Posts by Nancy Ferrari
According to conventional medical wisdom, menopause-related hot flashes fade away after six to 24 months. Not so, says a new study of women going through menopause. Hot flashes and related night sweats last, on average, for about seven years and may go on for 11 years or more. The new estimates of the duration of these symptoms come from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), a long-term study of women of different races and ethnicities who are in the menopausal transition. The “reality check” the SWAN study provides on hot flashes should encourage women to talk with a doctor about treatment options. These range from estrogen-based hormone therapy to other medications and self-help measures.
Getting to a healthy weight and staying there isn’t always easy. Many complicated diets offer solutions. A study published in today’s Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that something as simple as aiming to eat more fiber each day can be just as good as a more complicated diet. In a head-to-head study of a simple diet (eat more fiber) and a complex one (eat more fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods, fish, and lean protein but also cut back on salt, sugar, fat, and alcohol), participants lost almost the same amounts of weight on either diet. Both diets led to similar improvements in blood pressure the body’s response to insulin. The results of the study don’t prove that a high-fiber diet is necessarily as good (or better) for health than the AHA diet or the highly in-vogue Mediterranean diet. But it does suggest that one simple step can make a difference and that encouraging healthy behaviors may be more effective than discouraging unhealthy ones.
Each year, only 40% of U.S. adults get vaccinated against the flu, even though the vaccine is available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, workplaces, and other venues. Two common reasons people give for avoiding the flu shot are 1) it will give me the flu and 2) it won’t work. Neither are accurate. The virus in a flu shot or nose spray has been killed or made unable to replicate in the human lung. Because the most common strains of flu virus changes from year to year, experts have to predict a year in advance which ones will predominate. Some years the guesses are good and the vaccines are quite effective. Other years the guesses aren’t so good and the vaccines aren’t as protective as they could be. The flu vaccine may be imperfect, but it’s still worth getting. Who should be vaccinated? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone over the age of 6 months get vaccinated against the flu every year.
Enterovirus D68 is a respiratory infection that has been spreading across the country and making some children quite ill. It is especially problematic for kids with asthma or other respiratory issues. Enterovirus D68 can start out looking like a garden variety cold but lead to serious trouble breathing. What’s a parent to do? The same things he or she would normally do during cold and flu season: hand washing, staying away from people who are sick, regularly cleaning common surfaces like doorknobs, not sharing cups and utensils, and coughing or sneezing into the elbow, not the hands. Those who have children with asthma need to be extra vigilant about their child’s asthma care routine. Most upper respiratory infections are the simple cold. Still, it’s important to stay alert for signs of breathing difficulties.
When back pain strikes, all you want is relief—as quickly as possible. Many folks turn to over-the-counter pain relievers to help take the edge off and keep them moving. Acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin), are common and reasonable choices. Australian researchers tested how well acetaminophen worked for back pain that comes on suddenly (so-called acute back pain). Not much, it turned out. Among people who took acetaminophen as needed or on a three-times-a-day schedule, it took about 17 days for the pain to go away completely. Among those who took a placebo, it took 16 days. Does this mean that you shouldn’t bother to use acetaminophen for back pain? Not necessarily. But it might be worth trying cold, heat, and light physical activity.
Telling the difference between run-of-the-mill sore throat caused by a virus, which doesn’t require medication, from bacteria-caused strep throat, which should be treated with antibiotics, is a tricky thing at any age. Physicians from Harvard Medical School, MIT, and the Skaggs School of Pharmacy in California have come up with a scoring system that could save adults a trip to the doctor for what would most likely turn out to be a garden variety sore throat (it hasn’t been tested in kids yet). It’s based on symptoms, age, and the percentage of people in your area who have tested positive for strep within the last two weeks. If your score is high, then head to your doctor’s office. If it indicates that you are unlikely to have strep, there’s little need for you to rush in for an exam or throat culture. The researchers estimate that use of this kind of score could prevent 230,000 office visits in the United States each year and keep 8,500 men and women from getting antibiotics they don’t need.
The other day I saw a mother hand an iPhone to a young baby in a stroller. I cringed because it made me think of how much time my young kids spend on the iPad and in front of the TV. It’s a dilemma for parents. Is it okay to let your daughter play with your phone so you can get five minutes of quiet in a restaurant, or will that permanently scuttle her attention span? Ann Densmore, Ed.D., an expert in speech and language development and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler, offers some practical advice for parents. “Screen time is here to stay for young children and we can’t stop it,” she told me. “The world is now inescapably online and digital. Even schools are replacing textbooks with iPads and digital texts. So moms and dads really need to figure out what’s right for their families.”
More and more parents are “redshirting” their young ones. That’s the practice of not starting a child in kindergarten until after his or her sixth birthday. Ann Densmore, EdD, an expert in language and social communication skills in children and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler, said parents do this to gain competitive advantages for their children and as a response to the shift in what kindergarten is. You can help prepare your children for kindergarten by ensuring there is adequate facilitated play in preschool. On the community level, talk with teachers, principals, and other parents. Challenge school committees. And realize that starting kindergarten is a new beginning for a child and his or her parents.
I’m a big fan of diet soda. I like the taste, and I love that it doesn’t have any calories. I can drink two or three diet sodas a day and not worry about gaining weight. But a new study has me wondering if enjoying the sweetness of soda without the sugar and calories is such a good thing after all. University of Miami and Columbia University researchers found that daily diet soda drinkers were more likely to have had a stroke or heart attack over the course of a 10-year study, or to have died from vascular disease, as folks who didn’t imbibe diet soda. My husband gently (but persistently) tells me there is nothing good about drinking diet soda, not even the taste I claim to enjoy so much. The evidence seems to be backing him up.
Worrisome shortages of important medications—from drugs to manage the symptoms of ADHD to standard cancer drugs—have been in the headlines lately. A shortage can be frightening to the people who need a hard-to-get medication, and frustrating for the clinicians who prescribe it. Manufacturing and quality control issues are among the primary reasons for drug shortages. The FDA can sometimes help ease a drug shortage. What can you do if you are affected? Ask your doctor if another medication might work for you. Be especially wary of Internet or faxed advertisements for alternatives (often highly priced and sometimes counterfeit).