had recently told almost all middle-aged women to take a baby aspirin and fish oil, there was, in fact no evidence to support that practice.

The publication of the ASPREE (Aspirin in Reducing Events in the Elderly) trial results in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine further strengthens the points I made in 2014.

Between 2010 and 2014 the ASPREE investigators enrolled over 19,000 community-dwelling persons in Australia and the United States who were 70 years of age or older (or ≥65 years of age among blacks and Hispanics in the United States) and did not have cardiovascular disease, dementia, or disability.

(It’s important to look closely at the precise inclusion and exclusion criteria in randomized studies  to understand fully the implications of the results (for example, what qualified as cardiovascular disease) and I’ve listed them at the end of this post.)

Study participants were randomly assigned to receive 100 mg of enteric-coated aspirin or placebo. At the end of the study about 2/3 of participants in both groups were still taking their pills.

When I wrote about aspirin in 2014 I focused on cardiovascular disease. At that time, there was some reasonable evidence that aspirin might lower the risk of colorectal cancer. But when we look at outcomes the bottom line is how the drug influences the overall mix of diseases and deaths.

The ASPREE researchers chose disability-free survival, defined as survival free from dementia or persistent physical disability (inability to perform or severe difficulty in performing at least one of the six basic activities of daily living that had persisted for at least 6 monthas their primary end-point which makes a lot of sense-patients don’t want to just live longer, they want to live longer with a good quality of life. If aspirin, to take a totally hypothetical example) is stopping people from dying from heart attacks but making them demented it’s not benefiting them overall.

After 5 years there was no difference in the rate of death, dementia or permanent physical disability between the aspirin group (21.5 events per 1000 person-years) and placebo group (21.2 per 1000).

However those taking aspirin had a significantly higher rate of major bleeding (3.8%) than those taking placebo (2.8%).

The risk of death from any cause was 12.7 events per 1000 person-years in the aspirin group and 11.1 events per 1000 person-years in the placebo group.. Cancer was the major contributor to the higher mortality in the aspirin group, accounting for 1.6 excess deaths per 1000 person-years.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 9.26.41 AM

And, despite prior analyses suggesting aspirin reduces colorectal cancer the opposite was found in this study. Aspirin takers were 1.8 times more likely to die from colorectal cancer and 2.2 times more likely to die from breast cancer.nejmoa1803955_t2

 

Did Aspirin Reduce Cardiovascular Events?

No. It did not.

A separate paper analyzed cardiovascular outcomes

After a median of 4.7 years of follow-up, the rate of cardiovascular disease was 10.7 events per 1000 person-years in the aspirin group and 11.3 events per 1000 person-years in the placebo group (hazard ratio, 0.95; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.83 to 1.08). The rate of major hemorrhage was 8.6 events per 1000 person-years and 6.2 events per 1000 person-years, respectively (hazard ratio, 1.38; 95% CI, 1.18 to 1.62; P<0.001).

The ASPREE study confirms what I advised in 2014 and hopefully will further reduce the inappropriate consumption of aspirin among low risk individuals.

I’ve taken more patients off aspirin since 2014 than I’ve started on and what I wrote then remains relevant and reflects my current practice. Especially in light of the increase cancer risk noted in ASPREE patients should only take aspirin for good reasons.

Below is my 2014 post entitled “Should I Take Aspirin To Prevent Heart Attack or Stroke.”

Aspirin is a unique drug, the prototypical  two-edged sword of pharmaceuticals. It t has the capability of stopping platelets, the sticky elements in our blood, from forming clots that cause strokes and heart attacks when arterial plaques rupture, but it increases the risk of serious bleeding into the brain or from the GI tract. Despite these powerful properties, aspirin is available over the counter and is very cheap, thus anyone can take it in any dosage they want. 

Who Should Take Aspirin?

For the last five years I’ve been advising my patients who have no evidence of atherosclerotic vascular disease against taking aspirin to prevent heart attack and stroke. Several comprehensive reviews of all the randomized trials of aspirin had concluded by 2011 that

The current totality of evidence provides only modest support for a benefit of aspirin in patients without clinical cardiovascular disease, which is offset by its risk. For every 1,000 subjects treated with aspirin over a 5-year period, aspirin would prevent 2.9 MCE and cause 2.8 major bleeds.

(MCE=major cardiovascular events, e.g. stroke, heart attack, death from cardiovascular disease)

Dr. Oz, on the other hand, came to St. Louis in 2011 to have  lunch with five hundred women and advised them all to take a baby aspirin daily (and fish oil, which is not indicated for primary prevention as I have discussed here). When I saw these women subsequently in my office I had to spend a fair amount of our visit explaining why they didn’t need to take aspirin and fish oil.

After reviewing available data, the FDA this week issued a statementrecommending against aspirin use for the prevention of a first heart attack or stroke in patients with no history of cardiovascular disease (i.e. for primary prevention). The FDA pointed out that aspirin use is associated with “serious risks,” including increased risk of bleeding in the stomach and brain. As for secondary prevention for people with cardiovascular disease or those who have had a previous heart attack or stroke (secondary prevention), the available evidence continues to support aspirin use.

Subclinical Atherosclerosis and Aspirin usage

As I’ve discussed previously, however, many individuals who have not had a stroke or heart attack are walking around with a substantial burden of atherosclerosis in their arteries. Fatty plaques can become quite advanced in the arteries to the brain and heart before they obstruct blood flow and cause symptoms. In such individuals with subclinical atherosclerosis aspirin is going to be much more beneficial.

 

Guided Use of Aspirin

zerilloplaque
Large, complex atherosclerotic plaque in the carotid artery found by vascular screening in an individual with no history of stroke, heart attack, or vascular disease. This patient will definitely benefit from daily aspirin to prevent stroke or heart attack

We have the tools available to look for atherosclerotic plaques before they rupture and cause heart attacks or stroke. Ultrasound screening of the carotid artery, as I discussed here, is one such tool: vascular screening is an accurate, harmless and painless way to assess for subclinical atherosclerosis.

Coronary calcium is another, which I’ve written extensively about.

In my practice, the answer to the question of who should or should not take aspirin is based on whether my patient has or does not have significant atherosclerosis. If they have had a clinical event due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (stroke, heart attack, coronary stent, coronary bypass surgery, documented blocked arteries to the legs) I recommend they take one 81 milligram (baby) uncoated aspirin daily. If they have not had a clinical event but I have documented by either

  • vascular screening (significant carotid plaque)
  • coronary calcium score (high score (cut-off is debatable, more on this in a subsequent post)
  • Incidentally discovered significant plaque in the aorta or peripheral arteries (found by CT or ultrasound done for other reasons)

then I recommend a daily baby aspirin (assuming no high risk of bleeding).

