DrRich wants to record his sympathy for the recommendation, made by the National Transportation Safety Board this week, that all cell phone use by automobile drivers be banned at the federal level. When our government gives us new rules that are for our own good, we should be thankful and not critical.
The caterwauling we’re hearing from some Conservatives over this issue is a gross overreaction, and entirely unreasonable. For one thing, the carnage being produced by cell-phone-using drivers has exploded beyond all reason, and we simply cannot be expected to wait for each of the state governments to act, each at its own leisurely pace.
Furthermore, we should all recognize that regulating the cell phone usage of Americans, especially while Americans are behind the wheel, is now well within the purview of the federal government. This is because, under Obamacare, the Feds are ultimately on the hook to pay for all the extra medical care being generated by the automobile accidents caused by these thoughtless drivers. Indeed, Obamacare ultimately gives the Feds the authority to regulate all human activity that impacts the likelihood that people will need to engage the healthcare system – from what you eat to what hobbies you take up.
The recommended ban on cell phones was based entirely on scientific data, and certainly cannot be assailed from that aspect. The case that reportedly prompted the NTSB to take up this issue was that of the Missouri man who apparently caused a fatal accident whilst texting. We cannot ask the perpetrator himself about it, since he died in the accident, but all the news reports say that he had sent 11 text messages in the 10 minutes prior to the accident. That, to the uninformed, is an actual statistic. Evidence like that certainly constitutes all the justification the Feds could ever be expected to provide for a ban on all cell-phone usage, both texting and talking, both hand-held and hands-free.
Some, of course, have questioned the recommendation that even hands-free cell phones should be banned. If you are among these sadly uninformed individuals, DrRich points you to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette addressing this very issue, in which Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist Marcel Just explains, “listening to someone on the other end of the phone reduces the brain activity associated with driving by more than one-third.”
So there you go. The message from neuroscience is clear. Just the act of listening to a conversation while you are behind the wheel increases your risk by 33%. And unlike Conservatives (who always seem to fight against the logical application of scientific fact for reasons of practicality, ethics, tradition, religion or out-and-out denial), the Progressives on the NTSB simply followed the science. Cell phones should be banned, whether hand-held or hands-free.
Indeed, one can argue that the NTSB was too timid with their recommendations. Obviously, this 33% increase in risk will not depend on whether the conversation you are listening to is being piped through your car speakers by some sort of Bluetooth arrangement, or whether it is being generated by the person in the passenger’s seat. Listening, after all, is listening. And settled science says: no listening while driving.
Earlier today DrRich and his beloved spouse of some 37 years, Mrs. DrRich, were driving somewhere for some purpose or another that was none of DrRich’s doing, and he decided to test out this proposition. So when she started in with her deadly habit of talking to him while he was driving, thus attempting to engage him in a potentially fatal listening process, DrRich politely invited her to immediate silence for the duration of the trip, admonishing, “Don’t be such a menace to our society! You’ll have the FBI upon us in minutes!” This tactic worked out so well that not only did she remain silent for the entire trip, but has maintained that silence to this very moment, and seems to be willing to continue it for quite some time. At least we were not killed in a traffic accident.
Undoubtedly the NTSB will be greatly disappointed, a few years from now, when they re-do their statistics and find out that a lot of people are still dying in automobile accidents despite the ban on cell phones. DrRich knows this because he can remember way back to the day when there were no cell phones, and can recall that our highways were every bit the charnel house they are today. Presumably, this is at least partially because conversations took place in automobiles even before cell phones were invented.
But fear not, for there will be plenty of other things for the Feds to ban to make our highways safer. For instance, if listening to a simple conversation while driving is a deadly act, then surely one must ban listening to talk shows, which just get everybody mad anyway. It must also be true that radios themselves, and MP3 players, and all in-car entertainment systems ought to go, for just think how very distracting it all is. And children. They definitely ought to ban children from ever riding in cars.
You see, dear reader, as scientifically pure and as well meaning as our Central Authority is, and however much we may sympathize with their intent, the government is going about this all wrong. If the Feds want to limit the healthcare expenses they are shelling out for people injured in traffic accidents, the best way to do this will not be to try to come up with regulations to prevent drivers from being distracted. Drivers will always be distracted, even if you strip the cockpit of automobiles down to a steering wheel, accelerator and brakes. They will be distracted by a hangnail, or by a song coursing through their heads, or by rehearsing an apology to (say) an angry spouse, or by something they see out the window. Regulating away all driving distractions is impossible.
Once again, the Progressives’ program for societal perfection smacks up against human nature. Getting the great unwashed to always act for the good of the collective – to put aside their propensity to become distracted while driving, say, or to stop trying to accumulate personal wealth - quickly becomes an extremely frustrating endeavor for Progressives leaders, and it is what invariably seems to lead them to purges and pogroms, or at least to sundry exercises in eugenics. In the case of regulating distracted driving for the benefit of the collective, Progressives might as well take a lesson from history and just cut right to the chase.
For if the Feds really want to save all that money they’re now spending patching up survivors of automobile accidents, there’s a way that is guaranteed to work, and it’s not that far removed from where Progressives always seem to wind up anyway:
1) Remove seat belts and airbags from all cars.
2) Eliminate the speed limit on US highways.
