Does An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?

The Latest On Diet And Heart Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

AppleIn a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” I talked about how difficult it has been to prove that statins significantly reduce the risk of heart attack or cardiovascular deaths in a low risk population group. Now let’s look at the other side of the coin – lifestyle change –and ask how effective lifestyle change is at reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

You’ve all heard the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. It dates back to Victorian England. It was the public health message of the day – much simpler and more concise than our current food guide plate.

A prominent British doctor and his research team recently decided to see how accurate that saying really was. But they took their study one step further. They compared the effectiveness of an apple a day versus a statin a day at reducing the risk of cardiovascular deaths (Briggs et al, British Medical Journal, 3013;347:f7267 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f7267).

The results of that comparison may surprise you.

Does An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?

They used the data from the Cholesterol Treatment Trialist meta-analysis to estimate the effectiveness of statin drugs at reducing cardiovascular deaths. They used the data from the PRIME comparative risk assessment model to estimate the effectiveness of apple a day at reducing cardiovascular deaths.

They asked what would happen if each of them were the primary intervention for the entire British population over 50 who were not currently taking statin drugs (17.6 million people).

They assumed a 70% compliance rate for both interventions. In simple terms that means they assumed that 70% of the population would actually do what their doctors told them. (Patients must be more compliant in England than in the US).

The results were interesting. They estimated that:

  • Giving a statin drug each day to 17.6 million people would reduce the number of cardiovascular deaths by 9,400.
  • Giving an apple each day to the same 17.6 million people would reduce the number of cardiovascular deaths by 8,500 (not significantly different).

But when they looked at side effects and cost the two interventions were significantly different.

  • Giving a statin drug each day to 17.6 million people would also cause some significant side effects. The authors estimated that it would lead to:
    • 1,200 excess cases of severe muscle pain and weakness
    • 200 excess cases of rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown, which can lead to irreversible kidney failure)
    • 12,300 excess cases of diabetes
  • On the other hand, there are no known side effects to an apple a day.
  • The statin intervention would cost an estimated $295 million. In the case of apples, you would presumably be substituting a more healthy food for a less healthy food so there would be little or no net cost.

And the 70% compliance rate is probably wildly optimistic. Some experts have estimated that up to 50% of patients discontinue their statin medications within the first year because of side effects or cost.

Is There A Scientific Basis For Those Estimates?

Of course, we all know that the “apple a day…” saying was never meant to be taken literally. It was just a simple way of saying that a good diet will reduce the risk of disease.

It turns out that there was another major study on the effect of dietary fiber on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease in the very same issue (Threapleton et al, British Medical Journal, 2013;347:f6879 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f6879). It was a meta-analysis that combined the data from 22 previously published studies.

This study showed:

  • For every 7 g/day increase in dietary fiber the risk of both heart attacks and cardiovascular disease decreases by 9% (7 grams of dietary fiber could come from one serving of whole grains plus one serving of beans or lentils or from two servings of fruits or vegetables).
  • For every 4g/day of fruit fiber (equivalent to one apple) the risk of heart attacks decreases by 8% and the risk of cardiovascular disease decreases by 4%.
  • The numbers are similar for every 4 g/day of vegetable fiber.

Another recent study showed that consumption of 75 g/day of dried apple (equivalent to two apples a day) lowered total cholesterol by 13% and LDL-cholesterol by 24% in post-menopausal women (Chai et al, J. Acad Nutr Diet, 112: 1158-1168, 2012). That’s comparable to the cholesterol reduction achieved with statin drugs.