There are no randomized trials testing this approach but in the next few years several large aspirin trials will be completed and hopefully we will get a better understanding of who benefits most from aspirin for primary prevention.

Until then remember that aspirin is a powerful drug with potential for good and bad effects on your body. Only take it if you and your health care provider have decided the benefits outweigh the risks after careful consideration of your particular situation

Acetylsalicylically Yours,

-ACP

 

The inclusion criteria for ASPREE define significant cardiovascular disease as follows

a past history of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular event or established CVD, defined as myocardial infarction (MI), heart failure, angina pectoris, stroke, transient ischemic attack, >50% carotid stenosis or previous carotid endarterectomy or stenting, coronary artery angioplasty or stenting, coronary artery bypass grafting, abdominal aortic aneurysm

Heart Healthy Breakfast Choices?: Cheerios, Honey-Nut Cheerios and Soluble Fiber Revisited

A reader commenting on my Plant Paradox post questioned nutritional  recommendations to consume fiber. This has prompted me to revisit a post I wrote in 2014 on Cheerios and Soluble Fiber.

I mentioned at that time that Honey-Nut Cheerios was the #1 selling ready-to-eat breakfast cereal and Cheerios #4. This update Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 7.22.55 AMindicates little has changed in the rankings or consumption of breakfast cereal since then despite a more widespread recognition that added sugar is the major toxin in our diet and that these food items are basically a vehicle for sugar.

Apparently, Americans believe honey is not sugar. But Honey Nut Cheerios contain 9 times as much sugar as cheerios. Here are the top ingredients:

Whole Grain Oats, Sugar, Oat Bran, Corn Starch, Honey, Brown Sugar Syrup, Salt, Tripotassium Phosphate, Rice Bran Oil and/or Canola Oil,

General Mills tries to emphasize the healthiness of Honey Nut Cheerios, focusing on their close relationship with bees and the natural goodness of honey in its advertising along with other factors that we now know are not important (low fat, 12 vitamins and minerals, source of iron).Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 7.56.32 AM

Little has changed with respect to the science supporting fiber consumption to reduce cardiovascular disease since 2014.  It is still weak and based on observational studies and surrogate biomarkers.

Between the lines below is my original post with current annotations in red.


The skeptical cardiologist usually eschews the breakfast offerings in the Doctor’s lounge. I’m not really interested in consuming donuts, muffins, or bagels with their high carbohydrate load. As I’ve ranted out about previously, the only yogurt available is Yoplait low fat , highly sugared-up yogurt which is arguably worse than starting the day with a candy bar.

A selection of breakfast cereals is available including Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and Frosted Flakes. Occasionally, when I have neglected to bring in my own full-faty yogurt, granola and/or fruit I will open up one of the Cheerios containers and consume a bowl mixed with 2% milk (full-fat, organic milk which I passionately advocate here and here is not available) (2018 update, I have said “cheerio” to all breakfast cereals and no longer eat Cheerios in the doctor’s lounge). 

Pondering the Cheerios packaging and the cute little O’s made me wonder whether this highly processed and packaged food with a seemingly endless shelf life was truly a healthy choice.

The “Ready-To-Eat”  And Allegedly Heart-Healthy Cereal

Cheerios and Honey-nut cheerios were  the #4 and #1 breakfast cereals in the US in 2013, generating almost a billion dollars in sales. Both of these General Mills blockbusters undoubtedly have reached their popularity by heavily promoting the concept that they are heart healthy.

The Cheerios label is all about the heart. The little O’s sit in a heart-shaped bowl. A prominent red heart with a check inside it attests to the AHA having certified Cheerios as part of its checkmark.heart.org program. Additional text states “low  in Saturated fat and cholesterol” and “diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Is The Fiber In Cheerios “Heart-Healthy” ?

Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber primarily located in the endosperm cell wall of oats. Early studies showed that oats and beta-glucan soluble fiber could reduce total and LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. The mechanism isn’t really known. (see the end of post for possible mechanisms). The Quaker oats web site oversimplifies the mechanism thusly :

“In your digestive tract, it acts as a sponge, soaking up cholesterol and carrying it out of the body”

This narrative fits with the oversimplified and now discredited descriptions of atherosclerosis which attribute it directly to consumption of cholesterol and fatty acids. See here if you’d like to appreciate how complex the process truly is.

The FDA Sanctions Oats As Heart Healthy

In 1997, the FDA reviewed 33 studies (21 showing benefit and 12 not) and decided to allow a health claim for foods that contain oats and soluble fiber. A minimum dose of 3 grams/day of oat beta-glucan was suggested for a beneficial reduction in blood cholesterol and (presumably, although never documented) a subsequent decline in coronary heart disease.

In 1998 Johnson, et al, published the results of a study funded by a grant from General Mills that showed that  inclusion of whole grain oat ready to eat cereal providing 3 grams of beta-glucan as part of a low fat diet reduced  LDL cholesterol by 4% after 6 weeks. HDL was unchanged. Patients in this study consumed 45 grams (1.5 oz) of cheerios at breakfast and then again in the evening. There was a total of 3 grams of soluble fibre in this amount of Cheerios. A control group consumed corn flakes in a similar fashion without change in LDL.

General Mills took this weak data and ran with it and began posting on Cheerios the following statements

 “Did you know that in just 6 weeks Cheerios can reduce bad cholesterol by an average of 4 percent? Cheerios is … clinically proven to lower cholesterol. A clinical study showed that eating two 1 1/2 cup servings daily of Cheerios cereal reduced bad cholesterol when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.”

Although the FDA had approved verbiage indicating oats may reduce heart disease “when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol” the agency objected to General Mills claiming that Cheerios lowers cholesterol “when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol”.

The FDA  issued a warning letter to General Mills in 2009 in which the agency alleged “serious violations” of the FDC Act in the label and labeling of Cheerios cereal.

Based on claims made on your product’s label, we have determined that your Cheerios® Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug because the product is intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease.

Lowering Cholesterol Is Not The Same As Preventing Heart Disease

The FDA was telling General Mills that it was OK to say that Cheerios may reduce heart disease but not that it can reduce cholesterol because that made it a drug. It makes no sense.

The only thing that had been demonstrated for oat soluble fiber and Cheerios in particular was a reduction in cholesterol. There has never been a study with oats showing a reduction in heart disease..

It’s the heart disease, the atherosclerosis clogging our arteries and causing heart attacks and strokes that we want to prevent. We could care less about lowering cholesterol if it doesn’t prevent atherosclerosis.

