Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dying for D

A lot of you, it seems, have not yet gotten the memo. All this sun-phobia has caused an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. The latest articles I've seen go by implicate low levels of D as a contribution to non-melanoma skin cancers (thought you were ducking that by avoiding the sun, did you?), bacterial vaginitis(!), and depression. Now this from the Archives of Internal Medicine:

Researchers sorted through the mountain of data generated by the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey looking at D levels as compared to the incidence of dropping dead in some 13,000 participants followed from 1988 through 1994.

Those participants with D levels lower than 17.8 ng/ml (and at least half my patients test into this range!) had a 26% increased risk of dying compared to those more D-endowed. The likelihood of being D-ficient was higher in those who were older, female, nonwhite race (darker skin is not as efficient at producing D when exposed to sunshine), diabetic, smokers, overweight, and in those who did not take D supplements. I have found many who rely on the D added to dairy products or calcium supplements and/or the D in multivitamins are also often deficient.

Take D. Take it everyday. Get a little sunshine on your unsunblocked self.
Melamed, ML, et al. 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and the risk of Mortality in the general population. Arch Int Med. 2008; 168(15):1629-1637.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Brain centers in charge of voice recognition

In everday life, we automatically and effortlessly decode speech into language independently of who speaks. Similarly, we recognize a speaker's voice independently of what she or he says.(1)

My first call of this holiday weekend was a real jaw-dropper. The youngish man was most put out; he'd been assured that his prescription was called in and, on arriving at the pharmacy, found that they had no record of it. In language worthy of a drunken sailor, he anonymously expressed his deep unhappiness, and concluded that my staff and I were copulating pieces of excrement but in different words.

Now I certainly appreciate his aggravation--been there (at the pharmacy as a customer) done that (felt my blood pressure rising that the pharmacy staff had no knowledge of any script) myself. As often as not, it's an oversight or delay at the pharmacy, but I do know (as do you my patients) that we also have system failures at the office. That said, this tirade was inappropriate done anywhere but in the privacy of one's own brain or car, and I would like to know the identity of the caller so we can discuss whether or not he should continue as our patient if he even cares to do so.

So now we're on the topic du post: voice recognition. I remember a much more pleasant call nearly two decades ago when my front desk assistant announced I had a personal call on line 6. I didn't recognize the name she gave me (remember--we do admit to system failures) but I instantly knew the voice of my freshman college best buddy whom I'd lost track of for 17 years. Now scientists have identified the bit of gray matter that lights up with delight or dismay at the sound of a familiar voice.

Using functional MRI scanning, researchers from the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Maastricht located an area of the auditory cortex that hums with activity as test subjects decipher the message and the messenger of spoken stimuli. In order to establish the identity of my anonymous caller, I need to find a staff member whose right anterior superior temporal sulcus (this STS is a brain bit located roughly behind and slightly above the right ear) along with the nearby Heschl's gyrus roars with recognition (and righteous indignation) when the message is replayed.

And Mr. No-Impulse-Control, get this, Pat at the front desk has a highly developed STS, and we will smoke you out. And know that a plainly worded message, even one expressing anger appropriately over lost time and effort, would've resulted in a prompt call by me to your pharmacy!
Formisano et al. "Who" is saying "What"? Brain-based decoding of human voice and speech. Science. 7 November 2008, Vol 322, pps. 970-973.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lest you think that I don't observe my own health habits, here's the latest. I've developed a juicy head cold since I got back from South Dakota, so perhaps I got in the line of fire of infected droplets from Mr. Sneeze-in-the-hand who passed not five feet away from me at the Rushmore Memorial. On the plus side, however, I logged well over 4,000 steps* at the office today, leaving the exam room every time I needed to sneeze or cough and then, of course, washing my hands. Unfortunately, I joined the chunky mom and child in the Keystone, SD restaurant by snacking through the day on Milky Way bites (dark chocolate covered!) and chips.

My bro', whom regular readers know as a strict grammarian and my sharpest critic, wrote a limerick in response to my previous post:

A very old guy in Custer
Said it's not beer that loses your luster;
Read your own blog,
Be a stick, not a log,
(And drink coffee to make certain, buster.)

Last week, I received an endoscopy report (complete with color pictures) on one of my patients who underwent the test two days prior to evaluate her upper abdominal pain. She had a mass in her duodenum that looked scary, like something you might see growing on the Great Barrier Reef. The comment section of the report said "Pt. should call the office in 7 days for the report."

Seven days waiting for a biopsy report? Sounds like the week from hell as there's nothing worse, I think, than waiting for test results on a mass found where no mass ought to be. An hour later, the path report came over the FAX--no cancer!! I called her to let her know, although I advised her to call the GI doc to find out what the next step should be. Her response reminded me of a line from Dennis Prager's "Happiness is a Serious Problem":

"...ideally, we should awaken every day and be as happy about our good health as if we had just received the wonderful news that a lump was diagnosed as benign."
*I wear a pedometer every day. I'll refund the co-pay of the first person who shows up in my office for their physical wearing one! People tell me all the time that they don't need exercise as they 'run around all day at the office' or 'park at the end of the lot.' I've often wondered how many steps are involved in said running and parking.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My father was a psychiatrist. When my friends came to visit, they would ask me--half-joking--if he thought they were crazy. I know for a fact that he passed no judgments on our crazy adolescent antics, but I'm here to tell you that the internist in me is always on alert to the health habits of others. Here's several observations from my just-completed trip to South Dakota:

--The young man sneezed mightily into his hand as he walked away from Mt. Rushmore. He looked with distaste at his mucous-slicked hand, then wiped it half-heartedly on his jeans. Remember, this guy (or his cousin) touched that door knob just before you did.