3) Make sure tethered cell phones are installed as standard equipment in all cars.
4) Several times each day, announce over the radio a contest in which the Federal government will award $5,000, tax free, to the next 100 callers.
5) Use a different call-in number each time, to require manual dialing.
There will be few survivors.
Call it self-selected eugenics. And since Obamacare does not offer to pay for funerals, it will all be good.
This past summer, DrRich wrote a post on the utter arrogance of the public health experts who are urging the FDA – and international bodies of busybodies – to mandate a policy of strict sodium restriction across the globe.
DrRich attempted to show how such a broad-based salt restriction at this juncture is ill-advised for three reasons. First, the conclusion that a population-wide salt restriction would actually do any good is not based on any actual prospective studies, but on a contrived extrapolation of observational data. Second, there is some evidence that a salt restriction would be harmful to at least a substantial minority of people, even if the overall effect on the population turns out to be positive. And third, there is good reason to believe that the degree of sodium restriction which is being recommended by the public health experts is below the level which is dictated by human physiology.
Perhaps salt restriction for the entire population will turn out to be a good idea. But perhaps not. So in his previous post, DrRich was advocating a prospective, randomized controlled trial to test this proposition before just going ahead and inflicting it upon hundreds of millions of Americans.
And now, as it happens, in recent weeks new studies have been published which question the safety of salt restriction for the whole population. In fact, five studies have been published just this year suggesting that salt restriction might be unsafe.
The latest, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that when you compare cardiovascular events (such as heart attack and stroke) to sodium intake, the incidence of those events follows a “J” curve. That is, cardiovascular events are lowest at an “optimal” level of sodium intake. But if sodium intake goes above that optimal level – or if it goes below it – the incidence of cardiovascular events increases.
According to this study, the “optimal” level of daily sodium intake is 4000 – 5999 mg of sodium per day. Cardiac outcomes worsen for those with sodium intakes above or below those values.
And, of course, the public health experts are recommending sodium intakes far below the 4000 mg threshold. They recommend (and urge world governments to enforce) sodium restrictions of 1500 mg per day for the people they consider to be at high risk (which amounts to about half of us), and restrictions of 2300 mg per day for the rest of us.
This kind of restriction would place everyone on an unenviable portion of the J curve, according to this new study, and would risk exposing all of us to an excess of cardiovascular disease.
The public health experts, of course, will not take this slander lying down, and accordingly have been quick to respond. Interestingly, their response sounds a lot like the response of the global warming experts whenever someone has the audacity to introduce new evidence that questions some of their conclusions.
Heartwire quotes Dr Graham MacGregor of London’s Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine (and a major sodium restriction guru) as saying, “[These new studies] are a minor irritation that causes us a bit of aggravation, and we have to talk to journalists about it, because they are not interested in news saying salt is dangerous.” MacGregor insists that the need for global sodium restriction (like global warming) is a settled issue. “What [these irritating investigators] fail to understand is that the FDA is not asking for evidence about why salt should be reduced, they are asking how it should be reduced.” So apparently, new data need not apply. It is neither being sought, nor will it be accepted.
Other experts have pointed out that these new studies urging caution on restricting salt were not the kind of prospective, randomized controlled trials that are so valued in medicine, so their results should not be taken too seriously.
DrRich might be more inclined to agree with this admonition if the studies that suggest we ought to employ severe, widespread salt restrictions were randomized, controlled trials. But they, also, are not.
What we have is two sets of very confusing observational data that can be interpreted to say different things. It may be true that a severe population-wide salt restriction would be a huge boon to mankind. But it may also be true that it would harm more people than it would help – or that it would harm and help about the same number, so the overall results would be the same.
The fact is, we just don’t know.
We have already seen the harm that can be done when we allow public health experts to launch major population-wide dietary changes, without adequately studying what their effects will be. Especially given the increasing evidence of the harms that might be done by it, we are nuts if we allow the arrogant expert class to enforce a salt restriction program on all of us, before we adequately study its likely results.
Of course, the whole thrust of our new healthcare system is to allow the experts to practice medicine on the whole population. So urging caution or even a certain amount of circumspection on this newly-empowered expert class is destined to be a futile exercise.
Q. What is the difference between a public health expert and Il Duce?
A. Mussolini was not nearly as arrogant as a public health expert.
In prior posts, DrRich related how two major publc health efforts over the past few decades – the effort to put all of us on low-fat diets, and the effort to reduce everyone’s cholesterol levels – have amounted to massive experiments, based upon insufficiently-tested assumptions and surmises and hypotheses which the experts arrogantly (and incorrectly) determined to be fact, and which were conducted upon the entire American population without its knowledge or consent.
These public health experiments cost billions of dollars, needlessly transformed large swatches of American industry, and (at least in the case of low-fat diets) likely produced significant harm to the citizenry. Furthermore, despite such results, these misbegotten public health efforts have inured Americans to the notion that it is right and proper for government experts to determine for each of us what we must and must not eat.
DrRich now feels obligated to call his readers’ attention to yet another experiment which these same public health experts have launched, an experiment under which each of us – once again – is to become an unwitting research subject, an experiment whose results are unpredictable, but which has a realistic chance of producing harm to many of us. DrRich speaks, of course, of the new US dietary guidelines, published earlier this year, regarding sodium.
