Alcohol-how much should we drink?

17 Apr 2018 Lifestyle

For many years there has been this ongoing debate in society regarding the potential health detriments, along with the possible health benefits, of consuming alcohol. Much of the evidence points to a J shaped curve suggesting 1-2 standard drinks per day may even confer some health benefit, compared with those people who are teetotallers.

The argument given by those people opposed to any alcohol consumption is that often the non-drinkers in society were previous heavy drinkers or even alcoholics and the prior damage caused to their body from alcohol made the non-drinking group look sicker than they otherwise would have been because of the prior drinkers being included.

There is no dispute that consuming consistently more than 3 standard alcoholic drinks on a daily basis is associated with a number of health detriments and in particular alcohol-related liver disease, varying forms of cerebral degeneration, along with atrial fibrillation and even dilated cardiomyopathy. There is also a strong link to peripheral neuropathy and many cancers.

A recent extensive trial published in the Lancet looked at just under 600,000 people from 19 developed countries around the world with records often dating back to 1964. There were 11,000 Australians in this trial.

The key findings here related to the consumption of standard drinks over a week. So we can be clear about what is a standard drink, 375 mls of full strength beer (4.8% alcohol) is equivalent to 1.4 standard drinks. 150 mls of wine (13.5% alcohol) is equivalent to 1.5 standard drinks. 30 mls of spirits (40% alcohol) is the equivalent of 0.95 standard drinks.

The lowest death rates in the study were in people who consumed less than 10 standard drinks per week. 10–20 standard drinks per week reduced life expectancy by 6 months. Greater than 35 standard drinks per week reduced life expectancy by 4–5 years. It was found that having 14 cans of beer per week (1–2 per day, not all on the same day!) increased death risk by around 5%, whereas greater than 21 cans of beer per week (3 per day) increased death risk by 20%.

Although I believe it is highly irresponsible for any doctor to encourage people to drink, I also believe it is important to have a more global view of the science. The vast majority of studies looking at alcohol consumption come from non-Mediterranean Europe, America and Australia. The problem here is that there is no separation between alcohol consumption and, often, poor dietary habits. For example, if you examine the standard American diet and add alcohol there are certainly no benefits and now with this new information probably significant detriments. But, studies performed in the more affluent Boston area known as the Male Physicians’ trial showed that one standard glass of red wine per day reduced sudden cardiac death by 80%. Probably even more compelling is all of the data from Mediterranean countries showing the low-dose consumption of alcohol (on average 2 standard drinks typically of red wine per day) is associated with a 50% reduction in heart disease and cancer.

Data, again from Boston, this time from the Nurses’ Health study, a 30 year study from Harvard University has shown that women who consume 1-2 glasses of wine per day may increase their breast cancer risk but taking a daily Multivitamin negates this risk if the vitamin is consumed for 15 years or more.

Thus, although I am not suggesting alcohol is a health tonic, low-dose consumption may offer some health benefits only if combined with healthy eating. This new data, although compelling and should not be ignored, should be put into perspective. As with most suggestions, moderation in all things.

Obesity Paradox

3 Apr 2018 Lifestyle

A number of studies over the past decade have suggested better mortality rates in people over the age of 50 carrying a bit of extra weight. For most of us in the health industry and the general public, this appears counterintuitive.

Let’s examine some of the evidence. There have been a variety of studies, mainly meta-analyses, which have suggested an inverse link between body weight and health. 40 cohort studies of just over 250,000 participants demonstrated a 13% reduction in all cause death & a 12% reduction in cardiovascular death in overweight patients i.e. BMI between 25 to 30. There were no differences in the death rates between normal weight people (BMI 20 to 25) and Grade 1 obese people (BMI 30 to 35). In this particular study, however, once the BMI rose above 35, there was an 88% increase in death risk.

A very large meta-analysis of 2.9 million people from 97 trials showed a 6% reduction in death in overweight people when compared with normal weight and Grade 1 obesity.

