New Dietary Guidelines Ignore Science

20190521_Europe-2006

The federal government has issued dietary guidelines every 5 years since 1980. They are the ones that came out with the food pyramid, and most recently gave limits for sugar, saturated fat, and sodium (salt). These guidelines affect many things, including what children get served for lunch at school.

For the first time ever, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, under the direction of the Trump administration, is limiting the scope of the committee. They gave them a list of 80 questions, and said they are not to consider anything outside that list. Those questions do not include health risks such as too much salt, red meat, and processed foods.

The nature of science is that with ongoing research things change. Most of you can probably recall getting conflicting diet recommendations over the years. We were told to avoid fats, as we subsequently got collectively heavier, then ketogenic diets said the opposite. Alcohol can decrease heart disease, then studies showed it can increase breast cancer. That’s why it’s important to periodically review the literature and adjust recommendations if warranted.

Why would the Trump administration want to limit the committee? For one thing, they have generally been anti-science in many areas, such as global warming. For another, as they say, follow the money. Thirteen out of 20 of the committee members have food industry ties. This compares with two of 12 members in 2015. You can read more details in a Washington Post article.

Health care costs have been going up at a rate higher than inflation for many years. Although there are many reasons for this, part of it is because people are getting more obese. This leads to such health issues as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and arthritis. The new rules effectively says that corporate interests trump human health. So that corporations can profit more, we will pay the price in our health, and in our future medical bills.

The statute (Public Law 101-445, 7 U.S.C. 5341 et seq.) that required the guidelines specifically says that the Dietary Guidelines be based on the preponderance of current scientific and medical knowledge. As that wouldn’t be the case, unless the restrictions are removed, I expect that from 2020 to 2025 I’ll be advising my patients to follow the 2015 guidelines.

Aspirin – Questioning Established Wisdom

20121109_SF-China_0365

Bayer began selling aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) in 1899, and the similar salicylic acid, derived from willow bark and other sources, has been used medicinally for thousands of years.  Since the 1960’s it has often been used for heart attacks and strokes. Studies showed that in patients who have had heart attacks, daily aspirin prevents another one. This is know as secondary prevention.

Doctors have assumed that it would also be good to prevent the first heart attack in patients at higher risk. This is know as primary prevention. The problem is that’s much harder to prove.  Even patients at higher risk might never have one, or maybe not for many years, so a research study can take many thousands of patients followed for many years, thus costing many millions of dollars, to tell if there is a benefit. Rare side effects can take many years to figure out. There have been studies done over the years, with inconclusive and sometimes with inconsistent results.

According to a trio of recent articles (Effect of Aspirin on Cardiovascular Events and Bleeding in the Healthy Elderly, Effect of Aspirin on All-Cause Mortality in the Healthy Elderly, and Effect of Aspirin on Disability-free Survival in the Healthy Elderly), aspirin use may cause more harm than benefit for primary prevention. They looked at patients >= 70-year-old (>= 65-year-old for blacks/hispanics in the US). A low proportion of participants regularly took low-dose aspirin before entering the trial, which did not directly address whether healthy older persons who have been using aspirin for primary prevention should continue or discontinue its use. Now 2019 guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association recommend low dose aspirin for primary prevention only in limited patient populations at higher risk.

When it comes to medical treatments, it’s pretty much always a question of balancing benefit versus risk and cost. For aspirin, cost is pretty much not an issue. Although studies may look at thousands of patients, people are not homogenous, and any particular study may not apply to a particular patient. The guidelines listed above state that aspirin might be considered for primary prevention in adults age 40 to 70 at higher heart risk but who do not have a higher bleeding risk. They do not recommend it for routine use for those over 70-years-old. Note that it still may be warranted in some because of higher risk, and it’s still recommended for most older patient if they have known heart disease.

I think these new recommendations will eventually lead to less patients taking aspirin to prevent a first heart attack. This will lead to less bleeding, but it may increase other problems For example, aspirin may decrease the risk of colon and other cancers. It may help prevent deep venous thrombosis (DVT) blood clots in the legs, which could lead to a more serious pulmonary embolism (PE), so long distance air travelers may be at higher risk of a clot if they stop taking their aspirin. They could just take it before a trip, but will they remember? The FDA just added a block box warning for Uloric (febuxostat), a medicine used for gout, because of recently appreciated increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Surely there will be patients on that medication on aspirin for primary prevention who will stop aspirin, as a result of reading in the media that they should, but will then go on to have a heart attack because either they didn’t discuss it with their physician, or they did but their doctor didn’t know or appreciate the increased heart attack risk with Uloric. That medicine, by the way, should also be judged on benefits versus risks and alternatives, and is still appropriate for some patients, though not as many people as the drug reps would have had doctors believe. They’ve stopped promoting it as it’s almost generic, but that’s another story.

Drawing Lessons From a Disaster

Three days ago an engine explosion on Southwestern Airlines Flight 1380 caused a sudden cabin depressurization. Oxygen masks dropped as designed, but as reported by the New York Times, photos showed that many people had the mask over just their mouth, and not the nose and mouth as instructed. The conclusion? Passengers didn’t pay enough attention to safety instructions.

