Archive for October, 2015

Challenge your mind and body to sharpen your thinking skills

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Mental and social engagement can help keep your brain sharp and lower the chances of cognitive decline, in part because challenging our brains may help forge new connections between brain cells. The key to taking advantage of the brain’s malleability is to find activities that you truly enjoy and to commit to life-long learning.

Sleeping like a caveman?

Stuart Quan, MD
Stuart Quan, MD, Contributing Editor

Recent news reports of a study of sleep duration in geographically isolated societies in Africa and South America suggest that Americans are actually getting plenty of sleep because members of these tribes spend about the same amount of time asleep each night as people in modern societies. These controversial findings will be debated, but are not relevant to the widespread sleep deficit and associated health consequences in more modern societies.

Is it ADHD—or Autism?

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism can resemble each other. In fact, it can be difficult to tell the two conditions apart, which can lead to delays in the correct diagnosis — and therefore missed opportunities for treatment. If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, ask your pediatrician about testing for autism as well. The earlier a child with autism receives treatment, the better the outcome he or she will have.

The problem with prescription painkillers

Wynne Armand, MD
Wynne Armand, MD, Contributing Editor

Opioids are effective pain relievers. But sometimes people can develop a tolerance to these drugs, requiring increasingly higher doses of medication to achieve the same pain relief. And physical dependence — withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped — is also common. The increased availability of these drugs has put many people at risk for addiction, overdose, and even death.

A checkup for the checkup: Do you really need a yearly physical?

Amy Ship, MD
Amy Ship, MD, Contributing Editor

Many people believe the annual physical is the cornerstone of preventive care and crucial to staying healthy. While it can be comforting to have your doctor check you over once a year, research suggests that a yearly checkup doesn’t actually help people stay healthier or live longer. But a shift away from regular exams doesn’t have to weaken your relationship with your doctor or leave gaps in preventive care. A shift in how primary care doctors take care of patients, and in how patients interact with their physicians, can keep the benefits of the annual checkup intact in other ways.

Why many generic drugs are becoming so expensive

Ameet Sarpatwari, JD, PhD
Ameet Sarpatwari, JD, PhD, Contributing Editor

Generic drugs used to be a reliable lower-cost alternative to many brand-name drugs. But thanks to a combination of market forces, the cost of many generics is rising quickly — and steeply. This trend will increase the burden of health care costs for insurers, governments, and individuals. Find out why this is happening, as well as what you can do to help sidestep these costs and advocate for policies that can stem this tide.

Is it hard to decide about total knee replacement? Totally!

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

If arthritis in your knee means you can’t do everything you want, whether that’s walking the dog or playing a game of tennis, you may be considering a knee replacement. But are the benefits “as advertised”? A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that they may be, but it’s more important to weigh the risks and benefits with your personal preferences in mind.

New mammography guidelines call for starting later and screening less often

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

The age at which women should start having screening mammograms, and how often, has been controversial for some time. Reputable national organizations have differed in their recommendations. Accumulating data suggest that for women under 45, screening mammograms may bring more harm than good. As a result, the American Cancer Society has radically shifted its screening guidelines for women in their early 40s at an average risk for breast cancer.

Experts say no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Many women think an occasional drink during pregnancy poses no harm, but a recent report suggests that no amount of alcohol is safe for the developing fetus. Alcohol affects the development of many organs, most notably the brain. While fetal alcohol syndrome, the most severe form of alcohol-induced damage, is unlikely to result from an occasional drink, researchers are finding that smaller amounts of alcohol can still have a negative effect. For that reason, no alcohol at all is safest when you’re pregnant or plan to conceive. If you’d like help cutting back on alcohol, don’t be embarrassed to talk with your doctor about it—she or he can help.

Stress-busting mind-body medicine reduces need for health care

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Anyone can develop better emotional and psychological resilience through practices such as rhythmic breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or prayer. These practices not only improve mental health but have real physiological benefits. A recent study found that people who completed a program designed to help bolster resilience actually used fewer health care services compared with those who didn’t take the program, although more studies are needed to know whether such programs could help ease the burdens on the health care system.