A recent review of studies since the FDA ruling shows that 70% of studies show some reduction in LDL with beta-glucan. Interstingly, the studies which added beta-glucan to liquids were generally positive whereas addition to solids such as muffins usually did not show benefit.

I’m going to accept as evidence-based the claim that whole oats can lower your LDL about 7% if you consume a very large amount of them on a daily basis.

However, the critical question for any drug or dietary intervention is does it prevent atherosclerosis, the root cause of heart attacks and strokes. There has been in the past an assumption that lowering cholesterol by any means would result in lowering of atherosclerosis.

This theory has been disproven by recent studies showing that ezetimibe and niacin which significantly lower LDL do not reduce surrogate markers of atherosclerosis or cardiovascular events any more than placebo when added on to statin drugs. (There is now weak evidence that ezetimibe does lower cardiovascular events ). The recently revised cholesterol guidelines endorse the concept of treating risk of atherosclerosis rather than cholesterol levels.


 

I do like the food writer Michael Pollan’s simple rules to “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.” and this NY Times piece summarizes much of what is in his short, funny and helpful Food Rules book:

you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

If you follow Pollan’s dictum you will get plenty of fiber, soluble or otherwise and you will avoid the necessity to obsess over the macronutrients in your diet, fiber or otherwise. Throw in some Cheerios and oatmeal every once in a while if you like them;  in their unadulterated state they are a heart-healthy food choice.

Cheerio,

-ACP

What You Should Know About Lipoprotein(a) And Heart Attack Risk

If you have had a heart attack at an early age or one of your parents did but your standard risk factors for coronary heart disease are normal you should consider getting tested for Lipoprotein(a) or Lp(a).

The standard lipid profile that most patients get checks LDL (bad) HDL (good) and total cholesterol along with  triglycerides. While these are useful, I have many patients who have normal standard values but have developed advanced coronary heart disease at an early age despite following a perfect lifestyle (not smoking, regular aerobic exercise, healthy diet.)

The skeptical cardiologist tests such patients for Lp(a) (pronounced LP little a)  and it is quite frequently elevated.

For patients, these are the facts to know about Lp(a)

  1. It is the strongest single inherited (monogenetic) risk factor for the early development of coronary artery disease, heart attacks and strokes.
  2. In addition to increasing risk of atherosclerosis, high Lp(a) is strongly associated with the development of calcific aortic valve disease which can result in narrowing of the aortic valve and aortic stenosis.
  3. Depending on the cut-off used  up to one in five individuals may have elevated Lp(a)
  4. Levels of Lp(a) can be measured with a simple blood test that should cost no more than 50 to 100$. This is not included in standard lipid or cholesterol testing.
  5. Risk for heart attack starts to rise with levels above 30 mg/dl and Canadian guidelines from 2016 (see here)) consider >30 mg/dl to be a risk factor and they recommend measuring Lp(a) in those with a family history of premature CAD or those at intermediate risk.
  6. The European Atherosclerosis Society (EAS, 2010), suggested levels of <50 mg/dl as optimal. The EAS advised measuring Lp(a) once in all patients with premature CVD.
  7. As levels get even higher risk also rises as these graphs show

 

 

 

 

Treatment For High Lp(a)

The lifestyle changes (both exercise and diet) that improve bad and good cholesterol levels have no effect on Lp(a). Our best drugs, the statins, for reducing risk of heart attack and stroke also don’t lower Lp(a) levels.

Only niacin has been shown to reduce Lp(a) across broad populations but there is no evidence that Lp(a) lowering by niacin lowers cardiovascular risk so it cannot be recommended for treatment.(In the AIM-HIGH study niacin did not reduce cardiovascular events in patients with Lp(a) with levels>50 mg/dl, despite achieving a mean Lp(a) reduction of 39%.)

Cholesteryl ester transfer protein inhibitors which raise HDL levels also reduce lipoprotein(a) concentrations, but three such inhibitors have not shown a clinical benefit.

In fact, currently there are no studies showing that lowering Lp(a) with any drug will effectively lower the associated risk of heart attack, stroke and aortic stenosis.

In the not too distant future, effective therapies may emerge. There are promising newer agents (antisense oligonucleotides or ASOs) currently in clinical trials and in limited populations the PCSK9 inhbitors, mipomersen and estrogen have lowered Lp(a) levels.

Why Test For Lp(a)?

If we have no effective therapies that work by lowering Lp(a) why recommend testing for it?

I test Lp(a) for  two reasons.

First, since it is inherited, patients with high levels should consider having first degree relatives tested for Lp(a) to identify those who are going to be at high risk. This provides an early warning of who in the family is most at risk for cardiovascular complications early in life. Such patients should be considered for early screening for subclinical atherosclerosis. In addition, they should be additionally motivated to do everything possible to reduce their elevated risk by lifestyle changes.

Second, I tend to recommend  more aggressive cholesterol lowering in patients who have evidence for early plaque build up for atherosclerotic events early in life than I otherwise would be.     I tend to agree with the approach diagrammed below:

 

With this approach for patients who have had events related to atherosclerosis or advanced CAC for age we work super aggressively on optimizing all risk factors. I try to lower LDL to <70 with statins and with the addition of ezetimibe or PCSK9 inhbitors if needed.

If the patient has more problems with atherosclerotic events despite optimizing risk factors and Lp(a) >60 mg/dl, some experts recommend using apheresis a technique which runs the patient’s blood through a filter which removes LDL and Lp(a). Personally, I have not sent any patients for apheresis and await better studies proving its benefit.

Antiproatherogenically Yours,

-ACP

For those patients seeking more detailed information and references I recommend Dr. Siggurdson’s excellent post on Lp(a)

There is a Lipoprotein(a) Foundation with reasonably informative and accurate website you can peruse here for more information.

Finally, if you want to delve deeply into the data check out this recent JACC review here.

The graphs above and this figure
showing the proposed pro-inflammatory, pro-atherogenic and pro-thrombotic pathways of Lp(a) are from that article.

 

Still More Evidence That Fish Oil Supplements Do Not Prevent Cardiovascular Disease

Avid readers of the skeptical cardiologist know that he is not an advocate of fish oil supplements.

One of my first posts (1/2013) was devoted to taking down the mammoth OTC fish oil industry because recent scientific evidence was clearly showing no benefit for fish oil pills.

I concluded:

", the bottom line on fish oil supplements is that  the most 
recent scientific evidence does not support any role for them  inpreventing heart attack, stroke, or death. There are potential 
down sides to taking them, including contaminants and the impact on the marine ecosystem. I don’t take them and I advise my
patients to avoid them (unless they have triglyceride levels 
over 500.)"

