New Hypertension Guidelines- Lifestyle over Drugs? Or another victory for Big Pharma?

Can half the population have a single disease?

 

First, we were told that half of all Americans have type II diabetes or pre-diabetes. Now we are told that almost 50% of Americans have hypertension (elevated blood pressure) too. Could it be true?

 

That depends who you ask.

 

The American Heart Association (AHA) published new hypertension guidelines during their annual meeting November 2017. These guidelines now classify those with a systolic blood pressure between 130-139 as having hypertension.  That increases the number of Americans with hypertension from 72 million adults to 103 million, a little over 46% of all adult Americans.

 

We should note, however, that the AHA does not have a monopoly on guidelines.

 

The American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians still define hypertension as a systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 150 or greater for those over age 60. That means we have to take the new guidelines with a grain of salt (which may not raise your blood pressure). They are the recommendations of one specific organization, not a unanimously agreed-upon decree.

 

The AHA changed their guideline largely on the basis of one particular study, the SPRINT trial. This trial enrolled subjects over age 50 with hypertension and at least one other cardiac risk factor. They sought to determine if using drugs to treat to a blood pressure of less than 120 would be more beneficial than treating to a blood pressure less than 140.  In the end, they determined that it was.

 

After three years, treating subject’s blood pressure more aggressively (with an average of three drugs per subject) reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 1.6%, a statistically significant difference. That means we need to treat 62 people for three years to prevent one cardiovascular event, pretty paltry evidence in the scheme of things.

 

This 1.6% reduction came at a potential cost. They found that the drugs caused dangerously low blood pressure in one out of every 100 people treated, fainting in one out of every 166 people treated, and significant kidney disease in one out of every 62 people.

 

So, even though the data were statistically significant, it appears that the clinical benefit may be much less impressive. But that isn’t even the biggest issue with the new guidelines.

 

The SPRINT trial was designed with meticulous follow up, something that usually don’t translate to the real world.

 

For example, in the SPRINT trial, researchers measured the blood pressure three times, not just once, and they did this only after the subject had been sitting quietly for at least five minutes.

 

Think about the last time you had your blood pressure measured in the doctor’s office. It was likely after you sprinted in from the parking lot after circling three times white knuckling the steering wheel looking for an open space. Or, it was after checking your watch for the tenth time wondering if they forgot about you since they were over 30-minutes late. You then are led into the room and they immediately take one blood pressure and chart it. Does that sound like we are comparing apples to apples?

 

No way.

 

Subjects in the study were also followed monthly for the first three months and then every three months after that. Is that how often your doctor sees you?

 

Unlikely.

 

Remember all those side effects that were found in the trial? That was with meticulous monitoring of patients and their blood pressure. What do you think will happen if the follow up turns into once or twice per year?

 

Medication-induced dizziness, falls, broken hips and kidney disease.

 

So, if your doctor wants to treat you for hypertension for a blood pressure of 130, insist that you measure your blood pressure at home, multiple times each day, for at least a full week before deciding you have a true “disease” that needs treatment. Blood pressure varies during the day, and we should not label you with a disease based on one measurement.

 

But wait. That STILL isn’t the biggest concern with the guidelines.

 

To their credit, the guidelines specify that those with blood pressure 130-139 should start with lifestyle intervention. Bravo. That is absolutely the way it should be.

 

Does that mean if your blood pressure is less than 130 you don’t need to worry about eating well, exercising, managing your stress and getting adequate restorative sleep? Hopefully we didn’t need to reclassify 30 million Americans as having a disease in order to start talking to them about healthy lifestyles. That should be the main focus of every visit for every patient, not just those who have the label of hypertension.

 

Also, remember the 2013 cholesterol guidelines? They specified that the low-risk group that was now labeled as having the disease of high cholesterol should “begin the conversation about statins.” That quickly turned into doctors grabbing their prescription pads and writing millions of statin prescriptions.

 

Even worse, it usually isn’t long before “quality” measurements and insurance reimbursements are attached to achieving the new goal of blood pressure less than 130. Once that happens, do you think your doctor will patiently work with you to fine tune your lifestyle over the course of months? Or will they reach for the drugs to get you to the target faster and simply check the box that they did it?

 

I love rhetorical questions.

 

That leads to the next issue. The guidelines state that if one fails lifestyle interventions, then drugs are indicated.

 

What does it mean when a patient “fails” lifestyle intervention? How long should that trial be? One month? Six months? And what is the lifestyle intervention? 150 minutes per week of cardio with no mention of resistance training or interval work? A low-fat, low-sodium diet, with no consideration that many people may respond better to a low-carb diet rather than a low-fat diet, and salt may have no impact on your blood pressure?

