Something is still wrong with the model

We’re getting fatter and fatter as a nation and with fatness comes diabetes, hypertension, elevated lipids, strokes, heart attacks and death.  That’s the model.  There’s something wrong with it however, as people in the USA are living longer and longer, and deaths are dropping. The following is one of the first posts I wrote on the blog and it got a lot of play. (I’ll reproduce it here at the end of this post)

What’s happened since?  The following year the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported a one month dip in expectancy to 77 years and 11 months.  Last week the CDC announced that because of a computer programming error the dip didn’t happen.   They also announced new data for the most ‘recent’ year available (2009 not 2010) and life expectancy continues to increase (now 78 years and two months for a child born today).  This is probably not a statistical fluke.  The data is based on death certificates. Why in the world we don’t have data for 2010 yet and why it took 14+ months for the CDC to collate the data for 2009 I leave to your imagination.

The absolute number of deaths  dropped by 36,000.  Now docs misdiagnose a lot of things but death isn’t one of them.  So my guess is that life expectancy is even higher, because the CDC is probably using the numbers the census counts rather than the numbers of people who are actually here (e.g. undocumented immigrants etc. etc.).

As noted earlier, one self serving explanation is that medical care is just getting better and better, and certainly it is, but it is very unevenly distributed, which was one of the points in passing ObamaCare.  More likely, in my opinion, is that obesity just isn’t as bad as its cracked up to be.  This goes against years and years of experience as a practicing physician.  Next time you visit a friend in the hospital, look at what’s lying in the beds — you will find the percentage of really heavy people much higher than the people walking the streets.  How many times have I seen an obese diabetic hypertensive, hyperlipidemic patient improve all 3 (and presumably their risk of premature death) by losing weight.   Yet facts must be faced — we’re not dropping like flies even though we’re getting fatter as a nation.  Any thoughts?


HERE’s the old post

Back in grad school when a theory came up with a wrong prediction, we all clapped hands because it showed us exactly where a new theory was needed, and just how it failed. No casting about for something to work on. A program that crashes intermittently is very hard to fix. Once you’ve found input that consistently makes it crash the job becomes much easier.

The Center for Disease Control released new data for 2007 (based on 90% of all USA death certificiates) showing that mortality rates dropped again (by over 2%) to 760/100,000 population. It’s been dropping for the past 8 years, and viewed longer term is half of what it was 60 years ago. Interestingly death rates from heart disease dropped a staggering 5% and even cancer dropped 2%.

But the populace is fat and getting fatter. This has been going on for 30 years. You can Google NHANES for the gory details, but the following should be enough. [ Science vol. 299 pp. 853 – 855, 856 – 858 ’03 ] The data from a recent NHANES (’99 – ’00) shows that the percentage of obese (as opposed just overweight) increased from 23% in the surveys from ’88 to ’94 to 31%. This is based on the body mass index (BMI). Someone 6′ 1″ would have to weigh 225 pounds to be obese.

We are told to be prepared for an epidemic of diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated blood lipids because of this. Every doc has seen blood sugar drop, blood pressure lowered, lipids come down in people with any/all of the above when they are able to lose a significant amount of weight. These diseases are significant only if they kill people, which they certainly seem to do in my experience. The next time you’re visiting a friend in the hospital, look at what’s lying in the beds. Very likely, many more than 31% of them are obese.

So why are death rates dropping and people living longer? Something must be wrong with the model — it’s pretty hard to quarrel with the data as being inadequate. Certainly the increased incidence of obesity should have produced something by this time (it started 30 years ago).

Well, the self serving answer for the drug developers is that their drugs are better. MDs would like to think it’s due to better care. Possibly. Here’s some detail.

#1: More people are exercising than they used to. How many joggers and walkers did you see on the streets 20, 30 years ago?

#2: Fewer people are smoking. Forget lung cancer (if you can). The big risk for smokers is premature vascular disease. Normally we all have carbon monoxide in our blood (it comes from the breakdown of hemoglobin). [ Brit. Med. J. vol. 296 pp. 78 – 79 ’88 ] Natural carbon monoxide production would lead to a carboxyhemoglobin level of .4 – .7%, but normal levels in nonsmokers in urban areas are 1 – 2%. Cigarette smoke contains 4% carbon monoxide, so smokers have levels of 5 – 6%. This can’t be good for their blood vessels.

#3: Doctors know more than they did. My brother is a very competent internist. He took over the practice of a similarly competent internist after his very untimely many death years ago. Naturally he got all the medical records on the patients. He found letters (now over 25 years old) from the late MD to his patients informing them of their lab results, and assuring them that their cholesterol was just fine at 250 mg%.

#4: The drugs are better. In addition they may be working in ways that we have yet to fathom. Consider the statins — their effect on vascular disease is far greater than their effect on blood lipids (cholesterol, triglyerides) — particularly when compared to other agents that lower blood lipids to the same extent.

Any further thoughts?


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