Despite a lack of evidence supporting taking them, the fish oil business continues to grow,  buttressed by multiple internet sites promoting various types of fish oil (and more recently krill oil)  for any and all ailments and a belief in the power of “omega-3 fatty acids”.

Another Meta-Analysis Concludes No Benefit To Fish Oil Supplements

A publication this month evaluated the 10 randomized controlled trials involving 77 917 thousand individuals that have studied fish oil supplements in preventing heart disease. The writers concluded that fish oil supplements do not significantly prevent any cardiovascular outcomes under any scenario.

It was written by a group with the ominous title of “The Omega-3 Treatment Trialists’ Collaboration.”

The Omega-3 Treatment Trialists’ Collaboration was established to conduct a collaborative meta-analysis based on aggregated study-level data obtained from the principal investigators of all large randomized clinical trials of omega-3 FA supplements for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, using a prespecified protocol and analysis plan. The aims of this meta-analysis were to assess the associations of supplementation with omega-3 FAs on (1) fatal CHD, nonfatal MI, stroke, major vascular events, and all-cause mortality and (2) major vascular events in prespecified subgroups.

The authors conclusions:

. Randomization to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation (eicosapentaenoic acid dose range, 226-1800 mg/d) had no significant associations with coronary heart disease death (rate ratio [RR], 0.93; 99% CI, 0.83-1.03; P = .05), nonfatal myocardial infarction (RR, 0.97; 99% CI, 0.87-1.08; P = .43) or any coronary heart disease events (RR, 0.96; 95% CI, 0.90-1.01; P = .12). Neither did randomization to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation have any significant associations with major vascular events (RR, 0.97; 95% CI, 0.93-1.01; P = .10), overall or in any subgroups, including subgroups composed of persons with prior coronary heart disease, diabetes, lipid levels greater than a given cutoff level, or statin use.

Nothing. Nada. No benefit.

There is clearly no reason to take fish oil supplements to prevent cardiovascular disease!

American Heart Association Sheepishly Recommends Fish Oil Supplements

If the science was conclusive on this in 2013 why did the American Heart Association (AHA) issue an “advisory” in 2017  suggesting that the use of omega-3 FAs for prevention of coronary heart disease (CHD) is probably justified in individuals with prior CHD and those with heart failure and reduced ejection fractions?

The AHA advisory is clearly misguided and relies heavily in its discussion on a 2012 meta-analysis from Rizos, et al. published in 2012.

Oddly, this is the study that prompted me to write my first fish oil post in 2013

The AHA advisory totally distorts the completely negative conclusions of the Rizos meta-analysis, writing:

A meta-analysis published in 2012 examined the effects of omega-3 PUFA supplementation and dietary intake in 20 RCTs that enrolled patients at high CVD risk or prevalent CHD and patients with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (total n=68 680). That meta-analysis demonstrated a reduction in CHD death (RR, 0.91; 95% CI, 0.85–0.98), possibly as the result of a lower risk of SCD (RR, 0.87; 95% CI, 0.75–1.01).11

Strangely enough, if you look at the conclusions of Rizos, et al. they are

No statistically significant association was observed with all-cause mortality (RR, 0.96; 95% CI, 0.91 to 1.02; risk reduction [RD] -0.004, 95% CI, -0.01 to 0.02), cardiac death (RR, 0.91; 95% CI, 0.85 to 0.98; RD, -0.01; 95% CI, -0.02 to 0.00), sudden death (RR, 0.87; 95% CI, 0.75 to 1.01; RD, -0.003; 95% CI, -0.012 to 0.006), myocardial infarction (RR, 0.89; 95% CI, 0.76 to 1.04; RD, -0.002; 95% CI, -0.007 to 0.002), and stroke (RR, 1.05; 95% CI, 0.93 to 1.18; RD, 0.001; 95% CI, -0.002 to 0.004) when all supplement studies were considered.

Nothing. Nada. No significant benefit!

The AHA was so confused by their own advisory that in the AHA news release on the article they quote Dr. Robert Eckel, a past AHA president as saying he remains “underwhelmed” by the current clinical trials.

“In the present environment of evidence-based risk reduction, I don’t think the data really indicate that fish oil supplementation is needed under most  circumstances.”

The end of the AHA news article goes on to quote Eckel as indicating he doesn’t prescribe fish oil supplements and the science advisory won’t change his practice:

Eckel said he doesn’t prescribe fish oil supplements to people who have had coronary events, and the new science advisory won’t change that. “It’s reasonable, but reasonable isn’t a solid take-home message that you should do it,” he said.

AHA: Wrong On Coconut Oil and Fish Oil

It’s hard for me to understand why the AHA gets so many things wrong in their scientific advisories. In the case of the recent misguided attack on coconut oil , their ongoing vilification of all saturated fats, and their support for fish oil supplements I don’t see evidence for industry influence. The authors of the fish oil supplement advisory do not report any financial conflicts of interest.

There is, however, one bias that is very hard to measure which could be playing a role: that is the bias to agree with what one has previously recommended.  The AHA issued an advisory in 2002 recommending that people take fish oil. Changing that recommendation would mean admitting that they were wrong and that they had contributed to the growth of a 12 billion dollar industry serving no purpose.

Personally, I am aware of this kind of bias in my own writing and strive to be open to new data and publications that challenge what I personally believe or have publicly recommended.

In the case of fish oil supplements for preventing cardiovascular disease, however, the most recent data supports strongly what I wrote in 2013:

Don’t take fish oil supplements to prevent heart disease.

Americans want a “magic-bullet” type pill to take to ward off aging and the diseases associated with it. There isn’t one. Instead of buying pills and foods manipulated and processed by the food industry which promise better health, eat real food (including fish) eat a lot of plants and don’t eat too much.

Piscinely Yours,

-ACP

N.B. I have no patients on the two prescription fish oil supplements available, Lovaza and Vascepa. I wrote about Vascepa here

Below is an excerpt:

Like the first prescription fish oil available in the US, Lovaza, VASCEPA is only approved by the FDA for treatment of very high triglycerides (>500 mg/dl).

This is a very small market compared to the millions of individuals taking fish oil thinking that  it is preventing heart disease.

The company that makes Vascepa (Amrin;$AMRN)would also like to have physicians prescribe it to their patients who have mildly or moderatelyelevated triglycerides between 200 and 500 which some estimate as up to 1/3 of the population.

The company has a study that shows that Vascepa lowers triglycerides in patients with such mildly to moderately elevated triglycerides but the FDA did not approve it for that indication.

