Archive for October, 2011

Peter Wehrwein

Yoga can help ease low back pain

Two new studies, one from the United Kingdom and one from Seattle, show that people with lower back pain may get some relief by regularly doing yoga. In the British study, yoga classes were more effective than standard care at improving “back function,” meaning it reduced back-related problems that interfered with everyday activities like walking, standing, climbing stairs, and so on. In the Seattle study, yoga was just as good as special stretching classes designed for people with low back pain. In the real world, it’s probably easier to find a yoga class than a stretching class designed specifically for low back pain. While yoga is generally safe, if you want to use it to treat something like low back pain, talk it over with your doctor first—in both studies, yoga made back pain worse for a small percentage of people.

Patrick J. Skerrett

A conversation with Dr. Jerry Avorn about drugs and the drug industry

The new fields of pharmacoepidemiology and pharmacoeconomics aim to understand how people use medications and how effective—or ineffective—medications are. A leader in this area is Dr. Jerry Avorn, chief of the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. In a recent issue of the Harvard Health Letter, editor Peter Wehrwein spoke with Avorn about generic drugs, the pharmaceutical industry, the high cost of cancer drugs, and more.

Patrick J. Skerrett

CDC panel says boys should get HPV vaccine, too

For the past five years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that all girls and young women be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus that is a key cause of cervical cancer. Members of a CDC advisory panel have now voted unanimously that boys and young men should also get the vaccine. Vaccinating boys and young men against the virus will help prevent its transmission to women, and will also help prevent some of the 7,000 HPV-related cancers that occur in men each year, including cancers of the penis, anus, head, neck, and throat. HPV also causes genital warts in both men and women. The vaccine works best when a child gets it before he or she becomes sexually active.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Taking blood pressure pills at bedtime may prevent more heart attacks, strokes

In most people, blood pressure begins to rise just before getting out of bed in the morning, and reaches its peak around mid-day. It falls during sleep, reaching its lowest point of day between midnight and 3:00 or 4:00 am. This drop is sometimes called “dipping.” But people with high blood pressure often have little or no decrease in their blood pressure at night. One possible reason for this is blood pressure medicines taken around breakfast time have worn off. That oft-quoted passage doesn’t A new study suggests that taking blood pressure drugs at night might improve blood pressure and prevent more heart attacks and strokes than taking the same medications during the day.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Erectile dysfunction often a warning sign of heart disease

For many men, trouble getting or keeping an erection, formally known as erectile dysfunction, is often an early warning sign of heart disease or other circulatory problems. Atherosclerosis, the same disease process that clogs coronary arteries with cholesterol-filled plaque, does the same thing to the arteries that supply blood to the penis. Since an erection depends on extra blood flow to the penis, any obstructions can prevent an erection from occurring. According to Erectile Dysfunction, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, blood vessel problems are the leading cause of erectile dysfunction and serve as an early warning sign of trouble in the heart or elsewhere in the circulatory system. Simple lifestyle changes like losing weight, exercising more, or stopping smoking can improve erections, as can Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs, devices, and sex therapy.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Do chronic diseases have their origins in the womb?

Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis and other common chronic diseases are often blamed on genes, pollution, or the wear and tear caused by personal choices like a poor diet, smoking, or too little exercise. An intriguing hypothesis is that these and other conditions stem from a developing baby’s environment, mainly the womb and the placenta. During the first thousand days of development, from conception to age 2, the body’s tissues, organs, and systems are exquisitely sensitive to conditions in their environment during various windows of time. A lack of nutrients or an overabundance of them during these windows, so the thinking goes, programs a child’s development and sets the stage for health or disease.

Peter Wehrwein

Astounding increase in antidepressant use by Americans

Americans are taking antidepressants in astounding numbers. According to a report released yesterday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the rate of antidepressant use in this country among teens and adults (people ages 12 and older) increased by almost 400% from the early 1990s to the mid 2000s. The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. Antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in the study period. Antidepressant use was higher in women than men, and in whites than blacks or Hispanics.

Christine Junge

Eat your way to a healthy heart

Your kitchen cabinets—along with your pantry, refrigerator, and grocery list—are probably more important than your medicine cabinet for maintaining or improving your heart’s health. That’s because what you eat influences many of the things that contribute to heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, inflammation, and electrical instability and function of the heart. The foods you choose can make these factors better, or worse. Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart, a newly revised Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publications, details a heart-healthy eating plan that you can follow for the rest of your life—while still enjoying the foods you eat. Some of the best choices include fish, vegetables, and whole grains. Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart also includes 39 recipes of healthy, delicious, and easy-to-make foods.

Lloyd Resnick

A once (and future) meditator tries the relaxation response for stress

Thirty-five years ago, Dr. Herbert Benson defined and tested the relaxation response. This simple method for quieting brain activity slows the body’s processes and induces a feeling of well-being. Both have measurably positive effects on disorders caused by stress or made worse by it, including high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and many digestive disorders. In a recent lecture at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Benson described the technique and talked a crowd through it. Inducing the relaxation response is simple: Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Relax your muscles and silently repeat a word, phrase, sound, or short prayer of your choosing over and over. When stray thoughts interfere (as they will), let them come and go and return to your word, phrase, or sound. Doing this daily can help ease stress.

Ann MacDonald

New prostate cancer screening recommendation generates controversy and confusion

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is expected soon to release an updated statement on PSA (prostate-specific antigen) testing for men, recommending for the first time that healthy men avoid getting regular PSA tests. This is big news, as the PSA test is one of the most common prostate cancer screening tests around.