 

Picture this instead.

 

You bring your home blood pressure log into your doctor’s office. The average is consistently above 130. You have a detailed conversation about your risk for cardiovascular disease, and you agree to be more vigilant with your nutrition, physical activity, stress management and sleep.

 

But it doesn’t stop there. Together, you and your doctor decide what the best specific approach is for you. You then set an email follow up in one month and an office visit in 3 months to check in.

 

If you have not started to progress, you re-evaluate why. Does your nutrition need to change? Maybe you started with a low-fat diet but will actually respond better to a low carb diet. Maybe you are getting your 30 minutes of exercise but are sedentary the rest of the day. Maybe you are still hooked on Ambien and can’t get to sleep. Maybe you need a little more encouragement from a weekly email, or joining an online group, or competing with a friend over your Fitbit numbers.

 

None of those issues should mean you “failed” lifestyle intervention. Instead, they should help you and your doctor fine tune your purposeful lifestyle prescription to find what will work for you.

 

In the end, could you have hypertension? You may. But that doesn’t mean you have a “drug deficiency.” It means it’s time to work together with your healthcare provider to get serious about your lifestyle. In a perfect world, that would already be happening for all of us. If it takes a new guideline to initiate that, so be it. Let’s applaud the guidelines for the attention it will bring to lifestyle interventions.

 

Doctors, just keep the prescription pad in the drawer please.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com 

Activities for the Whole Family

Have you made the decision that YOU want to start living your best health ever? What about your family? It’s hard to get on track without the support of your loved ones and that’s why it can be necessary to make sure they’re on board for your lifestyle changes as well! It doesn’t have to be a tedious task for them or feel like a burden, it can be fun and a great way to spend more time together. So why not pack in the quality time while getting in a good workout and being active? Here are some perfect examples to get you started as you incorporate your family life into your journey to your best health ever. 


Go Hiking Together


As long as you do your research ahead of time you can find plenty of family friendly hikes where you live. Map out how long it will take you to get there, have some classic car games ready, plenty of water and snacks, and make a day out of it. Pack a healthy picnic to enjoy when you reach the top of your destination and enjoy a beautiful day outdoors while kicking up your heart rate. 


Try Out Fun Sports

You don’t need to be an athlete to play a friendly game of basketball or soccer. Try out a basketball game of HORSE or run around with a soccer ball at your nearest park. Tennis can also be a great game to get the whole family in on. Find your nearest court and grab a couple of rackets and balls. You’ll get some sun and burn off a ton of calories running back and forth on the court. If you’re not feeling so adventurous, just grab a frisbee and head to the beach. Before you know it you’ll be starting your own Ultimate Frisbee team!


Sign up For A 5k Walk Or Run 


See what’s coming up on active.com for the latest 5k Walks and Runs. These events are usually family friendly, a great way to build community and the perfect opportunity to get some steps in. Better yet, find one that is for a cause close to your heart and educate your family on why it means so much to you. You’ll feel the positive impact not just physically, but also get a mental boost for supporting a charity that you feel personally connected to. 


Start a Neighborhood Recreation League


Get your neighbors involved in your health journey by starting a friendly weeknight Kick-Ball league (or Ultimate Frisbee team!) with one side of the street against the other. You’ll create a greater sense of community within your neighborhood, meet new people and maybe even find your next babysitter. You can also do some research to see if your town already has social sports leagues set up and join an existing team with your family and friends. Weeknight games are a great way to break up your weekly routine and add some diversity to your exercise habits. 

Travel With Games

Keep a soccer ball or a frisbee in your trunk. Instead of waiting in the car in between errands or after school activities, get out of the car and throw the ball around. If you’re on your own, try jump roping wherever you are. You can burn as many as 200 calories in just one 10-minute jump-rope session. Or make sure to just get out of the car and walk around, as long as you’re moving you’re one step closer to achieving a healthier life!

Go For A Bike Ride

A great way to burn calories and explore your neighborhood, biking is a perfect outdoor activity. Whether you’re on a beach cruiser or a tandem bike, you’ll be enjoying the ride so much you won’t even mind the burn when you’re going up those hills. Make sure to strap on a helmet, ride with water and plan out a fun pit stop. Check out TrailLink to find safe, family-friendly trails in your city. 