Given the huge numbers of patients with trigs slightly above normal, before approving an expensive new drug, the FDA thought, it would be nice to know that the drug is actually helping prevent heart attacks and strokes or prolonging life.

After all, we don’t really care about high triglycerides unless they are causing problems and we don’t care about lowering them unless we can show we are reducing the frequency of those problems.

Data do not exist to say that lowering triglycerides in the mild to moderate range  by any drug lowers heart attack risk.

In the past if a company promoted their drug for off-label usage they could be fined by the FDA but Amarin went to court and obtained the right to promote Vascepa to physicians for triglycerides between 200 and 500.

Consequently, you may find your doctor prescribing this drug to you. If you do, I suggest you ask him if he recently had a free lunch or dinner provided by Amarin, has stock in the company (Vascepa is the sole drug made by Amrin and its stock price fluctuates wildly depending on sales and news about Vascepa) or gives talks for Amarin.

If he answers no to all of the above then, hopefully, your triglycerides are over 500.

.

 

 

 

 

Top Skeptical Cardiology Stories of 2017

Science continued to progress in the field of cardiology in 2017. Some cardiology interventions were proven to be more beneficial (TAVR) and some less (coronary stents). A class of cholesterol lowering drugs had a big winner and a big loser. A supplement that many thought, based on observational studies, was crucial to prevent heart disease, turned out to be unhelpful. More evidence emerged that saturated fat is not a dietary villain.

From the skeptical cardiologist’s viewpoint, the following were the major scientific studies relevant to cardiology:

1.  “Thousands of heart patients get stents that may do more harm than good”

Thus read the Vox headline for the ORBITA study which was published in November.

Indeed this was an earth-shattering study for interventional cardiologists, many of whom agreed with the NY Times headline “Unbelievable: Heart Stents Fail To Ease Chest Pain.”

Cardiologists have known for a decade (since the landmark  COURAGE study) that outside the setting of an acute heart attack (acute coronary syndrome or ACS), stents don’t save lives and that they don’t prevent heart attacks.

Current guidelines reflect this knowledge, and indicate that stents in stable patients with coronary artery disease should be placed only after a failure of  “guideline-directed medical therapy.”  Despite these recommendations, published in 2012, half of the thousands of stents implanted annually in the US continued to be employed in patients with either no symptoms or an inadequate trial of medical therapy.

Yes, lots of stents are placed in asymptomatic patients.  And lots of patients who have stents placed outside the setting of ACS are convinced that their stents saved their lives, prevented future heart attacks and “fixed” their coronary artery disease. It is very easy to make the case to the uneducated patient that a dramatic intervention to “cure” a blocked artery is going to be more beneficial than merely giving medications that dilate the artery or slow the heart’s pumping to reduce myocardial oxygen demands.

Stent procedures are costly  in the US (average charge around $30,000, range $11,000 to $40,000) and there are significant risks including death, stroke and heart attack. After placement, patients must take powerful antiplatelet drugs which increase their risk of bleeding. There should be compelling reasons to place stents if we are not saving lives.

I, along with the vast majority of cardiologists, still recommended stents for those patients with tightly blocked coronary arteries and stable symptoms, which were not sufficiently helped by medications. ORBITA calls into question even this indication for stenting.

The ORBITA study investigators recruited 230 patients to whom most American cardiologists would have recommended stenting. These patients appeared to have a single tightly blocked coronary artery and had chest pain (angina) that limited their physical activity.

They treated the patients for 6 weeks with aspirin/statins/ and medications that reduce anginal symptoms such as beta-blockers, calcium-channel blockers or long-acting nitrates. At this point patients were randomized to receive either a stent or to undergo a catheteriation procedure which did not result in a stent, a so-called sham procedure.

The performance of a sham procedure was a courageous move that made the study truly double-blinded; neither the patients nor the investigators knew which patients had actually received a stent. Thus, the powerful placebo effects of having a procedure were neutralized.

Surprisingly, the study found that those patients receiving stents had no more improvement in their treadmill exercise time, angina severity or frequency or in their peak oxygen uptake on exercise.

ORBITA hopefully will cause more cardiologists to avoid the “oculo-stenotic” reflex wherein coronary artery blockages are stented without either sufficient evidence that the blockage is causing symptoms or that a medical trial has failed.

Although this was a small study with a very narrowly defined subset of patients, it raises substantial questions about the efficacy of coronary stenting. If ORBITA causes more patients and doctors to question the need for catheterization or stenting, this will be a  very good thing.

2. Vitamin D Supplementation Doesn’t Reduce Cardiovascular Disease (or fractures, or help anything really).

One of my recurring themes in this blog is the gullibility of Americans who keep buying and using useless vitamins, supplements and nutraceuticals, thereby feeding a $20 billion industry that provides no benefits to consumers (see here and here).

Vitamin D is a prime player in the useless supplement market based on observational studies suggesting low levels were associated with increased mortality and cardiovascular disease

Despite well done studies showing a lack of benefit of Vitamin D supplementation, the proportion of people taking more than 1,000 IU daily of Vitamin D surged from just 0.3 percent  in 1999-2000 to 18 percent in  2013-2014.

I’ve written previously (calcium supplements: would you rather a hip fracture or a heart attack) on the increased risk of heart attack with calcium supplementation.

Most recently a nicely done study showed that Vitamin D supplementation doesn’t reduce the risk of heart disease.

In a randomized clinical trial that included 5108 participants from the community, the cumulative incidence of cardiovascular disease for a median follow-up period of 3.3 years was 11.8% among participants given 100 000 IU of vitamin D3 monthly, and 11.5% among those given placebo.

Aaron Carroll does a good job of summarizing the data showing Vitamin D is useless in multiple other areas in a JAMA forum piece:

Last October, JAMA Internal Medicine published a randomized, controlled trial of vitamin D examining its effects on musculoskeletal health. Postmenopausal women were given either the supplement or placebo for one year. Measurements included total fractional calcium absorption, bone mineral density, muscle mass, fitness tests, functional status, and physical activity. On almost no measures did vitamin D make a difference.

The accompanying editor’s note observed that the data provided no support for the use of any dose of vitamin D for bone or muscle health.

Last year, also in JAMA Internal Medicine, a randomized controlled trial examined whether exercise and vitamin D supplementation might reduce falls and falls resulting in injury among elderly women. Its robust factorial design allowed for the examination of the independent and joined effectiveness of these 2 interventions. Exercise reduced the rate of injuries, but vitamin D did nothing to reduce either falls or injuries from falls.

In the same issue, a systematic review and meta-analysis looked at whether evidence supports the contention that vitamin D can improve hypertension. A total of 46 randomized, placebo controlled trials were included in the analysis. At the trial level, at the individual patient level, and even in subgroup analyses, vitamin D was ineffective in lowering blood pressure.

