Archive for March, 2012

Patrick J. Skerrett

Personalized medicine experiment details diabetes development

The term “personalized medicine” is still something of an abstract idea. In an audacious experiment, Stanford molecular geneticist Michael Snyder gave it a face—his own—and showed what it can do. Snyder and a large team of colleagues first sequenced his DNA, revealing his complete genetic library. Then they analyzed blood samples he gave every few weeks for two years. This was akin to taking a 3-D movie of his inner workings to observe how genes, the molecules that read and decode them (RNA), the proteins they make, and other substances interact during health and illness. The team saw how Snyder’s body responded to a cold at the very beginning of the study. Midway through, they watched as molecular changes wrought by a respiratory infection tipped him into full-blown diabetes.

Martha Herbert, M.D.

New book, The Autism Revolution, offers hope, help for families

For decades, the word “autism” meant an immutable brain disorder, one determined solely by genes and that was only marginally responsive to therapies. Today it is coming to mean something different and more manageable. A growing body of research is dramatically changing the face and future of autism. In The Autism Revolution, a new book from Harvard Health Publications that I wrote with Karen Weintraub, I explain this evolution in autism science and offer strategies for families to help their children right now. One practical finding is that autism is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body condition. Treating digestive and immune system problems can make a profound difference in the family’s life, and even in the autism itself. Another finding is that autism may not necessarily be fixed for life, and that some kids improve with time and treatment.

Julie Silver, M.D.

New book offers help for gambling addiction

For many people, gambling now and then is a bit of fun. For as many as two million Americans, though, gambling is addiction that can be as intense and harmful as an addiction to alcohol or drugs. “Change Your Gambling, Change Your Life,” a new book from Harvard Health Publications, offers a guide for anyone looking to take a self-help approach to recovery from gambling addiction. The book offers a series of self-help tests to evaluate the depth of a person’s gambling problem and analyze its context. It also includes a toolbox of practical strategies and approaches to control the urge to gamble, and advice for avoiding slips and backslides. “Change Your Gambling, Change Your Life” was written by Dr. Howard J. Shaffer, a pioneer in the field of gambling addiction, with co-authors Ryan Martin, PhD, John Kleschinsky, MPH, and Liz Neporent, MA.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Aspirin for cancer prevention: promising, but not proven

A trio of new studies from the University of Oxford suggests that aspirin is worth testing as a simple way to help prevent cancer. But these are preliminary findings, and you shouldn’t start taking an aspirin a day without having a conversion with your doctor. That’s because aspirin has side effects that could offset any possible cancer-fighting benefit, including stomach upset, gastrointestinal bleeding and hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain). The Oxford studies couldn’t determine cause and effect. The only way to tally up the true balance of benefits and risks of aspirin for cancer prevention is with trials specifically designed to do that. Several are underway or in the planning stages. But you can work to prevent cancer right now by avoiding tobacco in all its forms, exercising, and making other healthy changes.

Guest Blogger

Can grief morph into depression?

Grief can look a lot like depression. Both can make people cry, feel down, have trouble sleeping or eating, and may not feel like doing anything or take pleasure in anything. One key difference is that individuals with major depression tend to be isolated and feel disconnected from others, and may shun support and assistance from others. Some people who are grieving find that an antidepressant helps restore sleep and appetite. Others find it inhibits the grieving process. In general, the grieving process should be allowed to naturally run its course unless a person experiences thoughts of suicide, serious weight loss, or is unable to perform daily functions such as getting out of bed or going to work for more than a day here or there.

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.
Robert Shmerling, M.D.

New study won’t end debate on PSA test for prostate cancer

A large study from Europe does little to resolve the controversy over whether men should have a simple blood test to look for hidden prostate cancer. In the study, the number of deaths over the course of the 11-year study were the same in men tested for prostate-specific antigen (PSA) and in men who didn’t have the test. Because prostate cancer usually grows very slowly, detecting it in an older man generally isn’t helpful. Some men live with the side effects of treatment—notably impotence and incontinence—for a cancer that would have had no effect on the length or quality of their lives. This study and others suggest that we rethink the widespread use of PSA testing, especially the yearly screening that is common in the United States.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Study urges moderation in red meat intake

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that a steady diet of red meat increases the odds of dying prematurely. In the study of more than 121,000 men and women, every extra daily serving of unprocessed red meat (steak, hamburger, pork, etc.) increased the risk of dying prematurely by 13%. Processed red meat (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and the like) upped the risk by 20%. In absolute terms, the increase isn’t so scary. Among women, the death rate was 7 per 1,000 women per year among those eating about one serving of red meat a week, and 8.5 per 1,000 women per year among those eating two servings a day. The increased risk from red meat may come from the saturated fat, cholesterol, and iron it delivers. Potentially cancer-causing compounds generated when cooking red meat at high could also contribute. Sodium, particularly in processed foods, may also play a role.

Patrick J. Skerrett
Lloyd Resnick

Exergames: a new step toward fitness?

Active-play videogames, also known as exergames, are a high-tech approach to fitness that could help some people become more active and stay that way. As described in the March 2012 Harvard Heart Letter, exergames offer muscle-strengthening workouts, balance and stretching games, aerobic exercises and dancing, martial arts, and simulated recreational activities such as golf, skiing, and more. Current exergames deliver moderate workouts at best. Some fitness and senior centers now incorporate exergames into their facilities. For a home system, you’ll probably spend about $250 for the basics — console, accessories such as handheld controls or balance board, and software.