Get Technology Involved 

Add an element of competition between family members and see who can get the most steps in the day. You can use the Health app on your phone or invest in a FitBit to track your steps. Set a goal of 10,000 or 20,000 steps a day and create incentives for whoever hits the goal first. For example, the winner doesn’t have to do dishes that night or gets to choose what movie you’ll see that weekend! 

Make sure your family and friends know about your commitment to your healthier lifestyle so they understand how important it is to you that you have their support. Rallying your community is a pivotal step towards achieving your best health ever and there are endless fun and active ways the whole family can join in on your journey. 

How To Be A Morning Person

There are many benefits to rising early. It boosts your energy and lifts your mood. It amplifies your productivity and sparks your creativity. And it improves your chances of getting to work on time!

Are you looking for ways to become a morning person? Getting more sleep is a great first step. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get seven to nine hours of shuteye each night. But it’s not just the number of hours you sleep that affects your ability to wake up and seize the day. It’s also the quality of those ZZZs.

Even if you’re a true night owl, you can transform yourself into a morning person by making a few tweaks to your daily routines. So what are you waiting for? Adopt these healthy sleep habits and you’ll soon find yourself waking up refreshed and ready to go

  1. Set bedtime reminders: Sticking to a healthy sleep schedule starts with hitting the sheets around the same time every night. On your smartphone, set an alarm with a soothing sound that reminds you when it’s time to start winding down. (If you have an iPhone, check out the Bedtime tab on your alarm clock for a sleep analysis bonus.)
     
  2. Start slowly: Training your body to get sleepy when it should doesn’t mean you need to convince yourself to hop into bed at 9 p.m. when you’re used to doing so much later. Making too big of a leap will keep you lying awake and restless, plus more likely to rebound into old habits. Instead, try turning in just 15 minutes earlier than usual. When your body adjusts to this new bedtime, turn in another 15 minutes earlier.
     
  3. Stay consistent: Waking up at the same time every day will also help you stick to your new schedule, which you may find easier to commit to on weekdays. If you’re tempted to reward yourself with extra shut-eye on the weekends, resist the urge to lounge in bed. Sleeping in a couple of hours later than normal may feel luxurious now, but it can throw off your body’s internal clock—and land you with “a case of the Mondays.”
     
  4. Reframe your thinking: Do you tend to procrastinate when it’s time to go to bed? How you think about bedtime sends signals to your body, which may trigger or inhibit a sleepytime response. By the time you feel tired, you might find yourself saying, “It’s late, I should go to bed.” A little trick to make bedtime less flexible is to shift the way you think about it. Next time you’re up an hour later than intended, try saying to yourself, “It’s an hour past my bedtime.”
     
  5. Destress your morning routine: How you start your day can set the tone for a positive day—or not. Hectic mornings may seem like the norm, but they don’t have to be. Shorten your morning to-do list by shifting tasks to the night before, like picking out what to wear, preparing a make-ahead breakfast, packing a healthy lunch, setting the coffee timer, and organizing your work bag.
     
  6. Skip the snooze button: Tired of being tired, even after a full night’s sleep? If you tend to hit the snooze button, you may be making yourself more tired than you think. Setting your alarm to go off just eight to 10 minutes into a new REM cycle can lead to sleep inertia or that feeling of heavy morning grogginess that’s hard to shake. Moving your alarm clock away from your bedside will encourage you to get up and start moving right away.
     
  7. Cut back on caffeine: Any coffee lover knows that going cold turkey on the joe can be quite the feat. Gradually scale back on your caffeine intake. Not only will it help you snooze more soundly, you’ll be less likely to spend those extra dollars on a cup of coffee the next morning.
     
  8. Jumpstart your day: You don’t have to leap out of bed and hit the gym for a vigorous workout to reap the benefits of morning exercise (unless, of course, you want to).There are plenty of early-bird workouts you can do from the comfort of home, and all you need is 10 – 30 minutes of moderate physical activity to get your heart pumping and feel more energized for the day ahead.

All it takes to start your journey to becoming a morning person is to make one small change. You’ve got this! Which healthy sleep habit will you try tonight?

 

 

 

 

3 Simple Breathing Techniques You Can Practice Anywhere

It doesn’t always take a vacation to a private island or a lavish spa day to get some relaxation time in. There are simple, quick techniques you can learn and incorporate into your everyday schedule to help ease that nagging tension and anxiety you might feel, and they take only take 5 minutes or less! Any time you might feel overwhelmed by an upcoming deadline at work or stressed out just coping with everyday tasks, you can try out any of these three breathing techniques. Find a quiet space wherever you are (even at work!) and try one of these out to help you feel more relaxed and ready to tackle the rest of your day. 