Finally, if the Vitamin D coffin needs any more nails, let us add the findings of this recent meta-analysis:

calcium, calcium plus vitamin D, and vitamin D supplementation alone were not significantly associated with a lower incidence of hip, nonvertebral, vertebral, or total fractures in community-dwelling older adults.

3. PCSK9 Inhibitors: Really low cholesterol levels are safe and reduce cardiac events

I reported the very positive results for evolocumab and disappointing results for bosocizumab on the physician social media site SERMO in March but never put this in my blog.

As a practicing cardiologist I’ve been struggling with how to utilize the two available PCSK9 inhibitors (Amgen’s Repatha (evolocumab) and Sanofi’s Praluent (alirocumab) in my clinical practice.  I would love to use them for my high risk statin-intolerant patients but the high cost and limited insurance coverage has resulted in only a few of my patients utilizing it.

The lack of outcomes data has also restrained my and most insurance companies enthusiasm for using them.

The opening session at this year’s American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions in DC I think has significantly changed the calculus in this area with two presentations: the first showing  Amgen’s “fully humanized” evolocumab significantly lowers CV risk in high risk patients on optimal statin therapy and the second showing that Pfizer’s “mostly humanized” bococizumab loses efficacy over time and will likely never reach the market.

The FOURIER study of evolocumab randomized  27, 564 high risk but stable patients who had LDL>70 with prior MI, prior stroke or symptomatic PAD to receive evolocumab or placebo on top of optimized lipid therapy. 69% of patients were recieving high intensity statin therapy and the baseline LDL was 92. LDL was reduced by 59% to average level of 30 in the treated patients. The reduction in LDL was consistent through the duration of the study.

IN 1/4 of the patients LDL was <20! These are unprecedented low levels of LDL.

Active treatment significantly reduced the primary endpoint by 15% and reduced the secondary endpoinf  of CV death, MI, stroke by 20%. absolute difference 2% by 3 years. 

There was no difference in adverse effects between placebo and Evo. 

The next presentation featured data using Pfizer’s candidate in the PCSK9 wars and the acronym SPIRE (Studies of PCSK9 Inhibition and the Reduction in vascular Events (SPIRE) Bococizumab Development Program).

Paul Ridker presented the outcomes data for bococizumab which was actually similar to evolocumab data but given the declining efficacy and development of antibodies to the Pfizer drug over time these were very disappointing for Pfizer and I would presume their drug will never reach the market.

How will these results impact clinical practice?

I am now more inclined to prescribe evolocumab to my very high risk patients who have not achieved LDL< 70. I’m willing to do what I can to jump through insurance company hoops and try to make these drugs affordable to my patients.

I am less worried about extremely low LDL levels and have more faith in the LDL hypothesis: the lower the LDL the lower the risk of CV disease.

Cost is still going to be an issue for most of my patients I fear and the need for shared decision-making becomes even more important.

 

4. “Pure Shakes Up Nutritional Field: Finds High Fat Intake Beneficial.”

As one headline put it.

I recorded my full observations on this observational international study here

Here is a brief excerpt:

The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, involved more than 200 investigators who collected data on more than 135000 individuals from 18 countries across five continents for over 7 years.

There were three high-income (Canada, Sweden, and United Arab Emirates), 11 middle-income (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Iran, Malaysia, occupied Palestinian territory, Poland, South Africa, and Turkey) and four low-income countries (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe)

This was the largest prospective observational study to assess the association of nutrients (estimated by food frequency questionnaires) with cardiovascular disease and mortality in low-income and middle-income populations,

The PURE team reported that:

-Higher carbohydrate intake was associated with an increased risk of total mortality but not with CV disease or CV disease mortality.

This finding meshes well with one of my oft-repeated themes here, that added sugar is the major toxin in our diet (see here and here.)

I particular liked what the editorial for this paper wrote:

Initial PURE findings challenge conventional diet–disease tenets that are largely based on observational associations in European and North American populations, adding to the uncertainty about what constitutes a healthy diet. This uncertainty is likely to prevail until well designed randomised controlled trials are done. Until then, the best medicine for the nutrition field is a healthy dose of humility

I wish for all those following science-based medicine a healthy dose of humility. As science marches on, it’s always possible that a procedure we’ve been using might turn out to be useless (or at least much less beneficial than we thought), and it is highly likely that weak associations turn out to be causally nonsignificant. Such is the scientific process. We must continually pay attention, learn and evolve in the medical field.

Happy New Year to Be from the Skeptical Cardiologist the EFOSC!

The skeptical cardiologist and his Eternal Fiancee marveling at the total eclipse of the sun (very accurately predicted by science) in St. Genevieve, Missouri

-ACP

 

Do Statins Cause Memory Loss? The Science, The Media, The Statin-Denialist Cult, and The Nocebo Effect

The Skeptical Cardiologist was recently contacted by a television reporter  working on a segment about statins. and looking for a cardiologist to interview who “is concerned about the cognitive side effects of these drugs.”

Since I regularly prescribe statin drugs to my patients to reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke,  I am very concerned about any possible side effects from them, cognitive or otherwise. However, in treating hundreds of patients with statins, I have not observed a consistent significant effect on brain function.

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement in 2012 regarding rare postmarketing reports of ill-defined cognitive impairment associated with statin use it came as quite a surprise to most cardiologists.

The FDA made a change in the patient information on all statin drugs which stated:

Memory loss and confusion have been reported with statin use. These reported events were generally not serious and went away once the drug was no longer being taken

This FDA statement was surprising because prior observational and randomized controlled trials had suggested that patients who took statins were less likely to have cognitive dysfunction than those who didn’t.

Early studies implied that statins might actually protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

In fact these signals triggered two studies testing if statins could slow cognitive decline in patients with established Alzheimer’s disease  One study used 80 mg atorvastatin versus placebo and a second 40 mg simvastatin versus placebo and both showed no effect on the decline of cognitive function over 18 months.

More recently, multiple reviews and meta-analyses have examined the data and concluded that there is no significant effect of statins on cognitive function. Importantly, these have been written by reputable physician-scientists with no financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

 

Data Show No Evidence of Causality Despite Case Reports

The FDA added the warning to statin patient information based on case reports  Occasional reports of patients developing memory loss on a statin do not prove that statins are a significant cause of cognitive dysfunction.

Case reports have to  be viewed in the context of all the other scientific studies indicating no consistent evidence of negative effects of the statins. Case reports are suspect for several reasons:

First, patients receiving statins are at increased risk for memory loss because of associated risk factors for atherosclerosis and advancing age. A certain percentage of such patients are going to notice memory loss independent of any medications.