Those new guidelines begin with these established “facts:” Sodium is bad. We all get too much of it. And if we restricted our salt intake to a much lower amount than we are likely getting today, we will all become healthier and live longer. Relying on this received wisdom, the new guidelines call for us to cut back to 2300 mg of sodium per day – unless we are 51 or older, or African-American, or hypertensive (and most Americans fall into one of these three categories), in which case we are to restrict our sodium to 1500 mg per day.
For anyone who strays from eating only fresh fruits and vegetables, this kind of restriction is likely to prove a challenge. A nice bowl of dry cereal, for instance, even before you add milk, may give you up to 1000 mg of sodium.
Some Americans might consider such severe restrictions to be merely a statement of an ideal – a goal that, while laudatory, is entirely unreasonable or impracticable, one which we ought not expect to achieve with any degree of perfection, across a large population, in real life. But DrRich assures his readers that this is not at all how the Feds are viewing the matter.
The Institute of Medicine, for instance, is all over it. The IOM recently published (in conjunction with the new Guidelines) its “Strategies To Reduce Sodium Intake In the US.” Noting that public health experts have tried in vain for decades to get Americans to cut back on salt, the IOM says the time for persuasion by education has passed. The great unwashed are proved to be recalcitrant, yet again, to reason and science. It’s time to take the gloves off. So the IOM calls for the US government (specifically, the FDA) to use its regulatory firepower to enforce – once and for all – the kind of sodium restriction that the public welfare demands.
Specifically, the IOM calls for the FDA to reclassify “salt” from a food ingredient categorized as GRAS (“generally regarded as safe,” i.e., items which have been used for millennia in food preparation without regulatory oversight, such as pepper, parsley, or vinegar, and which are accepted as being harmless), to a “food additive” (i.e., a substance which is certifiably harmful, and for which strict, enforceable rules must be promulgated regarding its use). Re-classifying salt as a food additive will give the FDA the authority it needs to enforce its usage (as with any other regulated substance) in the food processing industry, in restaurants, and even, one must assume, in the home. With this new designation, the FDA (and other government agencies) will be able to deploy whatever regulatory and enforcement muscle they must, in order to assure that the Guidelines for sodium are at last realized.
This is serious stuff. The government at last seems dedicated, as never before, to actually implementing a significant sodium restriction for all of us within the teeming masses. All, of course, for our own good.
You might think, if you have not been paying attention, that in order for the Feds to launch into such a concerted, sustained, and widespread public health effort, the scientific data to support such an action must be pretty airtight. But if you have been paying attention, you will not be surprised to hear that the actual advisability of restricting dietary sodium across the entire population is anything but settled. In fact, it remains very controversial among scientists.*
*DrRich stresses here that this discussion refers only to sodium restriction applied across the population. Sodium restriction for at least some people who already have hypertension – or a few other medical conditions such as heart failure and some types of liver and kidney disease – is well-established as being beneficial.
There are at least three outstanding questions regarding the advisability of a general policy enforcing salt restriction. Until these questions are addressed, the implementation of a generalized and severe sodium restriction across the population seems to DrRich to be quite ill-advised (and, of course, incredibly arrogant).
1) Does Sodium Restriction Really Do Any Good?
DrRich could write several very long posts addressing just this one question. Instead, he will simply summarize the problem.
The question hinges on the relationship of salt intake to blood pressure – that is, does higher salt intake cause the blood pressure to increase? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer with any scientific precision. The studies are difficult to conduct, and difficult to interpret. Accurately measuring sodium intake in any sizeable population of patients is nearly impossible; and even measuring blood pressure (which varies tremendously from minute to minute, depending on activity, stress, and many other factors) in a reproducible way within a population of patients is difficult.
Scores of studies have been conducted to try to address this question. And one can assemble from these studies a large group which will show that salt intake correlates nicely with blood pressure. On the other hand, one can also assemble from these studies a large group that shows it does not. And for decades, the salt vs. blood pressure question has been divided into two camps, each of which have major conflicts of interest*, and which cite only those studies which tend to support their point of view.
* In one camp are the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National High Blood Pressure Education Program, the Institute of Medicine, and academic experts on hypertension whose careers have been based on funding from these organizations, and whose reputations and academic standing rely on sodium intake being a major determinant of blood pressure and health. In the other camp are the Salt Institute, the big manufacturers of processed foods, and sundry academic experts on hypertension whose careers have enjoyed funding from these sources. Take your pick.
To see just how deeply politics is involved in the salt controversy, DrRich highly recommends this article by Gary Taubes, which appeared several years ago in Science, outlining the machinations that have been employed by the various parties in interpreting some of the complex studies that have attempted to correlate salt intake with blood pressure.
DrRich is convinced that, at the very least, this is not a settled question.
But even if it were a settled question, and sodium intake did indeed correlate nicely with blood pressure across the whole population (which, at a minimum, would be a necessary conclusion in order to legitimately enforce a sodium restriction across the whole population), the degree of blood pressure reduction that even sodium-restriction-enthusiasts predict, even employing very significant salt restrictions, seems trivial – most experts predict an reduction in blood pressure of only 1-2 mmHg. Assertions that public health experts often make to defend their sodium restriction guidelines, to the effect that this kind of tiny reduction in blood pressure on a worldwide basis would save over 100,000 lives per year, is (scientifically speaking) hogwash. Such estimates are calculated from strings of assumptions piled upon assumptions, and have little or no bearing on reality.
