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Thursday, September 5, 2019

What is as an antidote to loneliness

I was called to your room in the middle of an overnight shift. There you were, breathing quickly, neck veins bulging and oxygen levels hovering despite the mask on your face. I placed my stethoscope on your back and listened to the cacophony of air struggling to make its way through your worsening pneumonia.
“We’re going to place a tube down your throat to help you breathe,” I told you.
Your eyes were pleading, scared. “We’ll put you to sleep. It’ll help you breathe more comfortably. Okay?”
You nodded. You had already told the doctors who cared for you during the day that if your breathing worsened, you would agree to intubation to allow more time to treat your pneumonia. So I called for the anesthesiologists. Minutes later, you were sedated and intubated, silenced — maybe forever.
I thought about you recently, when I read a poignant Perspective in JAMA Internal Medicine: “Saving a Death When We Cannot Save a Life in the Intensive Care Unit.” In this piece, critical care doctor Michael Wilson relates the story of a woman in the ICU who was electively intubated for a procedure and then died, without ever having had the opportunity for her loved ones to say goodbye.
Fueled by his feelings of regret over this and similar cases, Wilson argues for a different approach to intubation, which he likens to the talk a parent has with a child who is going off to war. Of course, these parents hope their children will come back safely, but they are given the chance to say what they want to say — knowing the conversation might be their last. Wilson suggests that we might build a similar pause into our protocols before intubation, lest we unwittingly deprive our patients of the opportunity for a final exchange with their loved ones. “Stealing the opportunity for meaningful last words is precisely the kind of avoidable complication that ought to be visible to us in the ICU,” Wilson writes. “My intubation checklist now includes this step.” In doing so, Wilson suggests that we might be able to “save a death” even if we are ultimately unable to save a life.
Reading this piece, I’m left with the image of Wilson’s patients — both the one who never had the chance to say goodbye, and another woman he describes who was given the chance to say “I love you” to her husband — and also of my own patients. It is too easy, in the heat of the moment, to forget that this patient before us is a person. How many times have I decided on intubation, ordered the appropriate medications, prepared for complications, but not taken pause to allow my patient to talk to a loved one?
I only took care of you for the night, as the physician on call. Though I remember your face, I do not remember your name and I don’t know what happened to you. Maybe the breathing tube came out in a day or two, and you were able to talk to your family once again. Or maybe it did not. Maybe your pneumonia worsened and you died, there in our ICU. It has been months since that night, and I can’t know. But I do wish, now, that I had paused and given you that chance.

Well, it seems as though not even a week can go by without more data on aspirin! I recently reviewed the ARRIVE trial and the implications for primary prevention — that is, trying to prevent heart attacks and strokes in otherwise healthy people. Since then, yet another large clinical trial — the ASPREE study — has come out questioning the use of aspirin in primary prevention. Three articles pertaining to this trial were published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, which is an unusual degree of coverage for one trial and highlights its immediate relevance to clinical practice.

Aspirin still strongly indicated for secondary prevention

Nothing about any of the new aspirin data, including ASPREE, pertains to secondary prevention, which refers to use of aspirin in patients with established cardiovascular disease. Examples include a prior heart attack or certain types of stroke, previous stents or bypass surgery, and symptomatic angina or peripheral artery disease. In general, in patients with a history of these conditions, the benefits of aspirin in reducing cardiovascular problems outweigh the risks. Chief among these is a very small risk of bleeding in the brain, and a small risk of life-threatening bleeding from the stomach.

ASPREE study suggests no benefit from aspirin in primary prevention

ASPREE randomized 19,114 healthy people 70 or over (65 or over for African Americans and Hispanics) to receive either 100 milligrams of enteric-coated aspirin or placebo. After an average of almost five years, there was no significant difference in the rate of fatal coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, or hospitalization for heart failure. There was a significant 38% increase in major bleeding with aspirin, though the actual rates were low. The serious bleeding included bleeding into the head, which can lead to death or disability. Again, the actual rates were very low, but they are still a concern when thinking of the millions of patients to whom the ASPREE results apply.
Rates of dementia were also examined, and again, there was no benefit of aspirin. Quite unexpectedly, there was a significantly higher rate of death in the patients taking aspirin. This had not been seen in prior primary prevention trials of aspirin, so this isolated finding needs to be viewed cautiously. Still, with no benefits, increased bleeding, and higher mortality, at least in this population of older healthy people, aspirin should no longer be routinely recommended.
Another unexpected finding in ASPREE was a significantly higher rate of cancer-related death in the people randomized to aspirin. The prior thinking had been that aspirin might actually prevent colon cancer, though generally after many more years of being on aspirin. The ASPREE trial was terminated early due to lack of any apparent benefits. And even though five years is a relatively long period of follow-up, it may not have been long enough to find a benefit on cancer. Thus, the increase in cancer deaths may be a false finding. Nevertheless, the overall picture from this trial is not a compelling one for aspirin use for prevention of either cardiac or cancer deaths.