Second. The nocebo effect: If a patient taking a statin is told that the drug will cause a particular side effect,that patient will be more likely to notice and report that particular side effect.

A recent study in The Lancet looked at reported side effects in patients taking atorvastatin versus placebo and found substantial evidence for the nocebo effect.

Analysis of the trial data revealed that when patients were unaware whether they were taking a statin or a placebo, the number of side effects reported was similar in those taking the statin and those taking placebo. However, if patients knew they were taking statins, reports of muscle-related side effects in particular increased dramatically, by up to 41 per cent.

Third, a review of the FDA post-marketing surveillance data showed the rate of memory loss with statins is not significantly higher than for other non-statin cardiovascular medications (1.9 per million prescriptions for statins , 1.6 per million prescriptions for losartan) and clopidogrel (1.9 per million prescriptions for clopidogrel.)

What Most Media Prefer: Controversy And Victims

I thought my experience and perspective on statins and cognitive function might be useful for a wider audience of patients to hear so I agreed to be interviewed. After I expressed interest the  reporter responded:

I would like to interview you and also a person who has experienced memory and/or thinking problems that they attribute to statin use.  
 I responded with “let me see what I can find,”  although I was concerned that  this reporter was searching for a cardiologist to support attention-grabbing claims of  severe side effects of statins rather than seeking a balanced, unbiased perspective from a knowledgeable and experienced cardiologist.
If I produced a “victim” of statin-related memory loss this would boost ratings.
I then began racking my brain to come up with a patient who had clearly had statin-related memory loss or thinking problems. I asked my wonderful MA Jenny (who remembers details about patients that I don’t) if she could recall any cases. Ultimately, we both came up without any patients for the interview. (Any patient of mine reading this with definite statin memory loss please let me know and I will amend my post. However, I won’t be posting anecdotes outside of my practice.)
I have had a few patients relate to me that they feel like their memory is not as good as it was and wonder if it could be from a medication they are on.  Invariably, the patient has been influenced by one of the  statin fear-mongering sites on the internet (or a friend/relative who has been influenced by such a site.)
I wrote about one such site in response to a patient question a while back:
The link appears to be a promotional piece for a book by Michael Cutler, MD. Cutler’s website appears to engage in fear-mongering with respect to statins for the purpose of selling his books and promoting his “integrative” practice. I would refer you to my post entitled “functional medicine is fake medicine”. Integrative medicine is another code word for pseudoscientific medicine and practitioners should be assiduously avoided.
The piece starts with describing the case of Duane Graveline, a vey troubled man who spent the latter part of his life attempting to scare patients from taking statins. Here is his NY Times obituary.
You can judge for yourself if you want to base decisions on his recommendations.
There is no scientific evidence to suggest statins cause dementia.
An Internet-Driven Cult With Deadly Consequences
Steve Nissen recently wrote an eloquent article which accuses statin deniers of  being  an “internet–driven cult with deadly consequences.”  Nissen has done extremely important research helping us better understand atherosclerosis  and is known for being a patient advocate: calling out drug companies when they are promoting unsafe drugs.
I have immense respect for his honesty, lack of bias, and his courage to be outspoken .  He writes:

“Statins have developed a bad reputation with the public, a phenomenon driven largely by proliferation on the Internet of bizarre and unscientific but seemingly persuasive criticism of these drugs. Typing the term statin benefits into a popular Internet search en- gine yields 655 000 results. A similar search using the term statin risks yields 3 530 000 results. One of the highest-ranking search results links to an article titled “The Grave Dangers of Statin Drugs—and the Surprising Benefits of Cholesterol”. We are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of our patients to Web sites de- veloped by people with little or no scientific expertise, who often pedal “natural” or “drug-free” remedies for elevated cholesterol levels. These sites rely heavily on 2 arguments: statin denial, the proposition that cholesterol is not related to heart disease, and statin fear, the notion that lowering serum cholesterol levels will cause serious adverse effects, such as muscle or hepatic toxicity— or even worse, dementia.”

He goes on to point out that this misinformation is contributing to a low rate of compliance with taking statins. Observational studies suggest that noncompliance with statins significantly raises the risk of death from heart attack.

The reasons for patient noncompliance, Nissen goes on to say, can be related to the promotion of totally unproven supplements and fad diets as somehow safer and more effective than statin therapy:

“The widespread advocacy of unproven alternative cholesterol-lowering therapies traces its origins to the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). Incredibly, this law places the responsibility for ensuring the truthfulness of dietary supplement advertising with the Federal Trade Commission, not the U.S. Food and Drug Administra-tion. The bill’s principal sponsors were congressional representatives from states where many of the companies selling supplements are headquartered. Nearly 2 decades after the DSHEA was passed, the array of worthless or harmful dietary supplements on the market is staggering, amounting to more than $30 billion in yearly sales. Manufacturers of these products commonly imply benefits that have never been confirmed in formal clinical studies.”

Dealing With Statin Side Effects In My Practice

When a patient tells me they believe they are having a side effect from the statin they are taking (and this applies to any medication they believe is causing them side effects), I take their concerns very seriously. After 30 years of practice, I’ve concluded that in any individual patient, it is possible for any drug to cause  side effects.  And, chances are that if we don’t address the side effects the patient won’t take the medication.

If the side effect is significant I will generally tell the patient to stop the statin and report to me how they feel after two to four weeks.

If there is no improvement I have the patient resume the medication and we generally reach a consensus that the side effect was not due to the medication.

If there is a significant improvement, I accept the possibility that the side effect could be from the drug. This doesn’t prove it, because it is entirely possible that the side effect resolved for other reasons coincidentally with stopping the statin. Muscle and joint aches are extremely common and they often randomly come and go.

At this point, I will generally recommend a trial at low dose of another statin (typically rosuvastatin or livalo.)  If the patient was experiencing muscle aches and they return we are most likely dealing with a patient with statin related myalgias. However, most patients are able to tolerate low dose and less frequent administration of rosuvastatin or Livalo.

For all other symptoms, it is extremely unusual to see a return on rechallenge with statin and so we continue statin long term therapy.

Today a patient told me he thought the rosuvastatin we started 4 weeks ago was causing him to have more diarrhea. I informed him that there is no evidence that rosuvastatin causes diarrhea more often than a placebo and had no reason based on its chemistry to suspect it would. (Although I’m sure there is a forum somewhere on the internet where patients have reported this). Fortunately he accepted my expert opinion and will continue taking the drug.