The fact is that we just don’t know what effect it would have on the population’s health to significantly restrict salt intake in everybody. We don’t know either the magnitude of blood pressure reduction it would achieve, or the improvement in clinical outcomes that would follow such blood pressure reduction.
We could find out if we really wanted to – by doing a large, randomized clinical trial to test the hypothesis. But the public health experts have determined that such a randomized trial is not necessary (the issue being “settled”), and not desirable (time being of the essence).
They would rather conduct a non-randomized experiment that enrolls every living American as an unwitting research subject. Then, in a couple of decades (reminiscent of the low-fat diet “experiment”), maybe we could figure out how it all worked out.
2) Does Sodium Restriction Cause Harm?
Here is a question that the public health experts, who consider salt restriction to be an unalloyed good, really object to. They tend to get downright nasty when anyone brings it up.
But, as it happens, it is a legitimate question.
Sodium is an extremely critical substance in any living creature. For any living cell to function normally, it must exist in an environment that contains, within a narrow range, just the right concentration of sodium. Consequently, living beings have evolved a complex series of mechanisms to assure an adequate sodium concentration under any and all circumstances. So, if animals are made to survive on a severely sodium-restricted diet, these homeostatic mechanisms are called into play to severely restrict the loss of sodium from the body. Such mechanisms can have many secondary effects.
In states of sodium depletion, tissues are more susceptible to injury from ischemia (lack of oxygen), a condition seen in heart attacks and strokes. Kidney damage caused by many types of medication will occur much more readily in states of sodium depletion. The way the kidneys handle various drugs is also altered when sodium intake is reduced, leading to potentially harmful changes in the blood concentrations of certain medications. The renin-aldosterone system is activated under salt restriction, which can have several adverse effects. (In fact, a major therapy for several medical conditions, such as heart failure and – ironically – hypertension, centers around suppressing the renin-aldosterone system.) Adrenaline levels and LDL cholesterol are increased when sodium is restricted. And at least one study, disturbingly, has correlated sodium restriction with an increase in cardiovascular mortality.
Calling attention to these kinds of findings just makes the sodium-restriction camp angry, and they usually respond by pointing out that so-and-so got a grant from the Salt Institute. (DrRich agrees that there are conflicts of interest, but those conflicts are flagrant on both sides.)
The fact is that the scores of observational trials that have been conducted do not allow anyone to reach a definitive conclusion about the advisability – regarding either its efficacy or its safety – of salt restriction across the population. An objective observer, operating on established scientific principles, would have to say that the only action that makes any sense at this point would be to conduct that large, randomized clinical trial, using actual clinical outcomes as an endpoint. Only such a trial can begin to sort out the discrepancies, and has any chance of allowing us to resolve the differences (by any means other than by fiat).
The public health experts, however, hold the high ground. That is, they control the “opinion” of the various health-related agencies wielded by the Central Authority. And they fail to recognize any discrepancies whatsoever. For them, the issue is settled, and it is past time to sweep aside any opposition, and implement the plan. Proponents of salt restriction have the will and they have the authority, and accordingly they have determined: Just do it.
3) Is It Even Possible To Change Sodium Intake By Public Policy?
Again, maintaining the proper sodium concentration in tissues is critical to life, so living creatures have evolved a complexity of mechanisms to assure that the concentration of sodium remains within the proper range.
Among these, it now appears, is an inherent “sodium appetite” enjoyed by all humans and all animals, an in-born mechanism that holds the body’s sodium content to a certain set-point, and determines how much sodium an individual will ingest each day to keep to that set-point. This set-point is maintained by a complex neural network involving several centers within the central nervous system, as well as inputs from the peripheral tissues. One’s physiology regulates one’s sodium intake to satisfy the body’s needs.
Furthermore, studies of sodium intake across a wide array of human populations, living under a wide variety of conditions and dietary constraints, also show that the range of salt consumption humans take in to achieve their set-point is remarkably universal, and is maintained within a fairly narrow range. That is, not only do humans consume the proper amount of sodium as determined by the body’s needs, but across the diversity of humanity that “automatic” sodium intake is maintained within a remarkably fixed range. (Sodium intake moves within that range to maintain the body’s proper sodium set-point.)
As it happens, the lower limit of that universal, naturally occurring, “optimal” range of sodium intake is roughly 2300 mg/day.
Astoundingly, this natural lower limit, determined by our physiology, is the same as the the upper limit our government would have many Americans consume. And our natural lower limit is far higher than the 1500 mg/day upper limit our government will be enforcing for more than half of us.
In other words, by decree, our government would have every American consume an amount of sodium that is below the optimal range as determined by human physiology. Almost by definition, anyone living under the recommended guidelines would likely be unable to maintain proper sodium concentrations through sodium intake alone, and would need to recruit the secondary, sodium-retaining, potentially-harmful physiological mechanisms (such as the renin-aldosterone system) to keep sodium concentrations at an adequate level.