Should healthy people take a daily aspirin?

In general, the answer seems to be no — at least not without first consulting your physician. Despite being available over the counter and very inexpensive, aspirin can cause serious side effects, including bleeding. This risk goes up with age. So, even though it seems like a trivial decision, if you are healthy with no history of cardiovascular problems, don’t just start taking aspirin on your own.
However, there are likely select healthy patients who have a very high risk of heart attack based on current smoking, family history of premature heart attacks, or very elevated cholesterol with intolerance to statins, for example, who might benefit. Therefore, the decision to start aspirin should involve a detailed discussion with your physician as part of an overall strategy to reduce cardiovascular risk. If you are already taking aspirin for primary prevention, it would be a good idea to meet with your physician and see if you might be better off stopping.

It may not seem possible to be able to write your way to better health. But as a doctor, a public health practitioner, and a poet myself, I know what the scientific data have to say about this: when people write about what’s in their hearts and minds, they feel better and get healthier. And it isn’t just that they’re getting their troubles off their chests.
Writing provides a rewarding means of exploring and expressing feelings. It allows you to make sense of yourself and the world you are experiencing. Having a deeper understanding of how you think and feel — that self-knowledge — provides you with a stronger connection to yourself. It’s that connection that often allows you to move past negative emotions (like guilt and shame) and instead access positive ones (like optimism or empathy), fostering a sense of connection to others in addition to oneself.

Making connections is key

It’s remarkable that the sense of connection to others that one can feel when writing expressively can occur even when people are not engaged directly. Think of being at a movie or concert and experiencing something dramatic or uplifting. Just knowing that everyone else at the theater is sharing an experience can make you feel connected to them, even if you never talk about it. Expressive writing can have the same connecting effect, as you write about things that you recognize others may also be experiencing, even if those experiences differ. And if you share your writing, you can enhance your connection to someone else even more. That benefit is energizing, life-enhancing, and even lifesaving in a world where loneliness — and the ill health it can lead to — has become an epidemic.
Maybe it’s time to pay greater attention to expressive writing as one important way to enhance a sense of connection to others. Social connection is crucial to human development, health, and survival, but current research suggests that social connection is largely ignored as a health determinant. We ignore that relationship at our peril, since emerging medical research indicates that a lack of social connections can have a profound influence on risk for mortality, and is associated with up to a 30% risk for early death — as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation and loneliness can have additional long-term effects on your health including impaired immune function and increased inflammation, promoting arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

How expressive writing battles loneliness

Picking up a pen can be a powerful intervention against loneliness. I am a strong believer in writing as a way for people who are feeling lonely and isolated to define, shape, and exchange their personal stories. Expressive writing, especially when shared, helps foster social connections. It can reduce the burden of loneliness among the many groups who are most at risk, including older adults, caregivers, those with major illnesses, those with disabilities, veterans, young adults, minority communities of all sorts, and immigrants and refugees.
Writing helps us to operate in the past, present, and future all at once. When you put pen to paper you are operating in the present moment, even while your brain is actively making sense of the recalled past, choosing and shaping words and lines. But the brain also is operating in the future, as it pictures a person reading the very words you are actively writing. When expressing themselves in writing, people are actually creating an artifact — a symbol of some of their thoughts and feelings. People often can write what they find difficult to speak, and so they explore deeper truths. This process of expression through the written word can build trust and bonds with others in unthreatening ways, forging a path toward a more aware and connected life.
When people tell their personal stories through writing, whether in letters to friends or family, or in journals for themselves, or in online blog posts, or in conventionally published work, they often discover a means of organizing and understanding their own thoughts and experiences. Writing helps demystify the unknown and reduce fears, especially when we share those written concerns with others.

Write for your health

As a poet, I’ve personally experienced the benefits of expressive writing. The skills it sharpens; the experience of sharing ideas, feelings, and perceptions on a page; the sensations of intellectual stimulus and emotional relief — all are life enhancing. I’d like more people to discover that expressive writing can contribute to well-being, just as exercise and healthful eating do.
I’ve documented some of the research being done in the area of healing and the arts. After reviewing more than 100 studies, we concluded that creative expression improves health by lowering depression and stress while boosting healthy emotions. So pick up a pen, and start to write creatively. For the mind and the body, writing is a strong prescription for good health.

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