Patrick J. Skerrett
Posts by Patrick J. Skerrett
Trans fats, once seen as harmless additives that ended up in everything from Twinkies to French fries, are finally getting the reputation they deserve—bad for health. For years, the FDA has labeled trans fats as “generally recognized as safe.” That term applies to substances added to foods that experts consider safe, and so can be used without testing or approval. Yesterday the FDA proposed removing trans fats from the generally recognized as safe list, a step that would eliminate artificial trans fats from the American food supply. Oils rich in trans fats, long a workhorse of the food industry, boost harmful LDL cholesterol. They also depress protective HDL, which trucks LDL to the liver for disposal; have unhealthy effects on triglycerides; make blood platelets more likely to form artery-blocking clots in the heart, brain, and elsewhere; and feed inflammation, which plays key roles in the development of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
There’s something satisfying about getting immediate feedback about exercise, sleep, and other activities. That’s why more and more people are joining the “quantified-self” movement. It involves formal tracking of health and habits, usually using apps and devices that feed data to them—from heart rate, activity, and sleep monitors to Bluetooth connected scales. But with so many apps and connected devices on the market, it can be hard to decide which ones are worth trying. Wellocracy, a website launched by the Harvard-affiliated Center for Connected Health, aims to give people impartial information about fitness trackers, mobile health apps, and other self-help technologies. It reviews dozens of sleep trackers, wearable activity trackers, mobile running apps, and mobile pedometer apps, lets you compare apps and devices in each category, provides a guide for beginners and offers tips for adding activity “bursts” throughout the day.
Most nosebleeds (the medical term is epistaxis) stop quickly. Some, though, need medical attention. An article posted online yesterday in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery looks at treatment options for serious nosebleeds. The bottom line: Conservative options, like packing the nose with gauze, work just as well as more invasive efforts, have negative fewer side effects, and cost less. It makes sense to treat every nosebleed as if it is one that can be fixed at home. A good, strong pinch in the right place will often do the trick.
Carrying too many pounds is a solid signal of current or future health problems. But not for everyone. Some people who are overweight or obese mange to escape the usual hazards, at least temporarily. This weight subgroup has even earned its own moniker—metabolically healthy obesity. Most people who are overweight or obese show potentially unhealthy changes in metabolism, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance. But some people who are overweight or obese manage to avoid these changes and, at least metabolically, look like individuals with healthy weights. Such individuals have near-normal waist sizes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, as well as good physical fitness. Metabolically healthy obesity isn’t common. And it may not be permanent.
The Harvard Health blog is taking an end-of-summer break. It will begin publishing again after Labor Day. Thanks to everyone who makes the blog possible, from our loyal readers and visitors from around the world to our contributors. See you in September!
The 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year are just the tip of the iceberg. According to a new CDC estimate, more than 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with the tick-borne disease each year. The new number was presented at the 2013 International Conference on Lyme Borreliosis and Other Tick-Borne Diseases, being held in Boston. Although the disease has been diagnosed in almost every state, most cases reported to the CDC are in the Northeast and upper Midwest—96% of cases come from 13 states. The new estimate comes from a multi-pronged approach: gathering case reports from doctors, sifting through health insurance claims, analyzing data from clinical laboratories (which do the tests necessary to diagnose Lyme disease), and surveying the public for self-reported Lyme disease.
More than 17,000 American youths end up in emergency departments each year with injuries from a falling television set. Two-thirds of them are under age 5, according to a report published online today in the journal Pediatrics. From 1996 to 2011, nearly 400,000 children under 18 years old were treated in emergency departments for TV-related injuries. In 1996, most of the injuries occurred when kids ran into television sets. By 2011, injuries from falling TVs dominated. The rate of TVs falling from dressers, bureaus, chests of drawers, and armoires nearly quadrupled. The authors of the study suggest that adding TVs to the list of furniture types that come with anti-tip devices “would be an important step in decreasing the number of injuries resulting from falling TVs.”
An old, aspirin-like drug called salsalate could help control blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. In the TINSAL-T2D trial, 286 volunteers took pills containing either salsalate or a placebo for nearly a year. Over the course of the trial, those in the salsalate group had lower blood sugar levels, and some were even able to reduce dosages of other diabetes medications they were taking. Experts aren’t exactly sure how salsalate helps control blood sugar, but its effectiveness supports the idea that inflammation plays a role in type 2 diabetes. Although the results are promising, what we really need to know about salsalate (or any new or repurposed drug) is how its long-term benefits and risks stack up against each other. The trial was too small and too short to determine those risks. According to the researchers, such “outcomes require continued evaluation before salsalate can be recommended for widespread use” by people with type 2 diabetes.
Summer’s heat is as predictable as winter’s chill. Heat-related illnesses—and even deaths—are also predictable. But they aren’t inevitable. In fact, most are preventable. Most healthy people tolerate the heat without missing a beat. It’s not so easy for people with damaged or weakened hearts, or for older people whose bodies don’t respond as readily to stress as they once did. There are three different levels of heart-related illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Some simple choices can help you weather the weather. Drinking water and other hydrating fluids is essential. Putting off exercise or other physical activity until things cool down also helps. Chilled air is the best way to beat the heat. Sticking with smaller meals that don’t overload the stomach can also help.
Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems arise when something goes wrong with brain function. What causes that malfunction is an open question. A new study from Denmark suggests that a serious infection or autoimmune disease could trigger a mood disorder. How might an infection or autoimmune disorder lead to a mood or other mental health disorder? Infection causes localized and body-wide inflammation. Inflammation generates substances called cytokines that have been shown to change how brain cells communicate. In autoimmune diseases, the body’s defense system attacks healthy tissues rather than threatening invaders. It’s possible that in some cases the wayward immune reaction could target brain cells and other nerve cells throughout the body.