Belly Breathing 

Also known as diaphragmatic breathing, this technique requires you to focus on expanding your stomach, rather than your chest, as you take in each deep breath. 

1. Preferably lying on your back, place one hand over your stomach and another over your chest. 

2. Breathe in slowly through your nose and through your stomach so that you feel your stomach rise against your hand as your abdomen fills with air. 

3. Exhale completely and as you exhale through your nose, feel your stomach deflate to its neutral position. 

4. Repeat this process for 5-10 minutes, focusing on the sensation of your stomach rising and falling with each breath. 

The 4-7-8 Method

This exercise helps you breathe more deeply while putting your mind into a meditative state as you focus on counting the seconds during each breath in and out. 

1. Sit in a comfortable position and start by slowly inhaling through your nose on a count of 4 seconds.

2. After the fourth second, hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds*

3. After 7 seconds, exhale your breath for a count of 8 seconds. Repeat this exercise 3-4 times. 

*If 7 seconds feels too long, lower the count to a number of seconds that feels more comfortable for you. 

Progressive Relaxation

Your entire body will take a role in this breathing exercise as you coordinate each breath with the tensing and relaxing of your toes and feet all the way up to your shoulders and head. 

1. Lying or sitting, start by tensing the muscles in your feet as you breathe in through your nose. Hold the breath for a moment as you experience what the tension feels like in your feet and toes. 

2. As you relax your feet, release your breath and exhale through your nose. Take another moment to appreciate the feeling of your feet no longer tensing and contracting. 

3. Continue the process throughout your whole body, including your legs, abdomen, arms, hands, shoulders, jaw and eyes. 

4. Finish the exercise by tensing the entire body as you take a final deep breath in, and as you release your breath make sure to focus on the sensation of each muscle returning to a relaxed state. 

Taking the time to breathe deeply not only helps remind your brain to calm down but it can help remind you to be mindful and present in the moment.  Just by taking 5 to 10 minutes out of your day to try any of these breathing techniques you’ll notice a difference in how you cope with your stress, negative thoughts and the tension you’re holding in your body. Give it a try and let us know which one works best for you! 

Dessert- Who Needs it? Not Me and Not You!

I just had the most incredible family Passover Seder. We travelled to the east coast to see our cousins, and they treated us to a wonderful evening. We always have a fantastic time when we see them, which is not often enough.

 

Their company makes eating flattened cardboard (a.k.a matzah) almost worthwhile.

 

They also know how to feed us. A beautiful salad, matzah ball soup, steamed green beans, butternut squash “rice,” salmon, roasted chicken…my mouth is watering all over again just thinking about it. It was delicious and plentiful.

 

When dinner concluded, we pushed ourselves away from the table nicely fed, likely fuller than we needed to be (these things can happen when we get distracted by great conversation and connecting with our loved ones). If the evening had ended here, we would all have been more than satisfied.

                     

Trust me when I say no one would have gone home hungry.

 

But then it happened.

 

They brought out dessert.

 

We figured this would happen and tried to plan in advance by bringing a beautiful fruit tray that we picked up from a local grocer. Everyone remarked how lovely it was. Then they would sample one or two pieces of fruit and immediately turn their attention to the not one, not two, but three cakes that were beautifully displayed next to it.

 

Why three? Excellent question. I’m not sure as to the answer, but I noticed that most people felt compelled to take a piece of each one.

 

I was immediately struck by the complete lack of necessity for the cakes.

 

Was anyone still hungry or lacking for calories? No way. Dinner was more than enough.

 

Were we lacking in conversation and socializing so we needed an excuse to extend the evening? No way. The kids were getting restless and the adults were starting to yawn as it was getting late in the evening. We had all had a wonderful time, but it was clear the end was drawing near.

 

Our well-meaning hosts provided the array of desserts because that is what people do.

 

That is our unconscious action and belief about what a dinner party should entail.

 

I am sure (or at least I hope) that if we logically think about the need for dessert, we would see that it is almost always unnecessary. When we act in an unconscious manner, however, we simply provide dessert because it is what we do and what we feel our guests expect.

 

It turns out, studies have shown that we make 200 food and beverage decisions every day. 200! When I first heard that my initial reaction was, “No way. It doesn’t feel like that many at all.” 

 

That is true. It doesn’t feel like we make 200 decisions because most of them are unconscious decisions. They are habit, routine, automatic. They are less decisions and more natural reactions.

 

Our health usually suffers from those decisions. On the one hand, we could say it isn’t really our fault. Society inundates us with unhealthy junk food.

