Archive for July, 2012

Daniel Pendick

Increase in heart attack risk after joint surgery low but persistent

A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine indicates that the risk of having a heart attack is up to 31 times higher immediately following joint replacement surgery. Those relative risk numbers could be terrifying for someone who needs to have a knee or hip replaced. The absolute risk numbers offer some reassurance. In the six weeks following surgery, one in 200 people in the study who got a new hip and one in 500 who had a knee replaced suffered a heart attack. One new point the study underscored is that the elevated risk may last longer than previously thought. Though earlier research had suggested a danger zone lasting four to five days after joint replacement—coincidentally, the period in which many people are discharged from the hospital—the elevated heart attack risk may persist for two to six weeks.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Trade sports drinks for water

Nicely timed for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has published several articles revealing the “truth about sports drinks.” That truth is this: drink when you are thirsty and don’t waste your money or calories on sports drinks—choose water instead. Before the rise of sports drinks, athletes (and the rest of us) drank water when we exercised or got sweaty. How did we know when to drink, or how much? The way humans have known for eons—thirst. But as the BMJ team describes, sports drink makers spent a lot of money sponsoring less-than-rigorous research damning thirst as a guide to hydration and casting doubt on water as the beverage for staying hydrated. The bottom line is that thirst remains an excellent gauge of hydration, and plain old water is still the best way to replace lost fluid.

Reena Pande, M.D.

Yoga may aid stroke recovery

Thanks to medical advances in detecting and treating stroke, the risk of dying from one is now lower than it used to be. Unfortunately, many stroke survivors are left with a disability. In fact, stroke is the leading cause of serious long-term disability in the United States. A new study from Indianapolis suggests that yoga may benefit some stroke survivors. In this study, 47 stroke survivors were divided into three groups. Some took part in a twice weekly group yoga session for eight weeks, and others received standard follow-up but no yoga. There were several benefits in the yoga group, including improved balance, improved quality of life, reduced fear of falling, and better independence with daily activities. Although small, this study adds to findings from other research that yoga may help stroke survivors in several ways.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

Magnetic stimulation: a new approach to treating depression?

For some people with depression that isn’t alleviated by medication or talk therapy, a relatively new option that uses magnetic fields to stimulate part of the brain may help. Called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), it was approved by the FDA in 2008. Although more and more centers are beginning to use transcranial magnetic stimulation, it still isn’t widely available. Transcranial magnetic stimulation directs a series of strong magnetic pulses into the brain. These pulses create a weak electrical current that can increase or decrease activity in specific parts of the brain. In two large studies, rTMS improved depression in 14% of people who underwent it, compared to 5% who underwent sham, treatment. The cost can range from $6,000 to $10,000, depending on the clinic and how many sessions are needed. Insurance may not cover the cost of treatment.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

New guidelines urge immediate treatment after HIV infection

New guidelines now urge adults who have been infected with HIV to start taking HIV-fighting drugs as soon as possible, ideally within two weeks of being diagnosed with the infection, rather than waiting to see what happens with white blood cell counts. By preventing the virus from multiplying in the body, this strategy can maintain health and slow—or even stop—the progression to AIDS. Equally important, taking anti-HIV drugs early can decrease the odds that a person will spread HIV to someone else as much as 96%. The new guidelines, from the International Antiviral Society—USA Panel, were presented at the 19th International AIDS Conference, now going on in Washington DC. The new guidelines aren’t without their challenges. Patients must be “ready and willing” to stick with drug therapy, which can be complicated. Another hurdle is cost. An effective anti-HIV drug strategy costs more than $1,000 a month.

Stephanie Watson

A sluggish, unsteady walk might signal memory problems

Is there a spring in your step—or a wobble in your walk? The speed and stability of your stride could offer important clues about the state of your brain’s health. According to new research, an unsteady gait is one early warning sign that you might be headed for memory problems down the road. A group of studies reported last week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, Canada, revealed a strong link between walking ability and mental function. What’s behind this connection? Walking is a complex task that requires more than just moving the leg muscles. Walking requires scanning the environment for obstacles and safely navigating around them, all while talking and carrying out various other tasks. The studies found that walking rhythm was related to information processing speed; walking variations and speed were associated with executive function (the mental processes we use to plan and organize); and walking speed became significantly slower as mental decline grew more severe.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Blood pressure goals may need to change with age

Controlling high blood pressure is a good thing—unless you are a frail older person. Then it might be harmful. That’s the surprising finding of a study of more than 2,000 seniors published online in the Archives of Internal Medicine. In the study, high blood pressure was linked to an increased risk of dying only among older adults who were relatively fit. Among those who couldn’t walk 20 feet, those with high blood pressure were less likely to have died. It’s possible that frail older adults benefit from having higher blood pressure. It’s also possible that using multiple medications drive down blood pressure in older, frail adults may do more harm than good.

Holly Strawbridge

Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost?

By offering the taste of sweetness without any calories, artificial sweeteners seem like they could be one answer to effective weight loss. The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have given a cautious nod to the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease. As with everything, there’s more to the artificial sweetener story than their effect on weight. One concern is that people who use artificial sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources, possibly offsetting weight loss or health benefits. It’s also possible that these products change the way we taste food. Research also suggests they may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. In addition, the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners on health have not been fully determined.

Heidi Godman

Don’t gauge exercise benefits on weight loss alone

If you start an exercise program, it only seems fair that you should see your hard work reflected in lower numbers on the scale. If it isn’t, don’t despair—or quit exercising. You are still helping your heart, lungs, and every other part of your body. A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at the effects of exercise and/or weight loss on cardiovascular health among more than 3,000 men and women who were initially overweight. As I write in the July issue of the Harvard Health Letter, those who exercised consistently and lost weight had the biggest reduction in heart attack risk over six years of follow-up. Exercising without losing weight and losing weight without exercising offered smaller benefits. Although exercise and weight don’t always move in the same direction, they are both important for health.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

As cancer death approaches, palliative care may improve quality of life

Although dying is a fact of life, few people want to think about it. One group that must think about dying are people with advanced cancer who are told they have just a few months to live. What helps them end their days as peacefully as possible? A new study from Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that being at home instead of in the hospital, talking with a chaplain or other minister, and spending time in private religious activity helped achieve this. When it’s clear that there’s no stopping cancer, heart failure, or other conditions, palliative care can help create a situation that maintains quality of life and leads to a “good death.”