Without a doubt it would be easy to answer the question: what was the top medical story of 2020? Obviously, it was the pandemic. However, there were some major advances in research that focused on cardiology, nutrition, and plant diets. Without diminishing the importance of COVID-19, here are some that are worth emphasizing that I selected.
1) The Ischemia Study
The most expensive cardiology trial in history was published in April 2020 and showed that in patients with stable ischemic heart disease, even if advanced, a program of optimal medical therapy, a low saturated fat diet, and fitness equaled the outcome of coronary stents or bypass. I wrote about this here and here. It has largely been ignored because if it were actually followed it would cause hospital cardiology and cardiac surgery programs to shrink or close. Ethical patient care, however, must be the guiding principle.
2) Cochrane Database on Dietary Saturated Fats
A debate has been raging in the media on the health or harm of dietary saturated fats like butter, meats, cheeses, and coconut oil. A respected research group commented on this in August 2020 and emphasized the heart advantages of a diet low in saturated fats. I provided many interviews on this topic and wrote posts like this one.
3) Hyperbaric Oxygen and Aging
In October Israeli researchers published a prospective study that a 12 week course of hyperbaric oxygen using a regenerative protocol resulted in longer telomeres and fewer senescent cells, markers of reversing aging. While much work needs to be done, an excitement was felt around the world. I dedicated a podcast episode to this topic.
4) The SWAP-MEAT Study
Scientists at Stanford University compared metabolic markers of eating several Beyond Meat plant burgers daily vs. beef burgers. The findings favored the plant burgers, already shown to have major advantages in their environmental requirements for productions vs. beef. While not considered health foods, the widespread acceptance of these burgers is changing the food industry. I dedicated a podcast episode to this topic.
5) Gout drugs for the heart
Despite many advances, heart patients are still at risk for future events and early death. Old drugs can show promise. Allopurinol, a gout drug, has shown benefits for heart patients. In 2020 the value of another gout drug, colchicine, was studied in the LODOCO2 trial. In a randomized study of over 5,000 subjects with chronic heart disease, a daily low dose of colchicine resulted in a significant drop in heart events. Fortunately, colchicine is inexpensive, generally safe, and widely available.
6) Low-fat vegan diets for insulin resistance
In an elegant 16 week trial, researches at PCRM.org combined with noted Yale Endocrinologist Gerald Shulman, MD and showed that the low-fat vegan diet improved insulin resistance, a major risk for developing heart disease and other ailments including diabetes. A subset of the subjects had advanced metabolic imaging of their tissues and a drop in liver and muscle fat content was demonstrated. The hypothesis that insulin resistance can be reversed with low-fat vegan diets was proven again.
7) Meat intake and cancer risk
There were many studies in 2020 substantiating the risk of meat-based diets for promoting cancer and heart disease. A study of almost a half-million participants related diet and cancer risk. The findings of this UK Biobank study indicated that red meat, and particularly processed red meats like bacon and hot dogs, were associated with a higher cancer risk.
8) Meat intake and heart risk
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed diet and heart disease risk in over 43,000 subjects in the USA followed long term. Their findings indicated that substituting high quality plant foods for red meat might reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
9) Spermidine supplementation and cognition
The devastation of dementia on the quality and quantity of life is enormous. Efforts to halt and reverse cognitive impairment with natural substances is an active field of research. Spermidine is a polyamine derived from wheat germ, tofu, mushrooms and peas and animal studies show promising anti-aging and autophagy inducing effects. In a small human trial, adults with cognitive impairment showed improvements on repeat testing after supplementation with spermidine.