The benefits are even more striking in hypertensive patients, with a reduction in death, heart attack, stroke of 23% in overweight patients and strangely a 32% reduction in those with Grade 1 obesity and a 24% reduction in those with higher grades of obesity compared with people who are normal weight.

Another study from Holland followed patients for seven years after coronary stenting and demonstrated those who had a BMI between 27.5 up to 30 had a 41% reduction in death.

The benefits of being overweight are also demonstrated for people with heart failure, peripheral arterial disease, stroke, previous history of thrombo-embolism, post coronary bypass grafting, atrial fibrillation, death rates in intensive care, general surgery, type II diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, haemodialysis, critically ill patients and those with osteoporosis.

Doctors are always encouraging their patients to lose weight and the reality is that most people are spectacularly unsuccessful in doing so. Although it is my strong belief that it is important for us to keep our weight down to healthy levels, it certainly appears that there is a significant difference between a healthy weight before the age of 50 and over the age of 50.

As anyone over the age 50 reading this article will fully appreciate that once your hormones go south, whether you’re male or female, it is much more difficult to keep the fat down, especially off your belly. It may well be that obese patients with more severe abdominal obesity and visceral fat died earlier and therefore skewed the data compared with those with less risky lower body obesity. Interestingly, the accumulation of visceral fat is much greater in age group 35 to 45 with an average 52% increase, compared with 55 to 65 with only 7% and for those older than 65, 11%.

So, are there any adequate explanations for this so-called obesity paradox? The first and rather obvious explanation is what we call reverse causality. It is a well-established fact that the sicker patients tend to lose more weight than those who have mild disease. Thus, it is not the obesity that is protecting people rather the loss of weight occurring as a consequence of a more severe illness. Secondly, those people who are carrying less weight with established illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis and type II diabetes, tend to have a stronger genetic predisposition to the disease. Could it be, therefore, the more genetic an illness, the more seriously it affects the body compared with lifestyle associated disease, which tends to be associated with obesity?

Another explanation is that smokers tend to be thinner than non-smokers but also suffer more serious diseases.

In the specific case of chronic kidney disease this is a chronic inflammatory state and also associated with protein energy wasting. There is a paradoxical association between traditional risk factors & cardiovascular disease in this setting and the weight loss itself may be a marker of more severe disease.

Also, BMI is not as good a marker for abdominal fat as waist circumference and it may be that those with the higher BMI have a larger muscle mass, which is felt to be protective. Also, there is the consideration of being fat but fit which may include better cardiovascular and muscle strength.

It is my strong belief that we should all try and maintain a healthy body weight but over the age of 50, I would suggest you should be aiming for a BMI between 25 to 30 with the waist circumference around 90 to 95 for a male and 75 to 80 for a female. I advise all my patients beyond the age of 50 to focus more on healthy eating which is basically to eat less and eat more naturally, along with maintaining 3 to 5 hours of testing exercise per week which should include two thirds cardio and a third resistance training. This is much better for your health than obsessing about weight.

Hospital Acquired Complications

17 Mar 2018 Uncategorized

The commonest cause of death and disability in the world is cardiovascular disease, closely followed by cancer. Coming in at number three and closing in fast is Western health care. It is estimated that in the US alone there are 780,000 deaths on a yearly basis as a consequence of doctors treating patients.

A preventative health expert from the United Kingdom has recently suggested that 10% of hospital admissions are directly due to medical error. A recently released report from the Grattan Institute has basically assessed the complication rate for Australian hospitals. It appears that one in nine patients being treated in an Australian hospital will suffer a complication and this increases to 1 in 4 if the person is lucky enough to be admitted overnight. Interestingly, however, this review did show that some hospitals have a complication rate of a whopping 16.6% whilst others only 2.9%. This raises the question-if some institutions are so low why aren’t all witnessing complications at the same rate? It is not clear from the report if it is that the institutions with the highest rate are purely treating the sickest of the sick i.e. people at greater risk, or whether the higher complication institutions do not have the same rigid safety protocols, high-quality or less constant staff.

