New High Blood Pressure Guidelines

Blood pressure 4The guidelines for treating high blood pressure (hypertension) were recently revised. In brief, the authors raised the acceptable limit for systolic blood pressure for individuals 60 years and older. Additionally, they questioned the previous recommendation of aiming for lower blood pressures for patients with diabetes and kidney disease. As was the case with cholesterol, the conclusions were challenged by many experts, particularly challenging the choice of studies that produced the conclusions.

The previous blood pressure treatment goal of less than 140/90 mm Hg for individuals 60 years or older has been raised by the new guidelines to 150/90 mm Hg. The former goal was based on studies showing an increased cardiovascular risk in individuals with blood pressure over 140/90 mm Hg and risk improvement when the blood pressure was lowered. For instance, lowering blood pressure by 10 mm Hg in patients with hypertension reduces the risk of cardiovascular and stroke death by 25% to 40%.

However, the studies documenting results such as the above often had a goal of less than 160 mmHg and often did not examine the subset of patients 60 years and older. Two recent relatively short-duration studies comparing a goal of less than 140 mm Hg with less than 150 mm Hg in patients over 65 years showed no outcome difference. Using a review of many studies, the guideline authors did not find sufficient evidence that the more aggressive treatment goal of 140/90 mm Hg vs. 150/90 mm Hg benefits older adults.

The obvious question is: What is the harm of a more aggressive goal since so many studies, however imperfect, document improvement with lower blood pressure? Medication side effects are the worry. Too many times physicians become cemented on a number and push medications to the point where an individual experiences dizziness (the most common antihypertensive medication side effect.) The risk from falls can exceed the more remote risk from hypertension. Therefore, on balance the guideline authors suggest flexibility when treating patients 60 years and older.

That said, if an older hypertensive individual tolerates a goal of 140/90 without side effects there is no reason to decrease or stop medication allowing an increase in blood pressure to 150/90. Furthermore, many think that there is reason to believe that the lower goal, absent the concern of medication side effects, probably is more beneficial.

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Fish Oil and Prostate Cancer

A recent report in the Journal of the National Cancer institute concluded that men with a high blood concentration of fatty acids (omega-3) had an increased prostate cancer risk. The conclusion is concerning since it appears to contradict the assumption that fish oil and fatty fish consumption improve the overall health of men.

Moreover, the authors had previously found that high concentrations of trans-fatty acids (yes, the ones now restricted in food processing because of a clear association with heart disease) were associated with a decreased risk of aggressive prostate cancer. Trans-fatty acids are found in margarine and frying oils. Omega-6 fatty acids were associated with a lower risk of total prostate cancer.

Other studies have shown numerous health benefits of omega-3 fatty acid. One study showed a two- to three-fold greater risk for prostate cancer in men who ate no fish compared with those who consumed large amounts of fish in their diet. Other studies have also shown a decreased risk of prostate cancer and of metastatic prostate cancer in men who eat fish more than three times a week.

There are a number of problems with the recent study associating omega-3 fatty acid concentration with prostate cancer. We don’t know the source of the fatty acids in the study patients; there was no information on dietary habits or supplements taken. We don’t know anything about the subject’s risk factors for prostate cancer such as ethnicity, PSA levels, age and weight. Additionally, the study was based on a single blood test, not an analysis of concentrations over time.

Of interest, Japanese men consume the most omega-3 fatty acids from their diet in the world and yet are experiencing a declining risk for death due to prostate cancer. Additionally, many studies have demonstrated the cardiovascular benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

Until more information is available to the contrary, in my opinion, it is prudent for patients with cardiovascular disease to consume oil fish several times a week and use fish oil if a dietary source is unavailable or unappealing.

Reappraising Vitamin D and Calcium Supplementation

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Recently the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) issued a recommendation against routine daily supplementation with vitamin D and calcium in most circumstances. They conclude that there is adequate evidence demonstrating the taking 400 units of vitamin D and 1,000 mg of calcium does not prevent fractures in postmenopausal women. In addition, they note that the aforementioned supplementation does cause an increase in kidney stones and, therefore, is associated with harm.

It is unclear whether higher doses of vitamin D and calcium prevent fractures in men and postmenopausal women. Oddly, vitamin D supplementation is effective in preventing falls in community-dwelling adults aged 65 or older who are at risk for falls. The USPSTF does recommend vitamin D for this group.

Although the routine use of vitamin D and calcium supplements have been called into question the need for adequate levels of vitamin D in the body remains a constant. Those who lack enough vitamin D suffer from inadequate bone formation and, in addition, lack the beneficial effects of vitamin D on muscle strength and balance.

Obtaining vitamin D from dietary sources is best, just as we find that all vitamins are most effective when obtained from dietary sources. Good sources of vitamin D include: fatty fish and fortified foods, such as milk, yogurt and orange juice.

For individuals at risk for vitamin D deficiency supplementation is essential. This group would include the chronically ill, patients with intestinal malabsorption, pregnant women and those being evaluated for osteoporosis.