If the symptoms persist and the patient continue to believe it is due to the statin, we will go through the process I described above. And, since every patient is unique, it is possible that my patient is having a unique or idiosyncratic reaction to the statin that only occurs in one out of a million patients and thus is impossible to determine causality.

Since statins are our most effective and best tolerated weapon in the war against our biggest killer, it behooves both patients and physicians to have a high threshold  for stopping them altogether. Having such a high threshold means filtering out the noise from attention-seeking media and the internet-driven denials cult thus minimizing the nocebo effect

Antinocebonically Yours

-ACP

N.B. It turns out the reporter had an open mind about the issue of statin-related memory loss. We had a good discussion  and at some point you may see the skeptical cardiologist on TV being interviewed on the topic.

I could bring to the interview one of  my many patients who since starting to take statins have  not had a heart attack or stroke and who have taken statins for decades without side effects.

Now that would make for some compelling and exciting TV!

For a nice discussion of Nissen’s article see Larry Husten’s excellent piece at Cardiobrief.org here (/nissen-calls-statin-denialism-a-deadly-internet-driven-cult/)

 

What Pain Medications Are Safe For My Heart?

The skeptical cardiologist is frequently asked by patients if it is OK to take certain pain medications.

Yesterday, I got a variation on this  when a patient called and indicated that he had been prescribed meloxicam and tramadol by his orthopedic surgeon for arthritic leg joint pain. The orthopedic surgeon said to check with me to see if it was OK to take either of these medications. (Patients, if you want to skip to my answer skip down to the last two sections of the post and avoid the background information.)

What Is The Risk Of Pain Medications?

Cardiologists have been concerned about the increased risk of heart attack and heart failure with non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) since Vioxx was withdrawn from the market in 2004.

NSAIDS have long been known to increase risk of gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding  by up to 4-5 fold, Scientists developed Vioxx, a COX-2 inhibitor, hoping to reduce that risk but Vioxx  turned out to  increase the risk of heart attack.

Since this revelation it has become clear that NSAIDS in general increase the risk of heart problems as well as GI problems

This includes the two over the counter (OTC) NSAIDS:

-ibuprofen (in the US marked most commonly as Motrin or Advil, internationally known as Nurofen). For extensive list of brand names see here.

-naproxen (most commonly sold as Aleve. Per wikipedia “marketed under various brand names, including: Aleve, Accord, Anaprox, Antalgin, Apranax, Feminax Ultra, Flanax, Inza, Maxidol, Midol Extended Relief, Nalgesin, Naposin, Naprelan, Naprogesic, Naprosyn, Narocin, Pronaxen, Proxen, Soproxen, Synflex, MotriMax, and Xenobid. It is also available bundled with esomeprazole magnesium in delayed release tablets under the brand name Vimovo.)

In 2015  the FDA mandated  warning labels on all prescription NSAIDs including

1) a “black box” warning highlighting the potential for increased risk for cardiovascular  (CV) events and serious life-threatening gastrointestinal  bleeding, ulceration, and perforation;

(2) statements indicating patients with, or at risk for, CV disease and the elderly may be at greater risk, and that these reactions may increase with duration of use;

(3) a contraindication for use after coronary artery bypass graft surgery on the basis of reports with valdecoxib/parecoxib;

(4) language that the lowest dose should be used for the shortest duration possible

5) wording in the warning section that there is no evidence that the concomitant use of aspirin with NSAIDs mitigates the CV risk, but that it does increase the GI risk

Since then, hardly a day goes by without me having a discussion with a patient about what drugs they can safely take for their arthritis.

A reasonable approach to using NSAIDS, balancing GI and CV risks, that I have used in the past comes from a 2014 review
This table and many authorities recommend naproxen as the NSAID of choice for patients with high CV risk.

Indeed prior to the publication of the PRECISION study in 2016 I believed that naproxen was the safest NSAID for my cardiac patients. I told them it was OK to use from a CV standpoint but to use the least amount possible for the shortest time in order to minimize side effects.

The PRECISION study compared a COX-2 NSAID (celecoxicib or Celebrex) to ibuprofen and naproxen in patients who required NSAIDS for relief of their joint pain.

The findings:

cardiovascular death (including hemorrhagic death), nonfatal MI, or nonfatal stroke, occurred in 2.3% of celecoxib-treated patients, 2.5% of the naproxen-treated patients, and 2.7% of the ibuprofen group.

There was no placebo in this trial so we can only look at relative CV risk  of the three NSAIDS and it did not significantly differ.

GI bleeding was less with celecoxib than the other two NSAIDS.

Although this study has flaws it throws into question the greater CV safety of naproxen and suggests that all NSAIDS raise CV risk.

My Current Patient Advice on Cardiac Safety of Pain Meds

Here is an infographic I came across from the Arthritis Foundation (complete PDF….here)

It’s a reasonable approach for these OTC drugs and I will start handing this out to my patients.

We should consider that all NSAIDS have the potential for increasing the risk of heart attack and heart failure, raising blood pressure, worsening renal function and causing GI bleeding.

Therefore, if at all possible avoid NSAIDS.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is totally safe from a heart standpoint and overall if you don’t have liver disease it is your safest drug for arthritis. However, it provides no anti-inflammatory effects and often is inadequate at pain relief.

Treating The Whole Patient

Meloxicam is an NSAID so my patient should , if at all possible, avoid it.

The other drug he was prescribed, tramadol, is an opiod. Opiods have their own set of problems including, most importantly,  addiction and abuse.

A recent review concluded

 reliable conclusions about the effectiveness of long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain are not possible due to the paucity of research to date. Accumulating evidence supports the increased risk for serious harms associated with long-term opioid therapy, including overdose, opioid abuse, fractures, myocardial infarction, and markers of sexual dysfunction; for some harms, the risk seems to be dose-dependent.

As his cardiologist I am concerned about his heart, of course, but a good cardiologist doesn’t just focus on one organ, he looks at what his recommendations are doing to the whole person.

I certainly don’t want to have him become addicted to narcotics in order to avoid a slightly increased risk of a heart attack. On the other hand, the risks of the NSAIDS involve multiple organs, most of which don’t fall in the domain of the cardiologist.

My patient’s risk of taking either the meloxicam or the tramadol is best assessed by his primary care physician, who has the best understanding of his overall medical condition and the overall risk of dangerous side effects from these drugs.

Ultimately, I think the decision of which pain pill to take for chronic arthritis has to be made by an informed patient in discussion with his  informed (and informative) primary care physician. Only the patient can decide how much pain he is having and how much risk he/she wants to assume in relieving that pain.

Analgesically Yours,

-ACP