In any case, it is apparent that even if a universally-applied policy of significant sodium restriction was proved to be safe and effective, it is not at all clear that it is possible to make people comply with such a restriction. This kind of restriction will be fighting our inherent “sodium appetite” regulator that has been forged through millions of years of evolution. This kind of restriction would appear to fly in the face of our human physiology.
We need salt, dear readers, we truly do. The only reason the Founders did not include an additional paragraph in the Second Amendment (to the effect that, “A palatable diet being necessary to the health and well-being of a free People, the right of the People to bear salt shall not be infringed,”) is that it never occurred to them that any government would ever attempt to restrict such an inherent physiological necessity.
Of course, anyone who has observed our government at work – as it attempts to implement policies that require a fundamental change in human nature, or that require the repeal of the basic laws of economics – should not be surprised at the notion that our Progressive leaders would also try to repeal human physiology.
I mean, why the heck not?
Q: What’s the difference between a public health expert and an ax murderer?
A: Actually, there are two differences. The public health expert usually means well. And the public health expert has only metaphorical blood on his hands.
In a prior post DrRich related how public health experts, displaying every ounce of the overblown self-confidence traditionally enjoyed by the expert class operating within our Progressive institutions, have wreaked all manner of harm upon our society with their premature promotion of Low-Fat Diets, an action which, DrRich argued, is at least partly responsible for triggering our current epidemic of obesity (and therefore, according to some respected experts, global warming).
As if causing the rotundity of the American populace (and again, with less certainty, the impending destruction of our planet) was not enough, it is now beginning to appear as if another major public health initiative, an initiative with which we have all been pummeled mercilessly for over two decades, also may be based upon a faulty premise.
DrRich speaks, of course, of the long crusade which the experts have preached, and which we among the faithful have doggedly waged, against cholesterol. While nobody is talking about it, it is beginning to appear (to DrRich, at least) as if the fundamental hypothesis underlying our long war on cholesterol is far less solid than we have been assured.
DrRich is moved to describe his uneasiness with the cholesterol hypothesis at this time because, last week, yet another nail was driven into its coffin.
The Cholesterol Hypothesis
Our war on cholesterol is based on the cholesterol hypothesis, which states that an elevated cholesterol blood level is a major cause of atherosclerosis, and therefore of heart attacks, strokes and peripheral artery disease. The hypothesis goes on to describe two major species of blood cholesterol – LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, which increases cardiovascular risk; and HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol, which reduces cardiovascular risk.
According to the cholesterol hypothesis, the LDL cholesterol molecules deliver excess cholesterol to the lining of the arteries, where it gradually accumulates, leading to the buildup of the plaques that obstruct blood flow. HDL cholesterol represents cholesterol that has been removed from those plaques (so the higher the HDL level, the more cholesterol is being removed)
Therefore, it behooves every American to work assiduously to reduce our LDL cholesterol levels and increase our HDL cholesterol levels.
This, of course, has become more than merely a suggestion or recommendation. Under our new incipient universal healthcare paradigm, in which your suboptimal health habits directly affect the healthcare services which will be available to me, your failure to control your cholesterol and your subsequent utilization of precious healthcare resources amounts to attempted murder, and is therefore a grave crime against humanity.
The cholesterol hypothesis is based upon two observations gleaned from clinical research. First, that high LDL cholesterol levels are significantly associated with the risk of heart attack, &c. (and that high HDL cholesterol levels are associated with reduced risk); and second, that lowering LDL cholesterol levels (or increasing HDL cholesterol levels) with drug therapy lowers that risk.
It was this second observation that “clinched” the cholesterol hypothesis for the public health experts (and most doctors). And this second observation is based virtually entirely on the statin drugs. Until the statin drugs were first developed – drugs that powerfully and reliably reduce cholesterol levels – it had never been convincingly demonstrated that lowering cholesterol levels actually did any good.
And so, according to the cholesterol hypothesis, every American is obligated to work to maintain “healthy” cholesterol levels. In general, we are urged to begin with diet and exercise, and if that does not work (and depending on the level of our cardiovascular risk) we are likely expected to begin on drug therapy.
But DrRich suggests (reluctantly, since by doing so he undoubtedly invites even more personal attacks against his intellect, honesty, personal appearance, parentage, &c.), that the cholesterol hypothesis may not be correct.
Evidence Against the Cholesterol Hypothesis
1) Despite several clinical trials showing that the kinds of lifestyle modifications which are officially recommended for the reduction of cholesterol can in fact reduce LDL cholesterol levels, it has not been shown that such lifestyle-induced cholesterol reductions lead to improved clinical outcomes.
2) Early (pre-statin) cholesterol-lowering trials (using clofibrate, cholestyramine, and gemfibrozil) were unable to demonstrate that an improvement in cardiovascular mortality accompanies a reduction in cholesterol levels, and indeed, each of these studies showed an unexpected increase in non-cardiovascular mortality with the cholesterol-lowering drugs.
3) More recently, studies showed that adding the powerful non-statin cholesterol-lowering drug ezetimibe to a statin drug not only failed to improve outcomes, but also (unexpectedly) may have led to more plaque growth than was seen with the statin alone. (Ezetimibe is marketed as Vytorin in those god-awful commercials comparing your Aunt Helen to a strawberry cheesecake.)