 

A prime example was on our flight home from the east coast. It is a minor miracle to get any food on an airplane nowadays. Our flight attendants were happy to announce that they provided free snacks for the flight. They proudly walked down the aisle holding their trays full of packaged cookies, chips, fake cheese and crackers, and the healthiest option….pretzels.

 

It was no surprise that all the kids on the flight immediately wanted one or two of everything. I was struck, however, by how many adults wanted to partake in the junk fest as well.  Was it their fault? There were no other options available. What else could they have done?

 

Plan ahead. My wife is the master at plan ahead food. We had a Tupperware of carrots, almonds, cashews, sweet potato, broccoli and cauliflower. We even had PB&J for the kids.

 

What if you can’t pack ahead? Just say no. Nancy Regan would be proud of you. If you have read my posts on intermittent fasting, you understand the importance of knowing that we are in control of our hunger, not the other way around. Going without snacks on a four-hour flight should not be a major challenge in our lives.

 

The problem once again lies in our unconscious decisions. We don’t actively think about our nutrition and don’t plan ahead to provide healthy choices. Until society does it for us (which seems unlikely on a mass scale in the immediate future), it is up to us as individuals to make the unconscious become conscious.

 

It isn’t always easy to question the automatic decisions. Trust me, I wanted to discuss the dessert issue with our host. I chickened out. She was incredibly gracious and warm to welcome us into her home and provide a wonderful meal. The last thing I wanted to do was insult her or make her feel badly about her decisions.

 

So, I let it go. In a way, I am an enabler for the next time. I admit that it is not always an easy thing to point out to others.

 

But it is an important thing to do. Our health depends on us taking responsibility for what we put in our bodies, what we make available for us and others, and how we make our 200 food and drink decisions.

 

We can start by reframing how we make our own decisions, and then can help others see how they make theirs. One by one, we can make the unconscious become conscious. Then we can give our health the priority it deserves.

 

ACTION ITEM:

At your next dinner party, birthday party, or other social gathering, do not serve dessert. Simply don’t have it. Don’t apologize for not having it. Don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t even mention it. Just go about as usual as if nothing was different. Over the course of the next week, ask those who attended if they noticed anything different or if they felt anything was missing. You may be surprised about what you find!

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com

 

How Many Pills Do We Need to be Healthy?

How many pills do you need to be healthy? To be healthy we would want to do the following:

  • Lose weight
  • Lower LDL
  • Raise HDL
  • Lower blood sugar
  • Lower insulin levels
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke

 

To do all that you would need five or more prescription drugs. But is that what it means to be healthy?

 

Our traditional medical culture seems to be saying, “Yes!” That type of thinking is why prescription drug use continues to rise, with over 60% of American adults taking prescription drugs, and 15% taking five or more drugs.

 

Guess what. It doesn’t have to be this way. Not even close.

 

Here is the secret you can do that is better than taking 5 or more pills.

 

You can commit to healthy lifestyle habits.

 

Do that and you will lose weight in a healthy manner. You will lower your blood sugar and insulin levels. You will improve your cholesterol profile, reduce your inflammation and lower your risk for heart attack and stroke.

 

And you can do it all without side effects, unless of course you consider being happier, having more energy, and feeling better as side effects!

 

Sounds easy? It can be. It won’t always be easy, and it certainly isn’t easy to be perfect. But being better, and seeing every day as a new opportunity is well within our grasp.

 

The Science Supports Lifestyle First

 

A 2016 study in NEJM investigated four different trials comprising over 55,000 subjects. They concluded that even those with the highest genetic risk of cardiovascular disease can reduce their risk by almost 50% with healthy lifestyle habits, defined as eating healthy, getting regular physical activity, not bring obese, and not smoking.

 

In addition, A 2014 study showed that 80% of all first heart attacks are explained by 5 risk factors (smoking, waist circumference, healthy diet, regular physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption). It turns out, all five of those factors are within our control. We don’t need a pill to control them. We just need to commit ourselves to controlling them.

 

Putting it into practice

 

Despite this encouraging information, A study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings concluded that an only 2.7% of the Americans studied led a healthy lifestyle (defined as regular physical activity, healthy eating, not smoking, and having a recommended body fat level).

 

It should be no surprise, therefore, that heart disease remains the leading cause of death in men and women. There are approximately 900,000 heart attacks annually in the U.S., one every 42 seconds, with 365,000 people dying from a heart attack every year. Heart disease costs $207 billion annually in the U.S. alone. And for the first time since 1993, the life expectancy in the U.S. has started to decline.