These complications range from anything between the catastrophic and very rare situations e.g. the two babies who were accidentally gassed with nitrous oxide leading to their tragic death at the Bankstown-Lidcome Hospital.

Complications may also involve healthy patients contracting infections after surgery. The federal government has published a list of 16 relatively common hospital acquired complications which in many cases may be prevented. To give some examples, these include pressure injuries leading to skin ulceration; unsupervised falls within the institution leading to either fractures or head injury; the very common infections which can be anything from hospital-acquired urinary tract infection to infections complicating surgery; other surgical complications requiring return to the theatre such as haemorrhage or wounded dehiscence, to name a few.

As I am suggesting, these complications can vary from minor wound infections or modest reactions to prescribed medications to the more life-threatening severe infections, bleeding, clotting or kidney failure.

In defence of my hospital colleagues, the reality is that the more serious complications typically occur in the sickest of the sick who would possibly die without medical intervention and it is hardly fair to blame the hospital, medical nursing staff for that person’s complications. But, often healthy people undergoing elective procedures may develop serious complications. Some examples here are a person who goes for a routine colonoscopy experiencing a bowel perforation. Another example is the person who has been sent for a radiologic procedure involving intravenous dye developing a serious, life-threatening anaphylactic reaction to the dye.

The reality is that strong medicine has strong effects but also strong side-effects and complications. The more aggressive the therapy, often the greater the benefit but also the greater risk.

Regardless, the current figures are unacceptable, especially where there is such variation between institutions and we do need better explanations and solutions than this report is offering. Hospital care is an essential component of modern society but those who avail themselves in this care need to know that hospitals are safe places.

Exercise — Is more better?

17 Feb 2018 Uncategorized

Since the recent death of Steve Folkes at the age of 59, a well-known figure in Australian rugby league circles, still incredibly fit and a regular exerciser, along with the sudden death of the 31 year old Italian soccer player, Davide Astori, many questions have been raised about the role of exercise and its ability to prevent cardiovascular disease.

In my professional talks, I have a slide with the picture of Jim Fixx next to a picture of Winston Churchill. Jim Fixx, who wrote the Complete Book of Running, didn’t have an ounce of body fat and had completed multiple marathons, died in a race at of the age 53. Winston Churchill, smoked, drank, was overweight and depressed and died at the age of 91. I have recently completed a lecture series titled “Cardiovascular disease — it’s your genes that loads the gun and your environment that pulls the trigger”. The reality is that all cardiovascular disease has an element of genetics and those with the more severe genetic abnormalities may still die earlier despite exquisite lifestyle principles.

I have repeatedly suggested that the ideal amount of exercise every week is somewhere between 3 to 5 hours. So, is this just my gut feeling or is there any good evidence for these comments?

I would like to review a few recent interesting studies around exercise which address this important issue.

A recent, long term study of 25 years followed just over 5100 people aged between 18 to 30 years old at the entry of the study. For various reasons, the final analysis reviewed 3175 participants who had undergone eight examinations over the 25 year period and answered at least three questionnaires regarding the amount of exercise they performed along with other lifestyle factors as well.

A coronary calcium score was performed at some stage between age 43 to 55 and the participants were divided into three groups

1) Those who exercised less than 2 ½ hours per week

2) Those who exercised between 3 to 5 hours per week

3) Those who exercised more than 7 1/2 hours per week.

The results were quite surprising and, in many ways, somewhat disturbing. When the group who exercised more than 7 1/2 hours were compared to the other groups there was a 27% increase in coronary artery calcification, suggesting a lack of protection from heavy exercise for heart disease risk. Interestingly, and somewhat difficult to explain, is the fact that white males in the third group had an 86% increased risk for coronary artery calcification. The higher level exercise group, for some reason, did not appear to affect cardiac risk in black men or all women. Although there is no clear explanation for this difference, I would like to propose the following explanations.

