Patrick J. Skerrett

Pat Skerrett is editor of the Harvard Health blog and Executive Editor of Harvard Health Publications. Before that, he was editor of the Harvard Heart Letter for ten years. He is the co-author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Guide to Healthy Eating, The Fertility Diet, and several other books on health and science. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Popular Science magazine, Science magazine, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. He earned a B.A. in biology from Northwestern University and an M.A. in biology from Washington University in St. Louis.


Posts by Patrick J. Skerrett

Infection, autoimmune disease linked to depression

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

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.

Ask questions to get the most out of a health care visit

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

During visits with your doctors or other health care providers, do you speak up and ask questions? If the answer is “yes,” congratulations. You’ve taken an important step to getting the most out of your health care visits. You’re also in the minority. Most people have trouble asking their doctors questions. It can be even harder to disagree with your doctor, or make known your preferences for care and even your worries. There are many reasons for poor patient-doctor communication. One is what Timothy J. Judson and colleagues call the asymmetry of power. Medical lingo is another key barrier. The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s “Questions to Ask Your Doctor” campaign and the Joint Commission’s “Speak Up Initiatives” offer free information to help people ask the sometimes difficult questions needed for good health care.

What you can do about floaters and flashes in the eye

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

“Floaters” and flashes are a common sight for many people. Floater is a catchall term for the specks, threads, or cobweb-like images that occasionally drift across the line of vision. Flashes are sparks or strands of light that flicker across the visual field. Both are usually harmless. But they can be a warning sign of trouble in the eye, especially when they suddenly appear or become more plentiful. That can be the sign of a tear in the retina, the patch of light-sensitive cells along the back of the eye that captures images and sends them to the brain. A retinal tear can lead to a retinal detachment, which can lead to permanent vision loss.

Matchless strategy for tick removal; 6 steps to avoid tick bites

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

What’s the best way to remove a tick burrowed into your skin? Don’t use one of the folk remedies, like touching it with a hot match, covering it with petroleum jelly or nail polish, or freezing it. These are all supposed to make the tick “back out” of the skin on its own. But they often have the opposite effect, forcing the tick to hold tight, burrow deeper, and possibly deposit more of its disease-carrying secretions into the wound, which increases the risk of infection. Instead, do what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend: Use a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Then pull it out with a steady motion. Once the tick has been removed, clean the skin with soap and water. Dispose of the tick, which is probably still alive, by placing it in alcohol or flushing it down the toilet. For most people who are bitten by a tick, removal ends the saga. For others, though, it is just beginning, since the bite of a tick can transmit Lyme or other tick-borne disease

Celebrating cancer survivors

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Sunday, June 2, is National Cancer Survivors Day. It was started 26 years ago as a way to recognize and support people living with cancer. The foundation that organizes the yearly event defines survivor as “anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life.” National Cancer Survivors Day offers survivors and their family members and friends a chance to acknowledge the hard work that goes into fighting cancer and to show the world that survivors can live fulfilling lives. The day is observed in many different ways. Around the U.S. and in 18 other countries, community groups, hospitals, and other organizations hold breakfasts, picnics, walks, fun runs, and other activities.

5 tips for healthy grilling

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer and the official beginning of grilling season. From northern Maine to southern California, the backyard barbeque will be a key part of the holiday weekend. Whether your menu includes simple burgers or something more elaborate, several simple steps can help you serve up a healthy meal: Start with a clean grill. Limit the formation of potential cancer-causing compounds by marinating meat, poultry, or seafood before cooking, cooking for longer at a lower temperature, and having a spray bottle filled with water handy to control fatty flare-ups. Give veggies and fruit equal billing with meat. And practice safe grilling by keeping raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from vegetables and other foods, using a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of grilled meat, poultry, and seafood, and placing grilled food on a clean plate, not on the ones that held them when they were raw.

New public database shows hospital billing charges all over the map

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Most reputable companies that provide services tell you what you’ll get for your money. Hospitals are an exception. They haven’t traditionally made public the cost of operations and other procedures. This secrecy has let hospitals set widely different prices for the same procedure. It’s also made it impossible to do any comparison shopping. Yesterday’s release to the public of a once very private database shows just how big the differences can be from hospital to hospital. The database, released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, details what 3,300 hospitals charged for the 100 most common treatments and procedures in 2011. It data reinforce the big differences in charges from one part of the U.S. to another. What’s new and surprising are the huge differences sometimes seen between hospitals in the same city, or even the same neighborhood.

Exercise is good, not bad, for arthritis

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

When pain strikes, it’s human nature to avoid doing things that aggravate it. That’s certainly the case for people with arthritis, many of whom tend to avoid exercise when a hip, knee, ankle or other joint hurts. Although that strategy seems to make sense, it may harm more than help. Taking a walk on most days of the week can actually ease arthritis pain and improve other symptoms. It’s also good for the heart, brain, and every other part of the body. Yet a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than half of people with arthritis don’t walk at all for exercise, and only 23% meet the current recommendation for activity—walking for at least 150 minutes a week. Walking is good exercise for people with arthritis, but it isn’t the only one. A review of the benefits of exercise for people with osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis) found that strength training, water-based exercise, and balance therapy were the most helpful for reducing pain and improving function.

A good day to check your medications

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

For many people, medications are a mainstay for preventing and treating disease. Managing multiple conditions and multiple medications can be confusing, especially if you store some of your pills in the medicine cabinet and others in a kitchen cabinet or pill drawer. Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to take inventory of all of your medications. As a reminder to do just that, the American College of Endocrinology has declared April 15th as National Check Your Meds Day. The college recommends checking to make sure the labels on the medications you got from the pharmacy match exactly what your doctor prescribed. It’s also important to check expiration dates.

Survival skills for all-you-can-eat buffets

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

All-you-can-eat buffets are a boon for hungry, thrift diners and a nightmare for dieters or those trying to maintain a healthy weight. If you are in the latter camp, here are two tips from Brian Wansink, the master of mindful eating: 1) Take a walk around the entire buffet to scope out your options before serving yourself. 2) Put your food on a small plate instead of a big one. Those come from observations of more than 300 men and women dining in two dozen all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurants. Understanding the many factors that influence what and how you eat can help you take more control of your eating habits. Who you eat with, how you are feeling, and activities like parties or shopping can influence when and how much you eat.