Feb 012016
 
Human heart and lungs -- the core of the human cardiovascular system

Human heart and lungs — the core of the human cardiovascular system

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States. And it’s growing, largely because the factors that lead to CVD are growing too: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diets based on meat, and physical inactivity. We have data on how CVD risk varies depending on sex, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. But we don’t have strong data on how gay, lesbian, and bisexual peoples risk factors add up to actual CVD risk.

CVD risk is often calculated using data from the Framingham study, a massive multigenerational study started back in 1948. The risk calculators that still come from that study today are some of the most well validated calculators we have. A physician can plug in a few numbers and get a good estimate of your risk of having a cardiovascular-related event over the next few years. The calculators are publicly available, but really do need training to interpret.

Why do I bring up the Framingham study? Because the study I’m examining this week uses those same calculators and other factors to try to estimate the cardiovascular risk of lesbian, gay, and bisexual cisgender people. Let’s take a look at what they did!

This study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. They used data from a whopping 13,427 participants. That’s a lot of people — one of the largest sample sizes covered here on Open Minded Health. The participants were also quite young for a study on heart disease — mostly around 28-29 years old. They looked at social factors like age, ethnicity, educational level, and level of financial stress. They also looked at medical factors, like their diabetes status and hypertension (high blood pressure) status.

The researchers reported sexual orientation on a Kinsey-like 5-point scale, from “heterosexual” to “mostly heterosexual” to “bisexual” to “mostly homosexual” to “homosexual”. I’ll try to stick to that language for clarity. Among the participants, 80% of the women and 93.5% of the men said they were heterosexual. In contrast, .9% of the women and 1.7% of the men said they were homosexual, and 18.7% of women and 4.8% of men were in the middle.

So what about their cardiovascular risk?

The men’s 30 year CVD risk was 17.2%, and the women’s was 9%. What does that mean? It means the men has a 17% chance of having cardiovascular disease in the next 30 years. In other words, a little under 1 in 5 of the men would have CVD by the end of 30 years. By then, they’d be in their late 50’s. Roughly one in five men and one in ten women in the entire study would likely have cardiovascular disease by their late 50’s.

What happens when we look at sexual orientation?

For women: Compared to heterosexual women (9% risk), all other sexual orientations were at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Mostly heterosexual women had the lowest of non-heterosexual women, at 9.8%. Mostly homosexual women had the highest, at 11.8%.

For men: Compared to heterosexual men (17.2% risk), some sexual orientations were at higher risk and some were at lower risk. Mostly heterosexual and completely homosexual men were at lower risk of cardiovascular disease — 16.3% and 16.6% respectively. In contrast, mostly homosexual men had higher risk, at 20.2%!

What factors other than sexual orientation came into play? Risks were lower with more education. Being a college graduate reduced risk from 3% for women to 5% for men. Being of Asian or Hispanic descent was also protective, though not nearly as much. And the factors that increased risk? Being of African descent (up to 1% higher), being older (up to 1.5% higher), and having financial stress (up to 1.2% higher).

Let’s summarize a bunch of those numbers, shall we?

Overall, men are at twice the risk for cardiovascular disease as women. Non-heterosexual women are at higher risk than heterosexual women. Among men, mostly heterosexual and completely homosexual men were at lowest risk and mostly homosexual men were at the highest risk. Among everyone, poorer black people were at higher risks and richer, more educated hispanics and asians were at lower risks.

Why such a difference?

It’s hard to say. The researchers don’t go into detailed statistics to figure it out. I have some thoughts from looking over the data they published though. For women, it looks like part of that increased risk is from smoking — it looks like a higher percentage of non-heterosexual women smoked. On the male side, it looks like diabetes may play a role. But I haven’t run statistics to see if what I think I’m seeing is real or just by chance.

Regardless — this is valuable information which will help public health officials determine where to put their resources.

What can you do with this information? You can work to reduce your own cardiovascular risk! Here are some things to consider doing (depending on what works for you!):

  • Move more, eat less. Most Americans eat too much and don’t move enough, which leads to obesity and cardiovascular disease.
  • Stop smoking. Much easier said than done, but this is one of the best things you can do for your health
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control as best you can. Aim for the lowest HbA1c you can, but under 7% is a great place to be. If you haven’t spoken with a diabetes nurse educator, they can be great allies.
  • If you have hypertension, keep it under control as best you can. Take your medications, and talk with your doctor about them.
  • Get some healthy stress relief. Whether that’s a long hot bath, a fitness class, a long walk/run in the wilderness, or knitting a scarf — find something that helps you relax every day.

Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available!

Jan 092015
 

This is the start of a new series of posts here on Open Minded Health: Quickies! I often run into items in the medical literature that are too short to do a fully post on, but for whatever reason I think it’s worth covering it anyway.

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This week’s quickie is a case report, which was presented as a poster at a medical conference.

7170317810_f25026d624_mA trans woman in her thirties showed up at the emergency room with gastrointestinal problems. She had nausea, pain, and bleeding. No significant medical history was noted in the report, and she was on a normal dose of hormone therapy.

When they took her blood to run some lab tests, the sample appeared “as white and turbid as milk.”

Her lab work revealed a triglyceride level of 30,000 mg/dl. For reference, a normal triglyceride level is less than 150. Above 500 is considered “very high.”

She was immediately transferred to the intensive care unit for treatment. Triglycerides that high can cause inflammation of the pancreas. Thankfully all her pancreatic lab values were normal. After a week of treatment, which managed to get her triglycerides down to 3,000, she was sent home. She was instructed to stop estrogen treatment, take new prescribed triglyceride-lowering medications, and to follow up with her physician.

Why did the hospital physicians recommend that this patient stop her estrogen? Because estrogen treatment is known to increase triglyceride levels. Triglyceride levels that high are extremely rare. A much more mild version can, however, happen to anyone who has high estrogen levels. It can happen to cis women in pregnancy or receiving hormone replacement therapy for menopause. It can also happen to trans women on estrogen treatment.

High triglyceride levels are usually “silent” — there are no symptoms. That’s part of the reason it’s important to see a physician regularly for screening, especially if you’re at higher risk. High triglyceride levels are more likely if you…

  • are overweight
  • don’t exercise
  • eat a high-carbohydrate, high-fat diet
  • have other cardiovascular issues
  • are on certain medications
  • or if it runs in your family

Mild elevations in triglyceride levels may be controllable with diet, exercise, and weight control. If those don’t help, your physician may prescribe medications to lower your triglycerides.

For more information on triglycerides, including what they are, normal levels, and how to control them…check out this article by WebMD or ask your primary care provider.

The case report inspiring this post was “Hypertriglyceridemia up to thirty thousand due to estrogen: Conservative Management” and was published in Critical Care Medicine.

Jun 012011
 

For “older” adults, the IOM uses retirement age (around 60) as their starting age. For this group, there are no well-studied areas of health (beyond HIV/AIDS, which I don’t cover here). I’ve decided to leave the conclusion portion for another post – the last in this series.

  • Depression: Definitely more frequent in LGB elders than heterosexual elders. A very significant mental stress for this group is surviving the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One study of elder gay/bisexual men found that 93% of them had known others who were HIV+ or had died of AIDS. There is no empirical data on rates of depression in elder transgender people, but it’s thought to be high.
  • Suicide/suicidal ideation: Empirical data suggest the rates of suicide are higher in LGB elders. No data on transgender elders.
  • Sexual/reproductive health: This is a rarely studied area. PCOS and its related risks may be an issue in some transgender elders. There is some indication that gay/bisexual men may be at the same risk as heterosexual men for prostate cancer. Early research implies that “lesbian bed death” may be a real phenomenon, but it’s a controversial topic. All cis-gendered women (bisexual, heterosexual, or lesbian) appear to have the same rate of hysterectomies. Sexual violence was reported on for transgender elders and it appears to be high. One study found about half of transgender elders had experienced “unwanted touch” in the past fifteen years.
  • Cancers: There are no data on cancers and transgender elders. Elder gay/bisexual men are at a higher risk of developing anal cancer (which is linked to receiving anal sex and HPV). Non-heterosexual women also appear to be at a higher risk for reproductive cancers (due to risk factors like smoking and obesity).
  • Cardiovascular health: Data appear to be conflicted. Transwomen using estrogen may be at a higher risk for venous thromboembolism (this may be because of the specific forms of estrogen used). There’s an association between transgender people getting their hormones from someone other than a doctor and poor health outcomes (e.g., osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease). The relevant transition hormones may cause long-term health problems at high doses, but no studies have really looked at this.