Atherosclerosis, which is the progressive build-up of fat, inflammatory tissue and calcium in the walls of arteries, tends to occur later in women (on average 10 years) and a coronary calcium score performed between age 43 to 55 is too early to detect significant atherosclerosis in a female population.

People who exercise for more than 7 1/2 hours per week are typically (although not always) joggers or cyclists, or professional athletes. There is no doubt that African Americans do make up a significant proportion of the high-level athletes in America, not to mention the Africans who tend to win most of the marathons. It could be that people with darker skin are more physiologically adapted to exercise for longer periods and thus have less evidence of cardiovascular disease.

Regardless, it does appear for those of us who are not professional athletes (i.e. sport being their major source of income) that if you are exercising for good health, the 3 to 5 hour dose per week appears to be the healthiest level.

The second study was fascinating in that it looked at the type of exercise which may be important for specific disease prevention. There are two basic types of exercise, aerobic — cardio, or anaerobic — strength and resistance training. This study of 80,000 people, older than 30 years, commenced in 1994 and continued until 2008 with an average follow-up of around nine years. It looked at strength and resistance training for 50 to 60 minutes per week as opposed to moderate intensity exercise 50 minutes per week e.g. walking, as opposed to high-intensity exercise such as running or cycling for 75 minutes per week.

In all these groups, compared with people who were inactive there was around an 18% lower risk of early death purely by performing the various types of exercise. But, with resistance & strength training there was a 31% reduced cancer risk whereas with aerobic exercise a 21% reduction in cardiovascular risk. The reduction in cancer death has been repeated in a number of studies in people who regularly perform some form of resistance training.

My suggested reason for this is that cardio exercise improves cardiovascular efficiency through more efficient pumping of the heart and better blood flow to muscles. Because of the more efficient cardiovascular system there is logically a reduction in cardiovascular death. Interestingly, strength and resistance training increases the fitness and size of muscles thus improving muscle metabolism and requiring a much higher level of blood flow to the muscles. Logically, this would redirect blood flow away from tumours and thus help prevent cancer death.

A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reviewed 140,000 people participating in the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition cohort. It found that as little as two hours per week of walking compared with those who did no exercise reduced overall death risk from all causes. Those who performed the recommended 150 minutes of walking demonstrated a 20% reduction in all-cause death. Interestingly those who walked for more than six hours per week had a 35% reduction in death related to respiratory causes, a 20% reduction in cardiovascular death and a 9% reduction in cancer death.

A study from the Journal, Circulation reviewed 152 middle-aged endurance athletes with an average age of 55 and compare these people with normal activity age matched controls. All participants in the study had no prior history of coronary heart disease or any other significant risk factors. A CT coronary angiogram was performed and in both groups 60% demonstrated no significant coronary artery disease. But, in the athletes there was double the amount of coronary plaque compared with those who performed normal activity. Those in the highest risk group had a direct relationship to the amount of years of training i.e. the more exercise the higher the risk.

Another study looked at males older than 45 again with an average age of 55 and show that 53% of these athletes had coronary artery calcification. Again, the more activity performed, the higher the coronary artery calcification and thus, a higher atherosclerotic burden.

Studies performed on marathon runners have shown that a third had elevated levels of troponin, a marker of heart damage, along with echocardiographic changes in the right ventricle at the end of the marathon.

Possible explanations for this are that

1) Many high-level exercisers have the delusion that because they perform so much exercise they can eat what they like which can still lead to significant cardiac issues

2) A study from many years ago published in the New England Journal of Medicine reviewed the psychological profile of marathons on runners and found this was very similar to people with anorexia nervosa. This is a condition which is also associated with sudden cardiac death

3) Possibly, the reason many people take up endurance running is because of a poor family history, again with the delusion that they can outrun their genetics

4) Another minor explanation is that many high-level athletes suffer recurrence musculoskeletal issues often requiring anti-inflammatory medications which have been associated with a higher risk for cardiac disease.

Probably the most disturbing statistic from all the studies is that 27% of people are inactive and only 50% of people meet the guidelines for recommended exercise.