 

The Health-Drug Disconnect

 

If more and more people are taking prescription drugs, yet our life expectancy is declining, how do we rationalize the disconnect?

 

I propose it is because we have lost sight of what first line medical therapy should be.

 

Statins come with a litany of side effects, and at best reduce your risk of heart attack by 3% over 5 years.

 

Drugs that raise HDL level can worsen your risk of dying (CETP inhibitors).

 

Diabetes drugs can increase insulin levels, increase weight, and create a medication dependency.

 

Weight loss drugs are rarely sustainable over the long run, and come with severe side effects.

 

Do any of those sound like good choices for first-line treatments? Not to me. And I hope not to you either.

 

Change What We Reach For

 

Instead of reaching for our prescription pads, physicians should be reaching for cookbooks, lists of farmer’s markets, different options for activity trackers, stress management apps, and other healthy lifestyle tools.

 

That is where true health begins. That is our best chance of achieving real health. Not health that is dependent on a medication, or health that is defined by a lab value.

 

For more information on how to improve your health with healthy lifestyle habits, read more about our book and instructional video series. They may just change your life.

 

Thanks for reading

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com

 

Action item:

Take a look at Your Best Health Ever: A Cardiologists’ Surprisingly Simple Guide to what Really Works. You can buy it today on amazon (here is the link). It has all the information you need to prioritize healthy lifestyle practices over prescription drugs. Together, we can promote natural, long-lasting health that feels great.

Is Alzheimer’s Disease Preventable?

Is Alzheimer’s Disease Type III Diabetes? And Can it be Prevented?

By Bret Scher, MD

 

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most devastating conditions in our country, and you may have the power to prevent it.

 

There is nothing more empowering than knowing you have the ability to prevent a chronic disease. Especially when some view that chronic disease as worse than death. While not all factors that lead to chronic disease is controllable (e.g., genetics), there are some diseases that you can protect yourself against. And one of those might be Alzheimer’s disease.

 

Alzheimer’s disease—which is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.—is a devastating condition that impairs your memory and ability to think. It progresses over time, eventually condemning an otherwise functional body to a life completely dependent upon care from others. It changes the lives of not just those affected by the disease, but their loved ones and caregivers as well.

 

In 2015 alone, approximately 15 million caregivers provided an estimated 18 billion hours of unpaid care to the 5 million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. But the cost to families and to society as a whole cannot be measured in just dollars and cents. The emotional toll can also be enormous. The negative effects on caregivers can be vast, including:
 

  • Psychological distress
  • Impaired health habits
  • Psychiatric illness
  • Physical illness

 

To make matters worse, the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia is only getting larger and is expected to triple as baby boomers reach the at-risk age of 65 and older.

 

Paradigm Shift in Understanding Alzheimer’s

Modern medicine has struggled to find effective treatments for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s. The most effective medicines may slow the symptoms by a few months, but the inevitable progression always happens in the end.

 

A new paradigm shift, however, offers promise for methods to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease. The paradigm shift is that Alzheimer’s may be Type III Diabetes.

 

To understand this relationship, it helps to understand the basics about diabetes, blood sugar, and insulin. Insulin’s job is to signal cells to take sugar out of the blood and convert the sugar into energy. When a person has diabetes, the cells no longer listen to insulin, so the body needs to produce more and more insulin to get the message across.

 

As the efficiency worsens, the body can’t keep up, the blood sugar rises and diabetes develops. This causes two main problems:
 

  • Insulin levels rise sky high. Since insulin is a fat storage and pro-inflammatory hormone, higher levels equate to deterioration of overall health.
     
  • Blood sugar levels increase to dangerous levels. This can eventually lead to heart disease, vascular disease, kidney disease, vision loss, neuropathy, and other serious conditions.

 

It turns out that brain cells can become resistant to insulin as well, thus drawing a connection between diabetes and Alzheimer’s. The theory is that increased insulin and increased sugar in the brain leads to damage of brain cells and eventual dementia.

 

The Connection Between Alzheimer’s and Diabetes

 

Medical science is starting to explore the relationship between diabetes and dementia and is drawing a strong connection. One study, for instance, reviewed previous investigations of diabetes and dementia, accounting for over 2 million subjects. The study concluded that those with diabetes were 60 percent more likely to develop dementia.

 

While an association does not prove causation, it does raise an interesting potential link that deserves further exploration.

 

The next question is whether there is a reasonable explanation for why the two diseases might be related. And it turns out there is.

