It’s shaping up to be a banner year for the flu. The City of Boston just declared a public health emergency, with 700 cases of the flu reported so far this season, compared to just 70 cases last year. Four Boston residents, all elderly, have died. A similar spike in flu is happening all around the country. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year’s flu season is shaping up to be a bad one. By the end of December, the flu was widespread in 41 states. The CDC says that more than 2,000 people have been hospitalized so far; scores of adults have died, as well as 18 children. One way to keep from getting the flu is to get the flu vaccine. (Almost everyone age 6 months and older should be vaccinated.) If you haven’t already done this, it isn’t too late. For more information about the flu, visit Harvard Health Publication’s Flu Resource Center at www.health.harvard.edu/flu
Patrick J. Skerrett
Posts by Patrick J. Skerrett
What harm can having too little of a vitamin do? Consider this: Over the course of two months, a 62-year-old man developed numbness and a “pins and needles” sensation in his hands, had trouble walking, experienced severe joint pain, began turning yellow, and became progressively short of breath. The cause was lack of vitamin B12 in his bloodstream, according to a case report from Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital published in The New England Journal of Medicine. It could have been worse—a severe vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to deep depression, paranoia and delusions, memory loss, incontinence, loss of taste and smell, and more, according to another article in tomorrow’s New England Journal. Some people, like strict vegetarians, don’t take in enough vitamin B12 every days. Others, like many older people and those who have had weight-loss surgery or live with celiac disease or other digestive condition don’t absorb enough of the vitamin. Daily supplements can help.
Greater use of generic drugs could save the healthcare system—and American consumers—billions of dollars that would be better spent elsewhere. What’s holding us back? Some consumers are reluctant to use generic medications, thinking they are inferior to “the real thing.” Doctors are also a big part of the problem. Up to half of physicians hold negative perceptions about generic drugs. And a new study to be published in tomorrow’s JAMA Internal Medicine shows that about 4 in 10 doctors sometimes or often prescribe a brand-name drug just because their patients ask for it. Prescribing a brand-name drug when a generic is available is a huge source of wasteful spending that could easily be prevented. People ask for brand-name drugs because they have heard of them through advertising or word of mouth, while their generic alternatives generally aren’t advertised. Doctors could help save billions of dollars by just saying “no.”
If you’ve ever nodded off while driving, you aren’t alone. In a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.2% of Americans admitted to falling asleep while driving at least once in the previous month. The just-published survey, conducted in 19 states and the District of Columbia, found the sleepiest drivers in Texas (6.1%) and Hawaii (5.7%), and the most alert ones in Oregon (2.5%) and the District of Columbia (2.6%). Individuals most likely to have fallen asleep while driving were those who said they unintentionally fell asleep during the daytime at least once during the preceding month, those who said they snore at night, and those who reported sleeping less than six hours a night. Keep in mind that these numbers reflect only the percentage of people who were aware they had fallen asleep. They don’t include those who fell asleep while driving without recognizing that had happened.
It’s easy to get swept up in the holiday season. This combination of religious and national celebrations can help keep the cold winter away. But the feasts and parties that mark it can tax the arteries and strain the waistline. By eating just 200 extra calories a day — a piece of pecan pie and a tumbler of eggnog here, a couple latkes and some butter cookies there — you could pack on two to three pounds over this five- to six-week period. That doesn’t sound like much, except few people shed that extra weight in the following months and years. You don’t need to deprive yourself, eat only boring foods, or take your treats with a side order of guilt. Instead, by practicing a bit of defensive eating and cooking, you can come through the holidays without making “go on a diet” one of your New Year’s resolutions.
What happens when the body rejects a protein found in many foods? Ask anyone with celiac disease. This increasingly common condition—it’s grown four-fold since the 1950s—causes a host of aggravating and potentially disabling symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, cramps, fatigue, weight loss, and more. But it’s also a trickster, causing subtle changes that may not be identified as stemming from celiac disease, like iron-deficiency anemia, low vitamin D, or a suspicious broken bone in an otherwise healthy person. People with celiac disease can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, even in small amounts. It once took an average of 10 years to diagnose celiac disease. Today it can happen faster, thanks to a simple blood test that detects anti-gluten antibodies.
When migraine or another type of headache strikes, some people turn to … Twitter and Google. And their Tweets and searches are providing a glimpse into how—and when—migraine and headache affect lives. In a letter to the editor published in the January 2013 issue of Cephalalgia (the journal of the International Headache Society), researchers from Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital analyzed Google searches conducted between January 2007 and July 2012. There were more searches for “migraine” on weekdays than on weekends or holidays. A similar pattern was seen in Twitter feeds. In the Google searches, the work week peak came on Tuesday and the low on Friday; on Twitter it was Monday and Friday. The most common time for migraine Tweets was between 6:00 am and 8:00 am, which the researchers say is a peak time for migraine attacks. Tweets could help researchers learn more about migraine triggers.
If you like numbers and statistics, especially those about health, two reports released this week should keep you occupied for days: the massive Global Burden of Disease study was published in The Lancet, and the American Heart Association released its annual “Heart and stroke statistics” report. The Global Burden of Disease project found that average life expectancy continues to rise in most countries. It also found that infection and other communicable causes of disease no longer dominate deaths and disability. Today, so-called non-communicable causes like traffic accidents, violence and war, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions account for two-thirds of world deaths and the majority of years lost to disability and death. According to the American Heart Association’s annual report, the percentage of deaths due to heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases has fallen by nearly one-third since 1999, but don’t expect that to continue. Increases in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, overweight, and inactivity threaten to reverse these gains.
For many people, retirement is a key reward for decades of daily work—a time to relax, explore, and have fun unburdened by the daily grind. For others, though, retirement is a frustrating period marked by declining health and increasing limitations. For years, researchers have been trying to figure out whether the act of retiring is good for health, bad for it, or neutral. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at rates of heart attack and stroke among men and women in the ongoing U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Those who had retired were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working. The increase was more pronounced during the first year after retirement, and leveled off after that. The results, reported in the journal Social Science & Medicine, are in line with earlier studies that have shown that retirement is associated with a decline in health. But others have shown that retirement is associated with improvements in health, while some have shown it has little effect on health.
Beans, the butt of countless flatulence jokes, are often written off as food for poor people, or cheap substitutes for meat. Given what beans can do for health, they should be seen as food fit for royalty—or at least for anyone wanting to get healthy or stay that way. The beans described here are what botanists call legumes, and others call “pulses.” They include black beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas), lentils, peanuts, soybeans, and others. Legumes are an excellent source of protein and fiber. They are low in fat. They are also nutrient dense, meaning they deliver plenty of vitamins, minerals, and other healthful nutrients relative to calories. An article in the current Archives of Internal Medicine showed that adding more beans to the diet can help people with diabetes lower their blood sugar. These findings are in line with a growing body of evidence on the health benefits of eating beans. They’ve been linked to reduced risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon and other cancers, as well as improved weight control.