Archive for June, 2011

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Should smokers be tested for lung cancer?

Routinely checking smokers for early signs of lung cancer hasn’t translated into fewer deaths. New results from the National Lung Screening Trial indicate that yearly low-dose CT scans can reduce the death rate from lung cancer by 20%, which could save up to 30,000 lives a year. Despite the encouraging results, it is too early to recommend that heavy smokers immediately begin getting yearly CT scans for lung cancer. The physical, emotional, and monetary costs of saving these lives with yearly screening would be enormous. Researchers must look carefully at the financial and personal costs to determine who, if anyone, might benefit most from lung cancer screening.

Annmarie Dadoly

Strengthening your core: Right and wrong ways to do lunges, squats, and planks

Your body’s core—the girdle of muscles, bones, and joints that connects your upper and lower body—gives you stability and helps power the moves you make every day. Whether it’s bending to pick up a laundry basket, paddling a kayak, or reaching to pull a vase from the top shelf of a cabinet, a strong and flexible core makes the move more fluid, efficient, and robust. Strong, well-balanced core muscles can also improve your posture and help prevent back injuries. Exercise and fitness programs increasingly focus on the core. Lunges, squats, and planks (a move that looks a bit like a push-up and is often substituted for sit-ups) are key moves in most good core workouts. But it’s important to pay attention to proper form to protect you from injury and help you gain the most benefit from each exercise.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Gaining weight? Beware potatoes—baked, fried, or in chips

Potato chips and potatoes (baked, boiled, and fried) were the foods most responsible for weight gained gradually over four-year periods among 120,000 healthy women and men in long-term studies. Other key contributors included sugar-sweetened beverages and red and processed meats. On the flip side, yogurt, nuts, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables were linked to weight loss or maintenance. Potatoes may be a “perfect food” for lean people who exercise a lot or who do regular manual labor. But for the rest of us, it might be safer for the waistline to view potatoes as a starch—and a fattening one at that—not as a vegetable.

Patrick J. Skerrett

FDA hopes to apply new sunscreen rules

After two decades of dithering, the FDA has announced its proposed new rules for sunscreens. Under the rules, sunscreen makers would be expected to test products for their ability to screen out ultraviolet B rays (UVB), which are largely responsible for sunburn) and ultraviolet A rays (UVA), which contribute to premature aging of the skin, wrinkles, and the development of skin cancer. Products that protect against both UVA and UVB will be labeled “Broad Spectrum.” The FDA is also proposing an upper limit of 50 for the sun protection factor (SPF) and wants to get rid of claims that a sunscreen is waterproof, sweatproof, or a “sunblock.”

Ann MacDonald

Some “natural” therapies may be safe, effective for mental health

A symposium on complementary and alternative medicine put on by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mood and Anxiety Disorders Institute indicates that a handful of so-called natural supplements may be worth trying against depression and other mood disorders. The symposium focused on several for which there is good evidence. These include omega-3 fats, St. John’s wort, maca root, and valerian. Just because these remedies come from plants and animals doesn’t automatically mean they are safe. Herbal remedies have unwanted side effects and can interact with medications just like antidepressants and other drugs do. Talk with your doctor before trying any alternative approach, especially if you take any medications.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Taking part in a clinical trial advances knowledge, medical care

More than 18,000 clinical trials are underway right now in the United States, covering nearly every aspect of health and disease. Harvard Heart Letter editor P.J. Skerrett describes his experience as a volunteer in a clinical trial called TINSAL-T2D at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.

Kay Cahill Allison

Taking the pain out of runner’s knee

Patellofemoral pain syndrome, also known as runner’s knee, makes it painful to walk up and down stairs, get out of the car, and, of course, run. It happens when the kneecap doesn’t run smoothly up and down its track—a groove called the trochlea. Although anyone can get patellofemoral pain syndrome, it is more common in women than men—especially in mid-life women who’ve been running for many years. Strengthening the quadriceps (thigh) muscles and stretching the iliotibial band, connective tissue that runs from the knee to the hip, can help, as can cutting back on exercises or movements that put repetitive force on the knees.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Crumbling, confusing Food Pyramid replaced by a Plate

With much fanfare, the USDA launched MyPlate, a replacement for the outdated and much-maligned Food Pyramid. The colorful quarters of the plate–green for vegetables, red for fruits, orange for grains, and purple for protein–are aimed at nudging Americans away from meals dominated by meat and starch and towards meals made up mostly of plant-based foods. It offers information on portion sizes and sends the message that a balanced meal should be at least half vegetables and fruits. But it ignores important issues like what are the healthiest choices for grains, protein, and fat. Nor does it counsel Americans to avoid the sugary baked goods, breakfast cereals, and drinks, and the salty processed foods and snacks, that make up a big chunk of the average American’s daily caloric intake. In spite of its shortcomings, MyPlate is better than the old pyramids–may they rest in peace. But whether MyPlate will help stem Americans’ frightful eating habits is anyone’s guess.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Cell phones and brain cancer—tips for reducing even the possibility of risk

The back and forth about whether or not cell phones cause brain cancer is likely to go on for a while. Until the issue gets settled, there are some things that folks who like to reduce their risks (even ones that may never pan out to be substantial risks) can do to minimize the amount of energy their cell phone wafts into their heads. These include holding your phone an inch away from your ear, using a Bluetooth or wired headset, using the phone’s speakerphone feature, and choosing a phone that transmits at a lower power level.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Cell phones and brain cancer—the evidence doesn’t ring any bells

An expert panel assembled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) met last week to assess what, if any, cancer threat cell phones pose to the 5 billion or so people who use them. After reviewing hundreds of studies, the IARC panel concluded that cell phone use may be connected to two types of brain cancer, glioma and acoustic neuroma. But the evidence on which the panel based its conclusion is weak or, as the IARC called it, “limited.” The move puts cell phones in the IARC’s Group 2B category of cancer-causing agents. Things in Group 2B are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Other denizens of this group include coffee, pickled vegetables, bracken ferns, and talcum powder. Harvard Health editor P.J. Skerrett is more worried being rammed by someone talking on his or her cell phone while driving than about getting brain cancer from a phone. For more cautious souls, the FDA offers suggestions for reducing your exposure to energy from a cell phone.