 

Another study demonstrated that individuals with type II diabetes are more likely to develop the same “brain tangles” that are seen in those affected with Alzheimer’s. It is thought that these tangles are directly responsible for the progressive cognitive decline. And they are present in both the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, and the brains of those with diabetes even in the absence of dementia.

 

How to Prevent Diabetes, and possibly Alzheimer’s

 

This emerging research could be discouraging news since the incidence of diabetes is on the rise, with an estimated increase from 285 million cases worldwide in 2010 to 439 million in 2030.  The result could be an equal surge in new Alzheimer’s cases.

 

Or it could be encouraging news, since type II diabetes is almost entirely preventable with healthy lifestyle habits. Presumably, these same habits may help prevent Alzheimer’s as well.

 

In fact, a 2001 study in NEJM suggested that 90 percent of type II diabetes cases could be prevented with:
 

  • Proper exercise
  • Healthy eating
  • Not smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy bodyweight

 

 Another study showed that a lifestyle program that included 150 minutes of weekly physical activity and a goal of 7 percent weight loss prevented diabetes better than the popular drug Metformin—an oral diabetes medicine that helps control blood-sugar levels.

 

Finally, a 2012 study followed 2,700 people over three years and found those who ate a diet higher in carbohydrates and sugars and lower in protein and fat were more likely to develop dementia.

 

This information shows that diabetes, and by extension Alzheimer’s disease, may be preventable by following a healthy lifestyle that includes these elements:
 

  • Exercise 150 minutes per week and remain physically active throughout the day
  • Maintain near ideal body weight
  • Eat a real-foods, vegetable-based diet with healthy fats
  • Avoid simple, refined carbohydrates
  • Avoid added sugars in food and drinks

 

A Healthy Lifestyle Is Necessary

 

Unfortunately, this is not hot-off-the-press news. These studies were published over 15 years ago, yet many people are still reluctant to adopt such healthy practices. In fact, one study of American adults found that only 2.7 percent of the subjects followed a truly healthy lifestyle.

 

The public shouldn’t need more inspiration to strive to be healthy, but knowing that Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes are likely preventable will hopefully be enough motivation to spark a revival for healthy lifestyles now and for decades to come.

 

Change doesn’t come easily, so start by making simple steps and find a support system that will help you adopt new ways of living.

 

Those in positions of influence (doctors, nurses, personal trainers, nutritionists, health coaches, chiropractors, and other medical professionals) need to actively educate society about the association between Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

 

If you fall into this category, it’s important to learn how to inspire individuals to adhere to healthy life habits, which may help prevent one of the most devastating conditions that touches the lives of tens of millions Americans every year.

 

Now that’s empowering.

 

Thanks for reading.

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com

 

ACTION ITEM:

Make 1 meal this week a Vegetable Based meal. Don’t have chicken with a side of veggies, or salmon with rice and a couple veggies. Make the basis of the meal veggies and add 4-6 oz. of high quality animal protein.  Notice how it looks different, tastes different, and how you feel differently after you eat it. If you can do this, then you can increase it week after week until most of your meals are veggie-based. You will be amazed at how it improves your health and how you feel!

Statins- What do We Really Know?

45 million Americans “should” take statins. Are you one of them?

 

 It may surprise you to find out that you might be. When your doctor plugs your information into a cardiac risk calculator, he or she may tell you that you should to take a statin.

 

You may not feel bad. You may not have many other cardiovascular risk factors. Yet you may be labelled with the “disease” of elevated cholesterol.

 

“New” Guidelines- Questionable Sources, Questionable Guidelines

 

Why are so many more previously healthy Americans now being treated for high cholesterol? We can thank the 2013 ACC/AHA guidelines, which increased the intensity with which physicians prescribe statins.

 

Interestingly, these were not based on any new data. Instead, they were based on new interpretations of old data, much of which has not been made available for third party reviewers. None the less, it is now recommended that physicians consider prescribing a statin to anyone with a 5% 10-year risk of cardiac disease (increased from a previous 20% risk).

 

To me it seems that a recommendation to dramatically increase the use of these drugs should save lives left and right and have almost no down side.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Statins are not useless. They can reduce the incidence of heart attacks and strokes. For someone who has never had a heart attack (referred to as primary prevention) we need to treat between 60 and 104 people for 5 years to prevent one heart attack without any significant difference in the risk of dying.

 

That’s a little underwhelming, is it not? That seems like a “shotgun” approach where you send a hundred bullets out knowing that one will hit the right person (in this case getting hit by a bullet is a good thing). It doesn’t have to be this way.

