Science journals: My monthly potpourri

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You probably haven’t heard of a surgical procedure that relieves chest pain by tying off a minor artery. It worked, but it was abandoned. I’ll explain why later.

But first, some other things that didn’t work or were proven to be dangerous.

  1. In July 2013, the FDA reported on the deaths of 13 people who used 5-hour Energy drink. The agency earlier raised concerns about Monster Energy.

Medical evidence indicates these drinks can alter blood pressure, heart rates and rhythms.

My view: We are prone to assume that products on the shelves of our pharmacy or our store are safe. The truth is that politicians have restricted what the FDA and other agencies control.

Regardless of the way you feel about government regulations, the rules protect the supplement industry. You are on your own to be wary. A variety of substances have been proven to contain toxic agents. The manufacturers of the caffeinated drinks claim their products are safe.

  1. Three studies were published in mid-December, indicating that vitamin supplements are ineffective in protecting against recurrent heart attacks or dementia and they do not increase longevity.

My view: Here again, you are on your own. The FDA can’t control claims for efficacy unless the manufacturer is stupid enough to put them on the label.

The usual sales pitch relies on anecdotes and the assumption of benignity. “At least it can’t harm you,” implies trust in your naiveté. Americans spend $28 billion creating expensive urine.

Vitamins save lives when deficiencies exist. We know there are gray areas around the issue of ideal levels, but industry is driven more by your wallet than your welfare.

  1. A caveat appeared in the February 2014 edition of Consumer Reports. Three-hundred chicken breasts from three major producers revealed that 97 percent were contaminated with bacteria that could cause serious illness.

The article recommends separate cutting boards for chicken, aggressive hand washing and cooking to at least 165 degrees, measured with a thermometer. Don’t wash the chicken. It spreads the bacteria to other surfaces.

  1. Dementia is a personal tragedy to individuals and a threat to society. I have a discussion of that subject on my columns to-do list.

I discovered a new twist on the subject in the Aug. 8 New England Journal of Medicine. The University of Washington joined other research institutions and followed 524 people for almost seven years. They found a correlation between blood sugar levels and cognitive loss.

The report notes there is a known link connecting diabetes and dementia, but this study indicates the problem is connected to sugar, regardless of whether diabetes is present.

My view: Many disorders have been linked to sugar intake and blood sugar levels. Authors see them as part of the metabolic syndrome. Uncertainty exists regarding the diagnoses of pre-diabetes and diabetes.

It is disconcerting to me that we don’t know more. I’d like to pass along absolutes. I do think we need to be reminded that “health drinks” aren’t healthy. Orange juice and Gatorade join Coke on a list of things I used to drink.

  1. I saw Dr. Richard Simon, a sleep expert, last week. We were visiting our dentist. He mentioned a study published in the Oct. 18 issue of Science. That article also deals with dementia.

Our brains accumulate substances thought to be causal in Alzheimer’s disease. The study demonstrates that these chemicals are cleared out during sleep.

The technique involved mice, but it is consistent with other data. Cerebrospinal fluid has a function in cleaning up the brain. Until more is known, make an attempt to get enough sleep in 2014

  1. Finally — about that abandoned surgical procedure: In the 1940s and ’50s, patients with angina pectoris were offered the option of internal mammary artery ligation. The idea was to force blood into the coronaries by creating backflow from an artery that runs right below the ribs.

The claim seemed to be valid but it was hard to test. It required sham surgery, an ethically questionable procedure. Half of the patients in the study had a nick made in their skin. The doctors who did the follow-up didn’t know which ones had the real procedure.

The outcome showed as much benefit from the sham as there was from the real procedure. It was one of the early proofs of the power of placebos and a reminder that we feel pain in our brains.

We can’t always do sham surgery, but we can be careful in spending our enthusiasm too quickly.

I’m guilty of focusing on medicine. I wanted to include an article about coral reefs and overran the space. The paper has implications for the future of the planet.

I’ll try to cover some general science in the next potpourri. Send your suggestions by email.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor and oncologist who lives in Walla Walla. A former U.S. Army Green Berets medical officer with experience in the Middle East, he also is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Suitcase,” a novel available at amazon.com and other online book retailers. He can be reached at mulkerin@charter.net.

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