4) Just last week, the NIH prematurely halted a high-profile study (the AIM-HIGH trial) comparing statin to statin + niacin in patients with cardiovascular disease and low HDL levels. (This study was designed to show that increasing HDL levels with niacin would improve outcomes.) The study was stopped 18 months ahead of schedule not only because it was determined to be extremely unlikely that the increase in HDL produced by niacin would improve outcomes, but also because of an unexpected increase in strokes among the patients receiving niacin.
5) Numerous trials using statin drugs have demonstrated that these drugs can reduce cardiovascular events and improve cardiovascular mortality – without an increase in non-cardiovascular mortality – in patients who have known heart disease or who are at increased risk for heart disease. However, the mechanism by which statins provide these benefits may have little or nothing to do with their cholesterol-lowering effects. (Statins have several mechanisms of action under which they can improve cardiovascular outcomes, including stabilizing plaques, improving endothelial function, reducing intravascular blood clotting, and reducing inflammation. Each of these mechanisms can directly and immediately reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke – more directly and immediately, one must concede, than by merely reducing cholesterol levels.) So, for instance, when statins are administered during acute coronary syndromes, their benefits are seen immediately – an effect not explained by the cholesterol hypothesis. Further, the JUPITER trial showed convincingly that statins can improve outcomes even in patients with “normal” cholesterol levels, which is also not explained by the cholesterol hypothesis.
In summary, lowering cholesterol by any method other than statins has not been shown to significantly improve outcomes. And evidence indicates that the chief benefit of statins may be imparted by the drugs’ non-cholesterol-lowering mechanisms.
These observations suggest an alternate hypothesis.
The Bear Shit Hypothesis
If you are walking in the woods and you see bear droppings, your chances of being eaten by a bear are much higher than if there were no bear droppings. But if you take out your (legally registered) firearm and shoot the bear droppings, you have not improved your risk at all.
DrRich maintains that the totality of the data regarding cholesterol, as it exists today, is entirely consistent with the bear droppings hypothesis. That is, elevated cholesterol levels may (and certainly do) indicate a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, but may not themselves be a causative factor.
Indeed, the bear shit hypothesis can explain the facts as we know them much better than the traditional cholesterol hypothesis. The bear droppings hypothesis can explain why treating cholesterol with any of several methods (aside from statins) fails to improve risk. (While cholesterol is associated with atherosclerosis, it may not be a critical cause of atherosclerosis.) Since discharging one’s firearm at bear droppings might awaken a sleeping bear, the bear droppings theory is also consistent with the fact that reducing cholesterol with virtually any drug save one of the statins may actually worsen outcomes (by creating sundry “unexpected” medical problems of one variety or another).
That is, unless you are using statins (which have several important therapeutic effects unrelated to reducing cholesterol, and which in high risk patients far outweigh – statistically speaking – any side effects these drugs have), treating cholesterol levels with drugs may turn out to be a bad idea.
The Bear Shit Hypothesis, being merely an hypothesis, may not be correct, either. But it seems to fit the existing clinical evidence at least as well as – and DrRich suggests, better than – the cholesterol hypothesis. And at least DrRich admits his hypothesis may not hold up at the end of the day, and does not insist that all his fellow citizens drop what they are doing and rearrange their entire lives to comport with its implications.
Where Does This Leave Public Health Experts?
For over 20 years, the cholesterol hypothesis has been presented to the public, with all the evangelical fervor employed by the global warming experts, as settled science. There is clearly some muttering going on these days amongst the experts – in their private conclaves – about certain “anomalies” that have appeared in the clinical database over the past decade or so, anomalies which have muddied the nice, clear cholesterol hypothesis they have so forcefully promulgated for so many years. They are desperately trying to explain away these anomalies by subdividing LDL and HDL cholesterol into more and more complex “subspecies” that have “counter-intuitive” behaviors. (This latter effort has the benefit of being so mind-numbingly complex that nobody can follow it – which means that it is difficult to assert with any authority that it’s all folderal.)
In the meantime, because statins are effective at reducing cardiovascular mortality and morbidity, and because statins also (quite possibly as an unrelated side-effect) reduce cholesterol levels, the experts can continue to trumpet their cholesterol hypothesis to an unsuspecting public, with the caveat that statins ought to be the drug therapy which one should try first. They have not yet reached the point where they are willing to say that if statins are not tolerated, one should probably not attempt to reduce cholesterol levels with any of the non-statin drugs (i.e., with drugs that merely reduce cholesterol).
And so, for the second time we see that a massive public health campaign that has been whipped up by the expert class is likely to turn out to be a wrong-headed “experiment,” one which so far has been conducted on the entire population for more than two decades. This time (and in distinction to the low-fat diet “experiment”) it appears that little widespread harm has been done. But this result is fortuitous, and is most likely related to the fact that statin drugs turn out to help prevent the rupture of atherosclerotic plaques by means apparently unrelated to their cholesterol-lowering abilities.
What will the experts do if the cholesterol hypothesis finally is proved to be mistaken? It is easy to predict. They will stick tenaciously to their cholesterol hypothesis until the last possible minute, then if and when they at last find it to be utterly unsupportable, they will simply move on to the next hypothesis as if the old one never existed.