For now, the best approach might be to measure vitamin D levels in individuals at risk for vitamin D deficiency, including those mentioned above, older women, and women with risk factors for osteoporosis, and use vitamin D supplementation to bring the levels to normal.

Risk factors for osteoporosis include bone fracture, a family history of fractures or osteoporosis, smoking, excess alcohol consumption, malabsorption, the use of certain medications, sedentary life style and small body frame.

Lyme Disease: The Basics of Prevention

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Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness with a peak incidence in the eastern United States during the summer months of June, July and August. The late manifestations, such as arthritis, can appear at any time during the year. It is most common in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states (from Maine to Virginia), the Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan) and on the west coast in northern California.

The ticks are carried by mice and deer and are more likely to infect when they are quite small (the size of a poppy seed.) When the ticks change and become larger they are less likely to transmit infection. Ticks are most commonly found on the underside of low-lying shrubs or grass, particularly between grass and forest. They are not common on well-cut lawns, such as a golf course. A tick can attach to a pet and then attach to a human, thereby transmitting the disease. If the tick is removed before it becomes large (engorged with blood) it is very unlikely to transmit Lyme disease.

If a tick is on the skin, but does not bite it cannot transmit disease. If a tick is removed within 48 hours the risk of transmission is quite small. The risk of transmission in one study where a tick was removed before it was engorged in an area where 15% of ticks carried Lyme disease was only 1%.

The best way to remove a tick is with tweezers or your fingers covered with some protection, such as a disposable rubber glove. It is important not to crush the tick. After removing the tick wash the area and your hands with soap and water.

Taking the antibiotic doxycycline to prevent Lyme disease makes sense only under certain conditions: that the tick is a deer tick; that the tick has been attached for more than 36 hours; that doxycycline can be started within 72 hours after the tick has been removed; that the tick bite has occurred in areas of the US where Lyme disease is common; and that the person does not have a contraindication to the use of doxycycline (a tetracycline.)

If a person cannot take doxycycline then no antibiotic should be prescribed as prophylaxis against developing Lyme disease after a suspicious tick bite. Doxycycline is usually given as a single 200 mg dose.
The time between a tick bite and the onset of Lyme disease symptoms is 2 to 3 weeks. The first manifestation is usually a rash. Lyme disease also can cause arthritis, neurological problems, heart conduction abnormalities and other problems. Unfortunately, it takes two weeks for antibodies to appear in the blood making a blood test for Lyme at the time of the tick bite useless.

Are Extra Vitamins a Good Idea?

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The standard authorities state that for most healthy adults consuming a well-balanced diet, multivitamins (which usually contain 50%-150% of the recommended adult daily requirement of the standard vitamins) are not needed. However, some evidence suggests that taking a daily multivitamin causes a small decrease in cancer risk.

All authorities agree that there are important areas where extra vitamins are needed:

It is very important for women who might become pregnant to take a supplemental dose of 400 mcg of folic acid daily. The extra folic acid insures against inadequate reserves and prevents neural tube defects in the newborn such as spinal bifida.

A multivitamin is important for individuals with malabsorption (such as celiac disease, gluten-sensitivity), a vegan diet, alcoholism and certain other chronic conditions.

For other adults folic acid supplementation is unnecessary and perhaps unwise. An increased level of folic acid can mask vitamin B12 deficiency, a very serious deficiency problem, and may stimulate the growth of some cancers.

In order to prevent osteoporosis and decrease the risk of falls (a curious, but substantiated association) adults need a minimum of 800 units of vitamin D daily, taken either through dietary sources or as a supplement. Unlike all other vitamins, vitamin D can be produced by humans internally. In this case sunlight is needed, and exposure is often insufficient.

Dietary sources of vitamin D include milk, yogurt and soy milk—all of which are usually fortified with vitamin D. Salmon, sardines, tuna and cheese are other good sources of vitamin D.

Since vitamin D levels are often low in adults and since vitamin D deficiency causes bone problems and has been possibly linked to other diseases, taking 600-800 units daily, particularly in older adults, seems prudent.

Vitamin A levels are usually normal in the industrialized world and supplementation is not needed and, indeed, may be harmful. Excessive doses in pregnant women can cause abnormalities in the newborn. Additionally, in all adults excessive doses can cause osteoporosis as well as possibly increasing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Likewise, vitamin E levels are usually adequate and high dose vitamin E (more than 400 units daily) supplementation is unwarranted since excessive vitamin E levels are associated with increased all-cause mortality.

Vitamin C supplementation is safe, but has no proven benefit.

Older persons should consider taking a B12 supplement since levels of this very important vitamin can drop with age. Liver, fish, beef, cheese and eggs are dietary sources of vitamin B12. A vegan diet eliminates many dietary sources, making supplementation necessary.

Aspirin and Disease Prevention

AspirinRecently the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “The 2,000-Year-Old Wonder Drug” extolling the benefits of aspirin for a number of illnesses including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Although quite enthused about aspirin as a disease preventive, the author does advise medical consultation about the risks versus the benefits.