 

In addition, statins are not perfect drugs. For every 50 people treated over five years there will be one new case of diabetes. There will also be at least 10% risk of muscle aches and pains with potential damage to the mitochondria (the energy producing part of the cell), and may even be linked to onset of dementia and memory dysfunction.

 

A system that potentially harms more people than it helps doesn’t seem like a viable solution to me. We can do better.

 

Better Define Your Risk

 

The problem is that our medical culture emphasizes prescribing drugs more than further defining your risk, and more than exploring alternatives to reducing your risk.

 

The current cardiac risk calculator uses:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Total cholesterol
  • HDL
  • Blood pressure or previous diagnosis of hypertension
  • Diagnosis of diabetes
  • Smoking status

 

Those are all reasonable initial risk factors to evaluate. But doesn’t it make sense that if we are using a drug that will only benefit one in 100, maybe we should try to further define those at high risk? To me that is a no-brainer.

 

For instance, one study showed that by measuring a coronary calcium score on statin eligible individuals, we could reclassify 50% of them so that they no longer “qualify” for statin treatment. We can avoid an enormous number of statin prescriptions with one simple test. A test that is readily available now. A test that has minimal risk (very low radiation dose, and a small chance of incidental findings), and is relatively low cost (about $100).

 

And we don’t have to stop there.

 

The Scripps Research Institute has developed an app to allow people to use their genetic information to better define their risks. This could potentially be used to define those who are not at high genetic risk for heart disease and therefore would likely not benefit from statin therapy.

 

Now we are starting to get somewhere. What if we could better define cardiac risk so that one in 5 people benefit from a statin, as opposed to the current 1 in 100? That is an admirable goal.

 

Even Better Than A Statin

 

Once we better define our risk, let’s not forget all the alternative to statins.

 

One recent study demonstrated that even those at the highest genetic risk for heart disease can cut their risk in half with healthy lifestyle habits (eating healthy, getting regular physical activity, not smoking and not being overweight). And that was the highest risk group! That’s likely just as good as, if not better than, a statin could do.

 

So why don’t we write prescriptions for intensive healthy lifestyle education programs instead of drugs?

 

Lifestyle changes are “harder.” Lifestyle changes take longer to see results. Lifestyle changes require more education, encouragement and follow up.

 

Do you know what else is associated with healthy lifestyle changes? Decreased risk of heart attack, strokes and death. Decreased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and depression. And the only side effects are feeling better, having more energy, and being in control of your health.

 

That sounds like something that is well worth the extra work, the needed patience, and the more vigorous follow-up. Don’t you agree?

 

Start Asking Questions

 

So, what should you do if your doctor recommends a statin? Start asking questions. Lots of them.

  • How high is your calculated cardiovascular risk?
  • How much will a statin reduce that risk?
  • What else can be done to better define your risk (i.e. coronary calcium score)?
  • What else can be done to lower your risk (i.e. intensive lifestyle modifications)?

 

Ask yourself questions as well.

  • How can I improve my nutrition to focus on a vegetable based, real food, Mediterranean style eating that focuses on healthy fats and appropriate proportions of high quality animal products?
  • How can I improve my daily physical activities in addition to increasing my weekly exercise?
  • How can I improve my stress management and sleep habits?

 

Remember, the benefits of statins are small. Not zero, but small.

 

Also, remember that statins have not been directly compared to healthy lifestyle habits. We don’t know if they add anything to a comprehensive lifestyle modification program. In fact, I would wager that if you have healthy eating habits, you get regular physical activity, you exercise regularly, and you practice regular stress management, then statins will not reduce your cardiovascular risk at all.

 

It may seem like a bold prediction, but to me it seems obvious.

 

Unfortunately we will likely never see a head-to-head study between statins and healthy lifestyle interventions (I discuss the specifics of the study I would like to see in my prior blog post here).

 

We can do better than a drug

 

In the end, remember that we can do better than drugs. We can be in control of our health. We can achieve real health that is not dependent on blood tests or medications.

 

So, don’t blindly accept a prescription for a statin (or any drug for that matter) without further defining your risk, and without further exploring your alternatives. You and your health deserve at least that much.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com

 

Action Item:

If you are on a statin, or any drug for that matter, make sure you ask your doctor why you are on it, exactly what benefit you should expect, and what the potential short- and long-term side effects are. Also, ask what the alternatives are, specifically regarding your lifestyle and healthy habits. If you aren’t getting adequate answers, ask me! info@drbretscher.com. I welcome your emails. 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

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