For one thing we know with certainty about the expert class is that they are never chastened. Their low-fat diet dogma simply and smoothly elides into a Mediterranean diet mantra (a diet, as it happens, with plenty of fats). Their demands that “safe” trans fats be substituted for saturated fats in processed foods simply transforms, 10 years later, into indignant demands that the trans fats be removed when it is discovered they are worse than saturated fats. The phrase “global warming” is simply dropped in favor of “climate change” when it is discovered that the planet actually has been cooling since the 1990s. In no case is there an acknowledgement that their prior expert pronouncements have been both arbitrary and wrong, and much less is there ever an apology. Being experts, and thus by definition correct, they never, ever have anything to apologize for. They simply abandon the old dogma as needed, and seamlessly adopt the new one.
For when you’re an expert within our multiplicity of institutions for public improvement, history will always have begun 10 minutes ago.
Q. What’s the difference between a public health expert and an incompetent doctor?
A. An incompetent doctor tends to kill only one person at a time.
The deep recession and jobless “recovery” which we have enjoyed in the U.S. for going on three years now was triggered by the bursting of the housing bubble. The housing bubble was created by lending practices that awarded “subprime” mortgages to people with bad credit ratings, and offered to people with good credit ratings adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) that enticed them to purchase more expensive homes than they could afford.
Traditionally, banks were always reluctant to award mortgages, of any flavor, to people who obviously could not afford them, since doing so would wreck their businesses. The reason the banks began making bad loans in the 1990s is that new government policies, chiefly the Community Reinvestment Act, strongly “encouraged” them to.
The banks, being businesses, reacted logically to the new regulatory climate, to threats by ACORN and other activist groups, and to the escape hatch opened for them by the government which allowed them to turn over their toxic mortgages immediately to Fanny and Freddie. Banks quickly began turning out as many questionable mortgages as they could write, to as many uncreditworthy individuals as they could find.
Fannie and Freddie, in turn, securitized all those bad loans into complex investment instruments, which they released into the general worldwide marketplace. Investors around the world were happy to take these questionable new instruments since Fannie and Freddie, tacitly at least, were backed by the United States government.
And so, when the unqualified homeowners, who never had any prayer of making long-term payments on their mortgages to begin with, proceeded (at the very first and gentlest whiff of a recession) to default on their loans, the whole structure rapidly collapsed, nearly causing a global financial Armageddon.
Thank goodness us U.S taxpayers “volunteered” to clean up the whole mess with our taxes and those of our children and grandchildren.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for causing the mortgage crisis. We can blame all those people agreeing to mortgages they could not afford, the banks pushing mortgage deals on people who clearly did not understand what they were getting into, and Fannie and Freddie infecting the worldwide investment structure with toxic instruments. But the root cause was bad government policy.
Establishing policies that compelled banks to award mortgages to people who could not afford them (in order to advance the noble goal of creating a nation of homeowners) may seem like a compassionate thing to do. But the laws of economics are like the laws of nature. You can’t change them by government fiat. All you can do by fiat is to get people to behave in new and possibly unpredictable ways. And when those irreducible economic laws finally come around to assert themselves, you will be surprised, and likely dismayed, by the result.
As it turns out, setting health policy can have much the same kind of result. If you fail to pay sufficient attention to certain irreducible laws of nature – such as the laws of human behavior, and the laws of human physiology – you may not get the effect you are looking for (or, at least, not the effect you say you are looking for).
And this brings us to the obesity crisis.
Whether or not you agree that obesity is a “crisis” in the U.S., or even that mild to moderate obesity is the medical disaster it’s often painted to be, you’ve got to admit that Americans have gotten substantially fatter over the past few decades. And whether or not our increased corpulence is a grave threat to life and limb, it is creating an opportunity for the government to seize control over our individual freedoms – so it is, in fact, an important phenomenon.
DrRich is not the first to suggest that the public health policies of that very government substantially contributed to our obesity crisis. But as we enter a new era of Progressive healthcare, in which medicine is going to be practiced by policy fiats instead of by individual decision-making, it serves us to remind ourselves just how much the obesity crisis is tied to the great push, instigated by government policies dating back to the 1970s, for everyone to eat low-fat diets.
An association between dietary fats and coronary artery disease was first noted in the 1950s. In 1957, the American Heart Association (AHA) published its first, tentative recommendations for limiting the consumption of saturated fat. The recommendations were specifically aimed only at people who had strong genetic predisposition to heart attacks or strokes, or who already had heart disease. An accompanying editorial by Herbert Pollack, in the August, 1957 issue of Circulation, specifically warned against the widespread application of the recommendation to avoid saturated fat:
“Altering the dietary habits of a large population group is fraught with a great many dangers. Our knowledge of nutrition is not sufficient at this time to anticipate what ultimate results would happen if the public were encouraged to alter radically their basic dietary patterns.”
The AHA’s recommendations regarding saturated fat in the diet received sparse attention for 20 years. Then in 1977 (during arguably the second most Progressive administration in our history), the Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern, nationalized the question of fat avoidance. After holding a series of hearings which tied fat consumption to heart disease, the Committee published the first “Dietary Goals in the United States,” advising all Americans to cut back on fat consumption. With this report, the US government officially supported low-fat diets for everyone. (The public then was judged to be just as stupid as we are judged to be today, so any real effort to distinguish between unhealthy fats and healthy fats was quickly set aside. “Fat is bad” is a message you can sell even to gun-toting Bible-thumpers.)