--This fellow (a dead ringer for TweedleDee's silhouette) jockeyed for position at the toaster during the crowded, freebie breakfast service at the Dew Drop Inn in Rapid City. He was reaching for the whole wheat bread when the little serving lady brought in a heaping stack of chocolate muffins. To heck with bread, he nabbed two fresh muffins.

--This chunky young mom walked into the restaurant with her overweight daughter in tow. They placed their orders, and shortly thereafter the waitress brought a plate of onion rings for mom and a platter of fries for the young lady. Hmm, I thought, but oh well, they're on vacation and going for a treat before dinner. Alas, their second course was ice cream parfaits for all.

--A very thin, very old guy sat at the bar in Custer, SD, reading the paper and nursing a beer before dinner. We discovered that he was a World War II veteran, a banker, a cattle rancher, and the jeep tour driver for the lodge. He regaled us with stories from all his various careers.

I'm having whatever he's ordering!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Delusional parasitosis

The ones that crawl in are lean and thin
The ones that crawl out are fat and stout
Your eyes fall in and your teeth fall out
Your brains come tumbling down your snout

No lighthearted matter, these creeping mites, for two of my patients. The first middle-aged lady came in last summer toting a small aquarium full of water. Floating within were numerous diaphanous strands that trembled and tumbled as she heaved the case onto the table.

"Bugs," she declared, "the things that are crawling into my nose and making me crazy."

She was not kidding; she was in tears. She didn't say I think I'm going crazy because I imagine bugs, she said these are bugs.

The second lady came with her brother and sister in tow. He was carrying a crystal wine glass filled with alcohol and covered with saran wrap. Within floated three 'mites' captured as they scurried up someone's arm; I can't remember which one of the sibs caught the little buggers. I carefully poured off the alcohol and managed to snag the tiny particles onto a slide.

"Two clumps of fiber and pile of skin cells," I declared on returning to the exam room. "C'mon back and have a look."

Did they say "Oh my goodness, how foolish we feel now?" Nope, they just shrugged and said "we must've missed them which is amazing as they swarm by the thousands up our arms and legs." Lady #1 didn't go so far as to pin down the species of her infestation, Lady #2 was quite clear the pests were bird mites.

This is not only a psychotic syndrome, but the ability to pass the delusion along to others is a known phenomenon dubbed Shared Psychotic Disorder (SPD) which occurs in as many as 15% of cases of Delusional Parasitosis (DP). Must be a huge delusional exaggeration of the way one starts to itch when someone near by starts to scratch.

Per Wolfgang Trabert(1), when SPD patients are separated from the 'inducer,' a significant number of them undergo a spontaneous remission. Indeed, the brother and sister of this patient pulled back from their personal mitey troubles and had Lady #2 involuntarily admitted for psychiatric evaluation. She emerged slightly less upset due to the use of anti-psychotic meds, but still convinced that her house (that she's abandoned), her car (which she still drives but coats herself before doing so in olive oil as mites don't care for the taste), and her new apartment all continue infested.

Helping Lady #2 try to regain some semblance of a normal life is the hardest thing I've ever attempted in 28 years of practice. Her major source of information is Check it out; is this fact or a web-site run by a bunch of SPD patients?
1. Trabert, W.
Shared Psychotic Disorder in Delusional Parasitosis. Psychopathology 1999;32:30-34.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Heart attacks and low cholesterol

Can you have bragging rights cholesterol and still suffer a heart attack? You bet, read on:

My patient sat relaxed and smiling in the exam room. He was here, per my schedule, for 'follow-up."

"So, what's going on?" I asked.

"Well, haven't you heard?" he asked. "I just had a heart attack a week ago Sunday."

There he sat, tan, comfortable, the only visible sign of less than perfect health in his 61 year old self was a little bit more belly than ideal bulging out at his midriff.

"You're kidding, right?"

"Nope," he replied, "to make a long story short, I had a heart attack while reading the morning paper and drinking my coffee. I started having severe chest pain, told my wife that this was the real deal, and within 78 minutes I was on the table getting a stent placed in my heart"

Gad, this guy has perfect blood pressure (110/72) on a low dose of heart-healthy lisinopril, 'walks some' for exercise which is not enough but more than many people, and has an LDL cholesterol of 80 on no meds. His dad had diabetes and died of coronary artery disease at 73.

The cardiologist found a complete blockage of his left anterior descending artery--the so-called 'widow maker-- on catheterization, which means no blood whatsoever was getting to the front wall of his left ventricle prior to stent placement. An echocardiogram after the procedure showed that only a small part of the apex of his heart was damaged.

When I was in med school, this fellow would've gone straight to bypass surgery followed by a prolonged post-op stay in the CCU. Yet here he was, scarcely a week later, already starting a cardiac rehab exercise program.

Two lessons here: prompt access to modern medicine is grand, and none of us can rest assured in our low cholesterol numbers.