Although that is probably true, I don’t think reminding people to pay attention is really the answer.  As a physician, I have to re-certify in CPR every year. It’s not just the knowledge, it’s practicing it and getting muscle memory. Even with that, my skills surely deteriorate as I rarely have to do CPR now, and practice makes perfect. The key point is that passengers don’t get to practice. If you’ve ever taken a cruise, you know that shortly after you board, they have you actually go your assembly point and actually don a life vest. They don’t have you watch someone put on a vest, and they don’t point to where you should go.

As a medical student in the Air Force, I had the opportunity to take altitude chamber training. This is where you are in a chamber where the oxygen and pressure simulates being at high altitude, such as 25,000 feet. You then take off your oxygen mask to learn how you are affected by hypoxia (low oxygen). You are supposed to observe a few of the effects, then put your mask back on. I remember noticing some of the changes with curiosity, then someone tapping on my shoulder and telling me I had passed out. When I told him I hadn’t, he asked me who put my mask back on. At that point I realized that I had passed out, and it drove home the point of why they tell you to put the mask on yourself first, before helping your kids or anyone else. Otherwise you may pass out, then you are not in a position to help anyone else.

The article quoted a retired flight attendant as saying it didn’t matter that people didn’t have the mask over their nose as they could breath through the mouth. Although that’s true, that doesn’t mean they necessarily did. Many people breath through their nose most of the time, and in a high stress situation they may not necessarily realize that the mask is not covering their nose, or if they do, that they should breath through the mouth.  A better option might be to make the masks shaped more like a mask designed to cover the mouth and nose. You know, kind of oval shaped, not a circle.

It certainly not possible to put everyone who flies on commercial planes through altitude chamber training, but actually practicing putting on a mask would make people more proficient if they needed to do so in an emergency. On an airplane it may not be practical to do so because of the need to clean the masks, but in the terminal they could put booths where people could practice putting on masks, that could be cleaned and reused, and life jackets  to practice putting on, all while waiting for their flight. They could encourage participation by giving people who do so coupons for a snack or to be eligible to win a prize each flight.

Regulators Asleep at the Wheel

Recently the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said they would no longer continue pursuing regulations requiring testing for sleep apnea in truck drivers and train engineers.

Sleep apnea is a condition where, in the most common form, the airway is partially blocked during sleep. This leads to daytime sleepiness, increasing the risk of accidents, plus is otherwise hazardous to patient’s health if untreated.  The National Transportation Board determined that a 2013 train derailment that killed 4 and injured 59 was a result of undiagnosed sleep apnea. According to the railroad Metro-North in the New York City suburbs, 11.6% of it’s train engineers have sleep apnea.

Screening involves an overnight sleep test.  We require our pilots to get tests for drug use. Why would we not want to test truck drivers and train engineers for a common problem that is just as dangerous? It’s part of President Donald Trump’s campaign to cut federal regulations. Although some regulations are excessive, this is not one of them. What’s next, repealing seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws?

Politicians Playing Doctor

Recently the British baby Charlie Gard has been in the news. Unfortunately he was born with a rare disorder called Infantile Onset Encephalomyopathic Mitochondrial DNA Depletion Syndrome. The parents of the 11-month-old boy have been in a court battle with the London Hospital caring for him since October. The hospital obtained a court order to remove the boy from life support as the doctors treating him said his condition was terminal and that treatment would just cause the boy additional distress.

The parents have held up hope for an experimental treatment with nucleosides a U.S. doctor has offered, even though he had not examined the patient. In fact no person or animal with Charlie’s condition had ever received the treatment. Reportedly 9 patients with a related disease had some improvement with the treatment.

President Trump weighed in:

Recently Republican House Congressmen Brad Wenstrup (Ohio) and Trent Franks (Arizona) said they would introduce a bill to give Charlie permanent residency in the United States so he can travel for the experimental therapy.

I sympathize with the parents. It’s awful to see your children with serious illness. However sometimes stopping care really is the best thing to do. The US doctor reportedly said a 10% improvement in strength was possible. But that’s the same as saying you can go from lifting 10 lbs to being able to lift 11 lbs. It’s just not going to make a significant difference.

I also believe in research studies. In fact close to 20 years ago I had a patient with a different neurological disorder who could not be removed from a ventilator. I received FDA approval to administer an experimental treatment. It may have helped – they did get off the ventilator, but they died not that much later. That drug had preliminary treatments in animals, then in humans.

If our politicians were really that concerned about the health of an infant in another country, maybe they would accept refugees from countries such as Syria, where innocent people have been in terrible conditions. Their chances of improvement would practically be guaranteed. Unfortunately for Charlie, that’s just not realistic.

Rush to Judgement

Conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh recently launched an attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke. She had testified to house Democrats in support of mandates to provide contraceptive care in insurance plans. On his show two days later, Rush Limbaugh said that Ms. Fluke  was asking for taxpayers to pay her to have sex, and that made her a, “prostitute”.

Others have chimed in that contraception is a lifestyle choice and society shouldn’t have to pay for it.  Whether or not you believe women have the right to get an abortion, it’s a flawed argument. By the same reasoning, insurance shouldn’t cover heart attacks, strokes or cancer if the person smoked or was obese. It’s one thing to incentive healthy behavior, but Rush Limbaugh’s attack is either not well thought out in regards to its health care implications, it’s misogynistic, or it’s politically motivated.