The anti-fat boulder got a great big push down the hill in 1983, when the Framingham study published a landmark paper tagging obesity as an important risk factor for cardiac disease. Because eating a diet high in fat obviously caused obesity, it seemed self-evident that low-fat diets would prevent heart disease both directly, and indirectly (by preventing obesity).
Accordingly, in 1984 the NIH issued a Consensus Statement entitled “Lowering Blood Cholesterol to Prevent Heart Disease,” which amounted to an all-out attack on dietary fat. Many scientists pointed out that there really was a lack of convincing evidence demonstrating that low-fat diets would be healthful. But the majority, seeing an epidemic of heart disease which must surely be due to fatty diets, outnumbered the reticent ones, and the Consensus Statement was voted into publication. Then, when the AHA abandoned its earlier caution and endorsed this Consensus Statement, the scientific backing for the government’s public policy encouraging low-fat diets for everyone was fully in place.
This action finally ignited the great low-fat diet era. Spurred on by government policy, prestigious medical organizations and others began a campaign of public service announcements and media blitzes. Influential magazines (that is, magazines read by women) began a prolonged onslaught of low-fat diet tips, articles, and human interest stories emphasizing the deadly nature of dietary fat. The food industry, which was at first very skeptical (like the banks when subprime mortgages were initially foisted upon them), finally jumped in with both feet. A massive new product line of low-fat and no-fat snack foods were invented which were just packed with carbohydrates, and often with supposedly “healthy” man-made trans fats. (This major shift in food production has been referred to as the “Snackwell phenomenon.”) The AHA found a lucrative new revenue source officially certifying such low-fat, high-carb products (including Frosted Flakes and Pop-Tarts) as being “Heart Healthy.”
Americans, being filled with the milk of human nature, largely ignored the ubiquitous pleas to abandon their burgers, pizza and tacos in favor of broiled, skinless, sauceless, saltless chicken breasts and broccoli. But they did begin scarfing up the new-age low-fat snack foods in massive quantities, having been assured that, as long as the snacks contained no fat, they could eat as much as they wanted.
There are a few physiological facts about dietary carbohydrates that were largely ignored during the low-fat era. First, the body greedily converts dietary carbohydrates into massive stores of adipose tissue, so indeed you can readily become fat by eating carbs. Second, gorging on the refined carbohydrates found in these new “healthy snacks” causes huge spikes in insulin levels (insulin being a key factor in converting excess carbohydrates to fat). When the insulin levels suddenly drop a couple of hours later, that drop produces insatiable hunger. So, two or three hours after enjoying a fat-free Pop-Tart or a Snackwell cupcake, one is ripping the cubboards open to find another carbohydrate fix. By thus inducing a continuous-snacking mode, the new high-carb snack foods increased overall caloric intake far beyond the calories listed on their labels. Third, diets high in refined carbohydrates increase triglyceride levels, reduce HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol) levels, and in general create lipid profiles that are quite damaging to the arteries.
So, while few people actually stuck to a strict low-fat diet, many, many people became addicted to refined carbohydrates, and as a result became fat.
It has only been in the past five or six years that the low-fat dogma has begun to moderate, largely thanks to the (now mercifully faded) low-carb craze that struck at that time. We now hear somewhat more reasonable advice about good fats and bad fats, and good carbs and bad carbs. But much of the damage has been done, and at least partially because of the major push for low-fat diets, we Americans are fatter and less healthy than we used to be.
By the way, to this day it has never been shown that low-fat diets applied across the population would reduce the incidence of heart disease.
The low-fat diet policy amounted to a massive public health experiment, with the research subjects being us. Our government and our scientific organizations have yet to apologize for subjecting all of us to this travesty. Indeed, like the outcome of the great experiment in subprime mortgages, the outcome of the low-fat experiment is not particularly chastening to our Central Authorities. In fact, it works to their advantage.
To see why, consider the final way in which the obesity crisis is like the mortgage crisis. To prevent another mortgage crisis, our government, in its wisdom, did not promise to avoid promulgating any more counterproductive economic policies that will force businesses and individuals to act in harmful ways. (In fact, government policy continues to coerce lending to unqualified individuals.) Rather, they passed massive new “financial reform” legislation aimed at preventing banks and other financial institutions from behaving logically in response to bad government policies. The cure for bad regulation is more bad regulation. And when the results of its own bad regulations created an opportunity to grab even more control over the marketplace, our government lept at the chance.
Similarly, having (probably inadvertently) made policies that resulted in a fatter, less healthy populace, our government is now poised to take advantage of that opportunity, to turn the purportedly grave danger posed to the nation by the obesity crisis into a mandate for assuming powerful controls over the prerogatives of individual Americans.
And now, having learned that, like bad economic policy, bad public health policy can get them to where they want to go, our Progressive leaders are turning their attention to the next great public health initiative. Far from apologizing to us for the damage they caused with their low-fat experiment, they are plotting the next great experiment in public health which they will perform upon the population.
It appears it will have to do with salt.