Risk factors include those for the younger age groups. Ageism within the LGBT communities may be an additional challenge for LGBT elders. Elders may also feel they need to hide their orientation if they move into a retirement home. Some retirement homes may also be discriminatory.  Transgender elders especially face very high threats of violence.

Some studies have found that elders felt more prepared for the aging process by being LGBT. Why? They’d already overcome huge difficulties. They’d already done a lot of personal growth. LGBT people are also more likely to have education beyond high school, and education is a well-known protective factor for the negative effects of aging. Conversely, some LGBT elders reported fewer relationship and social opportunities, being afraid of double discrimination, and problems with health care providers.

As for elder interactions with the health care system, again there’s a lot in common with younger age groups. One out of four transgender elders report being denied health care solely because they were transgender. Elders in general face problems if they need to enter assisted living homes, as some homes are discriminatory. It’s also worth noting that LGBT elder social structure is different from heterosexual social structure. LGBT elders rely much more on close friends than relatives (and/or adult children). Their chosen families are less likely to be recognized by the medical community, especially without legal paperwork.

So that’s it for what I’ll summarize from the report. Thanks for sticking around for it… this is hefty stuff.

May 262011
 

Welcome back! This part of the IOM report covers adults aged 20 to 60. There are more data available for adults than adolescents, so this part’s broken up a bit different from the last. As a reminder: GLBT (or LGBT – same meaning, different order) stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. I frequently do use GLB separate from T. That is intentional, not a typo. Also, the full report is available here – you can read it online for free.

The best studied aspects of health:

  • Mood/anxiety disorders: There are conflicting data here, but the consensus so far is that GLB people have higher rates of these problems. There’s almost no research on transgender people, but one preliminary study found that around half of transgender people have depression. Yikes!
  • Suicide/Suicidal ideation: LGBT people as a whole appear to be at higher risk. Bisexuals and transgender people appear to be at an even higher risk. Risk also seems to vary by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and how far out of the closet a person is.
  • Cancer: Gay and bisexual men are definitely at a higher risk for anal cancer than heterosexual men. This risk is linked to having anal HPV, which can be spread by anal sex.

Somewhat studied:

  • Eating disorders: May be more common for GLB people than heterosexuals, but we’re not sure. No data on transgender people.
  • Sexual: Gay/bisexual men don’t appear to be at an elevated risk for erectile dysfunction. Transgender people who have had sexual reassignment surgery may be at a higher risk for sexual difficulties…not entirely surprising given the potential for nerve damage from any surgery.
  • Cancer and obesity: Lesbian/bisexual women may be at a higher risk for breast cancer than heterosexual women.
  • Hormone replacement therapy -may- affect cardiovascular health, but it’s unknown.

Essentially not studied: Reproductive health (including the effects of hormone therapy on fertility for transpeople), cancer (especially in transgender patients), and cardiovascular health

Risk factors:

  • Stigma/Discrimination/Victimization: As we all know, LGBT people face these problems all the time.  Stigma is strongly associated with psychological distress. Bisexuals have reported facing discrimination from both the straight and gay communities. One study of transgender people found that 56% had faced verbal harassment, 37% had faced employment discrimination, 19% had faced physical violence.
  • Violence: LGBT people are at an elevated risk for suffering violence. LGBT people do experience intimate partner violence, but the statistics and relative risk are unknown.
  • Substance Use: LGBT people may be more likely to use substances, especially tobacco (read my previous post on this).
  • Childhood abuse: LGB may have higher rates of childhood abuse.

Potential protective factors (LGB): supportive environments, marriage, positive LGB identity, good surgical/hormonal outcomes (T)

As for access/quality of health care? Er…it’s complicated. GLB people get less regular screening (like pap smears and basic physical exams) than heterosexuals and use the emergency room more often. Two biggest obstacles to getting good health care?: problems with the health care providers. This could be perceived discrimination (thinking that someone is acting in a discriminatory way, whether that person is or not), or simply lack of knowledge on the part of the provider. One study found only 20% of physicians had received education about LGBT health issues. That’s only  one in five! I will note that this is improving – medical schools, depending on the school and its location, are starting to teach LGBT cultural competency more than they used to.

Lack of insurance is another barrier, and it especially affects transgender people. The services they need, like hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery aren’t covered by insurance. In addition, one study found that a third of transgender people had been treated ill by a physician.

Next time: Older Adults and conclusions…