I have stated on numerous occasions that exercise is the second best drug on the planet after happiness but it also appears that the correct dose of exercise is important along with the type of exercise to reduce specific conditions. This is why I constantly say that the suggested dose is 3–5 hours per week which should be divided into two thirds cardio and one third resistance training. Just as the real estate agents say the most important principle is “location, location, location”, those of us involved in preventative medicine state “movement, movement, movement”.

What brings on a heart attack?

17 Jan 2018 Uncategorized

There is no doubt that the biggest killer across the globe is cardiovascular disease. The major cause of cardiovascular disease is atherosclerosis, which is the progressive build-up of fat, inflammatory tissue, calcium and other cellular constituents in the walls of arteries, over many decades. Eventually, these fatty plaques rupture to cause blockages within the channel of arteries, leading to heart attack, stroke or other conditions, depending on the site of the blockage.

This has been established beyond doubt with strong associations with a variety of cholesterol abnormalities, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking and the different stages and manifestations of diabetes, with strong genetic factors thrown into the mix.

Although this is well-established, it needs to be separated from what actually makes these plaques rupture. Or, in other words, what is the precipitating event for an acute cardiac syndrome, such as a heart attack, with the background of an atherosclerotic process that builds up in the wall of the arteries over decades?

There are basically five categories of precipitants:

1) Psycho-social stress — Within a few hours of becoming acutely angry or anxious, you increase your risk for heart attack eight times, if you have previously stable plaques in your coronary arteries. Depression raises coronary risk in some studies up to 50%. There is a link between social isolation, loneliness and acute coronary syndromes. There is also the well described link between serious life events, such as the death of a loved one, relationship issues, even relocating your life, and heart attack. Dramatic societal events, such as terrorist attacks and earthquakes have been shown to increase heart attack risk & sudden cardiac death, by a factor of seven.

2) Exercise — Although regular, conditioned exercise is the second best drug on the planet (after happiness), unusual, unexpected bursts of exercise, such as the unfit, obese person running for the bus or train, or shovelling snow during bouts of extreme cold, are enough to put enormous strain on fatty plaques, potentially leading to heart attack.

3) Infection — Severe infections activate the immune system switching on inflammation and may acutely weaken and rupture a fatty plaque. A study from the University of New South Wales demonstrated that people who had a yearly flu vaccination had a 30% reduction in heart attack by reducing the risk of the severe infection related to influenza.

4) Radical diets — Although rapid fat burning diets such as Atkins, Paleo and the ketogenic diet are efficient for rapid weight loss, I have seen a handful of high risk patients suffering heart attacks during the rapid weight loss phase. My explanation for this is that abdominal obesity isn’t just an ugly lump of lard but also a toxic reservoir, storing, over years of exposure, a variety of synthetic chemicals and heavy metals. Once the fat is broken down rapidly, the toxins overwhelm the circulation, rupturing fatty plaques. Although this is uncommon, it still happens. Thus, it is my opinion that weight loss should be gradual.

5) Acute life indiscretions — A heavy binge of alcohol or the use of illegal drugs have been well described as significant precipitants for acute cardiac events, such as heart attack or sudden cardiac death.

Finally, recent work from the United States has suggested a mechanism whereby an acute fatty load may also do the same thing as other life indiscretions. Ten healthy males with normal blood pressure and normal cholesterol were divided into two groups. Five were given a very fatty milkshake, whilst the other five a low-fat meal with the same number of calories. This acute fatty load led to rather dramatic changes in their red cells, changing shape, becoming spiky & sticky, along with an increase in a chemical known as myeloperoxidase which reduces blood vessel elasticity and also generates oxidation of the so called good cholesterol, HDL. All these issues thicken the blood and acutely damage blood vessels.

It is my clinical experience that patients who are at high risk for heart disease exposed to one or a combination of any of these precipitants are at a much higher risk for an event. In fact, I hardly see a patient who experienced a heart attack without one of these precipitants.