Is aspirin usually a good idea for middle-aged American? For those with known cardiovascular disease it usually is. However, one year ago a large study in the Archives of Internal Medicine did not show a reduction in cardiovascular or cancer deaths in patients without prior cardiovascular disease taking low-dose aspirin. A reduction in non-fatal heart attacks was noted. This benefit, however, was associated with a 30% increased risk of significant bleeding. The authors conclude against the routine use of aspirin for patients at low risk for cardiovascular disease.

More concerning, than the well-known risk of bleeding from the stomach or intestines, is the possibility of bleeding in the brain. Although the absolute risk of intracranial vessel bleeding is small (two hemorrhagic strokes per 10,000 patients taking aspirin) the consequences can be devastating.

Also, does aspirin prevent cancer? The evidence suggests that it is effective in preventing colon cancer and might be effective in preventing other cancers, although the evidence for the latter is less clear. The dose necessary to produce a statistically significant reduction in colon cancer is not certain, but some suggest that a full aspirin (325 mg) rather than low-dose aspirin (81 mg) might be needed.

The increased risk of bleeding associated with any dose of aspirin, and the possibility of greater risk with a higher dose, along with the very useful colon cancer prevention strategy of colonoscopy now in place caused the American Cancer Society not to recommend the routine use of daily aspirin to prevent colon cancer.

Patients at low risk for cardiovascular disease should consult their doctor before committing to a lifetime of daily low-dose aspirin. Low risk is defined as a patient whose 10-year absolute risk of a first coronary disease event is less than 10%. The doctor can calculate the risk by using a formula derived from the Framingham study of cardiovascular disease.

Aspirin is the wonder drug touted in the New York Times but, as usual in medical matters, every situation is different.

Chronic Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is usually divided into three stages: early localized disease, early disseminated disease and late Lyme disease. The first stage is characterized by the characteristic rash with or without systemic symptoms such as fever, body aches and joint pains. Early disseminated disease is characterized by rashes and/or neurologic symptoms and/or heart problems. Late Lyme disease is associated with arthritis, usually involving one or a few large joints, particularly the knee, and/or neurological problems. The neurological problems can involve the brain, the covering of the brain or a specific nerve possibly creating headaches, paralysis, or nerve pain. Arthritis symptoms, particularly if only the knee is involved, can appear to be a solitary problem, with no clue that the problem is caused by Lyme disease.

Early disseminated disease occurs weeks to several months after the initial infection from the tick bite. These symptoms can be the first manifestation of Lyme disease since 20% of people with the disease do not recall any rash and approximately 25% of people with the disease do not recall a tick bite.

Late Lyme disease occurs months to years after the tick bite and, as in the case with early disseminated Lyme disease, the history of a rash or tick bite might not be present or a history of having had the earlier stages of Lyme disease. The symptoms include arthritis, predominantly of the large joints, especially the knees. Neurological symptoms can also occur.

Symptoms usually resolve gradually, as they do in most infectious diseases, after a full course of antibiotics. Post-Lyme disease syndrome refers to symptoms such as headache, muscle pain, joint pain and fatigue that persist, but generally resolve after six months to one year.

A confusing issue develops when a person who has, by all accounts, been successfully treated for Lyme disease suffers continuing health problems that do not resolve with time. This situation has been termed chronic Lyme disease by some and is the subject of much dispute.

Briefly, certain doctors and advocacy groups maintain that, in these situations, the symptoms are caused by Lyme disease that failed to be eradicated by the standard treatments. Medical authorities counter that the persisting symptoms are due to another illness that, perhaps, was triggered by Lyme disease.

The “other illness” suggested is often either fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. Both usually respond poorly to any one of a number of medications or treatments traditionally employed. Many, if not most, physicians suspect that fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are, at the root, psychological problems.

You can imagine how frustrated a person feels who had been totally healthy, was bitten by a tick, became ill with Lyme disease, failed to improve after treatment, and is now told he has a psychological illness! Personally, I think that the development of symptoms compatible with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome after Lyme disease is further proof that these illnesses are not psychological.

I suspect that chronic Lyme disease is not due to the persistence of the Lyme organism, but that the Lyme organism has triggered some other illness. Therefore, additional antibiotics directed at Lyme would be pointless, and possibly harmful.

What to do? It is necessary to search for other illness triggered by Lyme. I have seen cases where Lyme triggers an arthritic illness. What initially was arthritis caused by the Lyme organism is now arthritis caused by another arthritic disease, itself triggered by Lyme. Look closely at the blood for autoimmune markers. If the symptoms suggest arthritis get treatment for arthritis even in the absence of confirmatory blood tests.

Persisting fatigue with or without bodily pain is usually the most troubling symptom for patients with “chronic Lyme disease.” Long courses of antibiotics are ,almost always, fruitless. A more productive approach is to start fresh, evaluating each symptom as a new issue using standard, individualized treatments as needed. For instance, despite the patient’s firm belief that persisting Lyme infection is causing severe fatigue treating fatigue with medications known to improve it can be very worthwhile. A creative and unprejudiced approach, as usual in medicine, offers the best chance for success.