For the past few years, vitamin D has been gaining a reputation—not entirely earned—as a wonder vitamin that offers protection against some cancers, bone-weakening osteoporosis, heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic conditions. Not so fast, caution two reports in the journal BMJ. One concluded that “highly convincing evidence of a clear role of vitamin D does not exist for any outcome.” The other showed a link between low blood levels of vitamin D and increased risks of dying prematurely from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other causes. But it isn’t clear if low vitamin D causes chronic conditions, or whether chronic conditions cause low vitamin D levels. To play it safe, get the amount of vitamin D recommended by the Institute of Medicine: 600 IU of vitamin D a day for everyone ages 1 to 70 and 800 IU for those 71 and older. Eating foods rich in vitamin D or getting a few minutes of sunshine a day can do the trick.
Howard LeWine, M.D.
Posts by Howard LeWine, M.D.
For anyone who has had a stroke, working to prevent a second one should be Job No. 1. Keeping blood pressure under control is an important part of that job. A study published yesterday in the journal Stroke shows that good blood pressure control after a stroke cuts the chances of having a repeat stroke by more than half. But the study also brought some bad news: less than one-third of stroke survivors in the study managed to get their blood pressure under control. Measuring blood pressure at home is one way to help control blood pressure—seeing that it is high can help you take steps to bring it down. These include lifestyle changes and medications.
Some good news on the cancer front: between 2000 and 2010, rates of colorectal cancer in American adults fell by about one-third. That decline mirrored a sharp rise in colorectal cancer testing during the same period. American Cancer Society researchers found that the drop in colorectal cancer rates was highest among Americans aged 65 years and older. Cases fell 3.6% a year from 2001 to 2008, then dropped even more by 7.2% a year from 2008 to 2010. But the researchers saw a troubling trend in younger adults: an increase in colorectal cancer of 1.1% a year among people under age 50. Rising obesity rates may be to blame. The researchers attribute the decline in colorectal cancer to early testing for the disease. Despite the optimistic findings, colorectal cancer is still a scourge. In the U.S. this year, an estimated 72,000 men and 65,000 women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer; 26,000 men and 24,000 women will die of it.
How bad can a little high blood pressure be? It turns out that it might be worse than we thought. Researchers from Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, examined the results of 19 high-quality studies looking at links between prehypertension and stroke. The studies included more than three-quarters of a million people, whose health and wellbeing was followed for 36 years. Those with “high-range prehypertension” (blood pressure between 130/85 and 139/89) had a 95% higher stroke risk compared to people with healthy blood pressures. Those with “low-range prehypertension” (blood pressure between 120/80 and 129/84) had a 44% higher stroke risk. The size of the study and the length of the followup make the results believable. They don’t mean that we should elevate prehypertension to a disease. But they do signal that we need to take it seriously. The best way to treat prehypertension is with lifestyle changes.
The first-ever guidelines for preventing stroke in women don’t fool around. They offer ways to prevent this disabling and potentially deadly event from adolescence to old age. More than half of the 800,000 Americans who have strokes each year are women. Nearly 4 million American women are living with the aftermath of a stroke. And because women live longer than men, their lifetime risk of having a stroke is higher. Those numbers are why stroke prevention is especially important for women. The guidelines cover the use of oral contraceptives, high blood pressure during pregnancy, the use of hormones after menopause, and migraine with aura. They also cover the fundamentals of stroke prevention, like controlling blood pressure, exercising more, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking.
For some people, like those with an addiction, any amount of alcohol is too much. For others, drinking alcohol is something of a balancing act — a little may be healthful, while more than a little may be harmful. A new report in the journal Neurology highlights the dual effects of alcohol in men. As part of the Whitehall II study in Britain, researchers assessed the drinking habits of middle-aged men and women three times over a 10-year period. The study participants also took a mental skills test three times over the next 10 years. Compared with men who didn’t drink or who drank moderately, mental decline began to appear one to six years earlier in men who averaged more than 2.5 drinks a day. (There weren’t enough heavy drinkers among women to show any clear differences.) How does a person know if he or she is drinking too much? The CAGE and AUDIT tests can help.
A recent article in Parade magazine caught my eye because it has lessons for us all. The article was about Olga Kotelko, a 94-year-old woman, who is a competitive runner and track star. Her age alone is impressive. The fact that she didn’t enter her first Master’s competition until she was 77—an age when many people are hanging up their sneakers—is amazing. The article offers six lessons that anyone can learn from Ms. Kotelko’s daily life. She can be an inspiration for anyone, at any age, who wants to start exercising or to exercise more. You are never too old or too frail to start exercising. Start out with a safe, easy program. Gradually add more and harder exercise. Who knows where you might end—possibly in an event challenging the likes of Olga Kotelko.
When it comes to your “health numbers,” your two blood pressure values are important to know—and keep under control. New guidelines for managing high blood pressure in adults, released this morning in a report in JAMA, aim to help doctors know when to start treating high blood pressure and how best to do it. The new guidelines recommend different treatment targets for individuals age 60 and older and those under age 60. They also offer doctors advice on the best medications to start with to control high blood pressure. Although the new guidelines address an area of controversy—how low should blood pressure go—they don’t change the basics: Know your blood pressure. Consider high blood pressure to be a reading of 140/90 or greater. Lifestyle changes are important. And tailor treatment to your needs.
A longer lifespan can be a double-edged sword. You live for more years, but the later years may not necessarily be what you had in mind. We’ve known for some time that about 25% of older Americans can’t perform some activities of daily living without help. But we don’t know much about the other 75%. A new study suggests that two-thirds of Americans over age 65 need help doing everyday activities such as eating, bathing, and getting in and out of bed or a chair. Things you can do to help ward off becoming frail or disabled include staying active, managing weight and eating a healthy diet, preventing falls, making connections with others, and seeing your doctor(s) regularly.
In many ways, women are different from men. One way in which they are alike is how they “feel” a heart attack: with similar kinds of chest pain. Other heart attack symptoms may differ, but chest pain is pretty standard, according to European study of nearly 2,500 men and women. Few differences in chest pain were seen between the sexes. What’s more, the kind or duration of chest pain didn’t help tell a heart attack from some other problem. The conclusion? A careful medical history, an electrocardiogram, and blood tests are the best way to diagnose a heart attack in men and women. During a heart attack, more than three-quarters of men and women experience chest pain or discomfort. In the run-up to a heart attack, chest pain with exertion is a more common warning sign in men, while women often have other types of symptoms, such as fatigue and disturbed sleep.