At least once a week throughout my childhood, a migraine would force my mother to retreat into her bedroom. She’d shut the blinds and burrow under the covers, overwhelmed by a pain so severe it turned the faintest sound into an agonizing roar and launched waves of nausea with the slightest movement. Though my family and I tried to be sympathetic, it was hard for us to fully comprehend my mother’s migraines or understand why she had to miss so many events because of them. When you’re on the outside looking in, you can’t begin to appreciate how severely disabling—and life disrupting—chronic migraine can be. A study from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, released last week in PLoS One, found that chronic migraine sufferers experience as much social stigma as people with epilepsy—a disease that produces far more obvious and dramatic symptoms. Some of that stigma is external—for example, getting treated differently by friends or colleagues, and some is internal.
Posts by Stephanie Watson
Living through the physical and emotional toll of breast cancer is so traumatic that some women can’t bear the thought of doing it again. That’s why a growing number of women who have already been diagnosed with cancer in one breast are taking the drastic measure of having both breasts removed (a procedure called prophylactic mastectomy). Yet a University of Michigan study presented last week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Quality Care Symposium showed that nearly three-quarters of women who had this procedure were actually at very low risk of developing cancer in the healthy breast. In other words, many women are unnecessarily exposing themselves to the potential risks of a double mastectomy—including pain, infection, and scarring. The new study suggests that more and better information about breast cancer recurrence—and the risks and benefits of prophylactic mastectomy—are needed as women consider this procedure.
It’s Halloween—a time when we’re preoccupied with witches, ghouls, and other frightful creatures. But this year, no creature is generating as much buzz as the zombie. Zombies have inspired movies and TV shows, video games—even a bloody Pride and Prejudice takeoff. Could all this talk of the undead be foreshadowing a real-life zombie apocalypse? In fiction, yes. But not in real life. A Harvard ethnobotanist once found that a neurotoxin was the cause of several cases of zombie-like living deaths in Haiti. Oddly shaped proteins called prions have also been linked to brain diseases that vaguely resemble zombieism. In his novel The Zombie Autopsies, Dr. Steven Schlozman, a zombie enthusiast and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, imagined an infection scenario that turns normal human beings into flesh-craving monsters. Although a pandemic that creates zombie-like symptoms is theoretically possible, a real-life zombie apocalypse shouldn’t be high up on our list of worries.
Depression can strike at any age. Children can develop it, as can octogenarians. No matter when it starts, depression can drain the joy and pleasure from life. The first appearance of depression later in life may also be a signal of memory loss or dementia down the road. According to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, dementia is more common among people who become depressed in middle age or later in life than among those who aren’t depressed. Depression is often overlooked in older adults, so it’s important to be on the lookout for warning signs, like feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, trouble sleeping, and more. It’s important to treat depression in individuals with the beginning of dementia, and older individuals who are depressed should be evaluated for dementia.
Researchers at Kansas State University have developed a blood test that rapidly detects breast cancer (as well as non-small cell lung cancer) in very early stages, long before symptoms appear or the cancer can be seen by other methods. The experimental test identifies enzyme patterns that differ from one type of cancer to another. According to the researchers, the test can detect very early breast cancers (stages 0 and 1), as well as early lung cancers (stages 1 and 2), within an hour, with 95% accuracy. However, they tested only 32 participants with various stages of breast or lung cancer, as well as 12 people without cancer. Whether finding cancer that early makes a difference for treatment and survival remains to be seen.
People buy organic food for three main reasons: they believe they are safer, kinder to the environment, or healthier. The health claims for organic foods have been the most tenuous. In a report released this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at Stanford University evaluated nearly 250 studies comparing the nutrients in organic vs. traditional foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs), and discovered very little difference in nutritional content. Organic produce did have 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods, though pesticide levels in both organic and non-organic foods were within allowable safety limits. If you’re buying organic solely for better nutrition, based on this review there’s no evidence you’re gaining any real advantages. But if you’re concerned about pesticides and you can afford organics, it might be worth it to buy them.
Compared to the pumping intensity of spin or Zumba, a tai chi class looks like it’s being performed in slow motion. But this exercise program is far more dynamic than it looks. As an aerobic workout, tai chi is roughly the equivalent of a brisk walk. And as a resistance training routine, some studies have found it similar to more vigorous forms of weight training. It is especially useful for improving balance and preventing falls—a major concern for older adults. Tai chi helps improve balance because it targets all the physical components needed to stay upright—leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, and reflexes—all of which tend to decline with age. It also offers an emotional boost to balance by removing the fear of falling that can make some people afraid to exercise.
Is there a spring in your step—or a wobble in your walk? The speed and stability of your stride could offer important clues about the state of your brain’s health. According to new research, an unsteady gait is one early warning sign that you might be headed for memory problems down the road. A group of studies reported last week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, Canada, revealed a strong link between walking ability and mental function. What’s behind this connection? Walking is a complex task that requires more than just moving the leg muscles. Walking requires scanning the environment for obstacles and safely navigating around them, all while talking and carrying out various other tasks. The studies found that walking rhythm was related to information processing speed; walking variations and speed were associated with executive function (the mental processes we use to plan and organize); and walking speed became significantly slower as mental decline grew more severe.
Daily exercise appears to reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, according to a study published online in the journal Cancer. The type or intensity of the exercise didn’t seem to matter, as long as it was done often. How much exercise is needed to lower breast cancer risk? In this study of 3,000 women, 10 to 19 hours a week (about two hours a day) had the greatest benefit. Age didn’t seem to matter—physical activity reduced breast cancer risk in younger women during their reproductive years and older women after menopause. What did make a difference in the effect of exercise was weight gain—especially after menopause. Gaining a significant amount of weight essentially wiped out the benefits of exercise on breast cancer risk in older women.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has stirred up a maelstrom of debate by proposing that healthy postmenopausal women lay off daily calcium and vitamin D supplements, which the task force says may do more harm than good. The USPSTF concluded that, based on the available evidence, supplements containing up to 400 IU of vitamin D and 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium don’t reduce fractures in postmenopausal women. Plus, these supplements may slightly increase the risk of kidney stones. As a result, the USPSTF says that postmenopausal women who aren’t at risk for osteoporosis shouldn’t be taking these supplements to prevent fractures. The jury is still out on whether it’s worth it for women and men to take higher doses of calcium and vitamin D to prevent fractures, or to take vitamin D to prevent cancer. Our experts say that most of your daily calcium should come from your kitchen, not your medicine chest.