The Bottom Line

  • If you have not previously had a heart attack and are at relatively low risk, something as simple as adding an apple a day (in place of less healthy foods) may just as effective as statin drugs at reducing your risk of cardiovascular death without the side effects and cost of the drugs.
  • This is not really new information. For years both the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health have recommended that Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (weight loss, healthy diet and exercise) should be tried BEFORE drug treatment to reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • So if you want to avoid statins, tell your doctor that you are willing to make the needed lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of heart disease and stick with it. Lifestyle changes are hard, but clinical studies clearly show they can often be just as effective as drug therapy, without the cost and side effects.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating avoiding statin drugs if they are absolutely necessary. If you have had a heart attack or are at high risk of heart disease, it is clear that statins can save lives. Even here I would recommend talking with your physician about incorporating therapeutic lifestyle change into your regimen. It may allow them to minimize the dose, and therefore the side effects, of the statin drugs.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

Is it How Much You Eat, or How Much You Keep?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Brain HealthWhy do some studies conclude that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a strong mind, a strong heart and will wipe out inflammation – while other studies suggest that they are ineffective? The simple answer is that nobody really knows.

However, in the process of reviewing two recent studies on omega-3 fatty acids and brain health I made an interesting observation that offers a possible explanation for the discrepancies between studies. And if my hypothesis is correct, it suggests that the design of many of the previous studies with omega-3 fatty acids is faulty.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

The first study (J.K. Virtanen et al, J Am Heart Assoc, 2013, 2:e000305 doi: 10.1161/JAHA.113.000305) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain function in older adults (>65 years old). It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with better white matter grade and a 40% reduction in subclinical infarcts (Sorry for the technical jargon – but both of those are good things in terms of brain function for those of us who are getting a bit older).

The second study (C. M. Milte et al, J of Attention Disorders, 2013, doi: 10.1177/1087054713510562) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on children (ages 6-13) with ADHD. It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with improved spelling and attention and reduced oppositional behavior, hyperactivity, cognitive problems and inattention.

What Is The Common Thread In These Studies?

Why, you might ask, am I comparing a study in the elderly, where the concern is retention of cognitive skills, with a study on ADHD in children?

That’s because there is a very important common thread in those two studies. It wasn’t the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet that counted. It was the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood that made the difference.

The first study included a detailed dietary history to estimate the habitual intake of omega-3 fatty acids in the participants.

  • There was no correlation between estimated dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and any measure of brain function in those older adults.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3s and brain health in that population group.

The second study was actually a placebo controlled intervention study in which the children were given 1 gm/day of either omega-3 fatty acids or omega-6 fatty acids.

  • Once again, there was no correlation between dietary intake of omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids and any outcome related to ADHD.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids or omega-3/omega-6 ratio and improvement in multiple measures of ADHD.

How Could The Effect of Dietary Intake And Blood Levels Of Omega-3s Be So Different?

Fish OilBoth studies were relatively small and suffered from some technical limitations, but the most likely explanations are:

  • Inaccurate recall of the participants as to what they eat on a habitual basis. (study 1)
  • Individual differences in the ability of participants to convert short chain omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as canola oil, flaxseed oil and walnuts) to the beneficial long chain fatty acids (found in cold water fish). (study 1)
  • Poor compliance in taking the supplements. (study 2)

Why Are These Studies Important?

The most important insight to come out of both of these studies is that it is essential to actually measure blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and not just rely on dietary intake or supplementation for a valid clinical trial.

That’s a concern because blood measurements of omega-3 fatty acids are expensive and have not been a part of many of the clinical studies that have been performed to date. Even the largest, best designed clinical study is worthless if the dietary recalls aren’t accurate or people don’t take their capsules.

We need to go back and reevaluate many of the clinical studies that have been published.

We need to ask:

  • Are their conclusions valid?
  • Did some studies fail to show that omega-3s were effective simply because they only measured dietary intake and not how much of the omega-3s actually accumulated in the blood?

The Bottom Line

  • High blood levels of omega-3s in the blood correlated with improved brain health in the elderly and reduced ADHD symptoms in children
  • These studies were small, but they are consistent with a number of other studies that have come to similar conclusions.
  • Blood levels of omega-3s are better predictors than dietary intake for evaluating the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Many previous studies that failed to find an effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain health, heart health or inflammation did not actually measure blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids. These studies should be reevaluated.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.