Drugs and Supplements

How well does calcium intake really protect your bones?

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

How much calcium do you really need for strong, healthy bones? The answer isn’t as clear as we once thought. Recent analyses suggest that neither dietary calcium nor calcium supplements reduce the risk of fractures. In the absence of a clear deficiency, it’s impossible to know how exactly much calcium a person needs. Ideally, you should get most of your calcium through food. Be sure you’re getting adequate vitamin D as well.

Turning to drugs and treatments before they are “ready for prime time”

Amy Ship, MD
Amy Ship, MD, Contributing Editor

Having a terminal illness or debilitating disease is devastating. Imagine, then, being in that situation and exhausting the available treatment options — or having limited options to begin with. It’s understandable that people in these circumstances might welcome the opportunity to try experimental drugs or treatments. But it is not always easy or expedient to gain access to such therapies. So called “right-to-try” laws are supposed to help doctors and patients access these treatments. However, it isn’t clear that right-to-try laws will actually help, and they can create additional dilemmas in what are already complicated situations.

What “off-label” use of a drug really is, and why you need to know about it

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

You might be surprised to learn that, on average, one in five prescriptions are written for an “off-label” use of a drug. That means the doctor believes that the recommended drug will help a patient, even though that drug has not been FDA-approved for that patient’s particular condition or symptoms. This practice is legal and common. Historically, the FDA has restricted the ability of pharmaceutical companies to advertise drugs for off-label uses. However, two recent court cases have opened the door to proactive promotion of drugs for off-label uses. Physicians and consumers need to be aware of this shift when it comes to using drugs safely for off-label purposes.

Direct-to-consumer drug advertising — beyond what you see on TV

Nancy Ferrari
Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Consumers are barraged by ads for prescription drugs on television and in print. Twenty years ago, people who knew the names of the drugs available for their health conditions, and knew to ask for new drugs by name, were few and far between. But today, direct-to-consumer ads encourage patients to ask their doctors for new (and often pricey) medications. While it isn’t bad to inform people about new and potentially better medications, this tidal wave of advertising has a downside. Potential side effects and risks are not always completely and plainly explained and the cost of these drugs is often not made clear. While it is fine to ask your doctor about a drug you’ve seen on TV or elsewhere, be aware that a new medicine is not necessarily a better medicine — or the right one for you.

It’s NOT a “pink Viagra”

Hope Ricciotti, MD
Hope Ricciotti, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Women of all ages have questions and concerns about their sex lives. These issues often come up after having a baby, during perimenopause, and well into later life, too. Women’s sexuality is very complex. Brain chemistry, mood, hormones, and the nature of a woman’s relationship with her sexual partner are all important influences. This week, the FDA approved the drug flibanserin for treatment of low sex drive in premenopausal women. This drug is no “pink Viagra,” and its effect on women’s sexual function may be small, but it may be a step in the right direction simply because it draws attention to the value of a satisfying sex life for women and acknowledges it as a legitimate health concern.

Want to get enough vitamin D? Try supplements — or sunshine

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Vitamin D holds promise for many things, like building bone, preventing heart attacks and strokes, reducing cancer risk, and more. But that promise isn’t fully backed by science. For example, a controlled clinical trial published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a vitamin D supplements didn’t build bone in postmenopausal women with blood levels of vitamin D below the threshold generally considered necessary for good health. Many researchers are looking ahead to results from an ongoing trial called VITAL, which aims to gather the kind of solid evidence that will let us know for sure whether taking relatively high doses of vitamin D can ward off heart attack, stroke, or cancer. The results are expected by the end of 2017. It’s also possible to get vitamin D the old-fashioned way: go out in the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. with at least 10% of your skin exposed. Stay out long enough to absorb the sun but not long enough to be burned.

Studies support broader use of cholesterol-lowering statins

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

The latest guidelines used to determine who should take a cholesterol-lowering statin to prevent heart disease appear to be more accurate and cost-efficient than the previous guidelines. That’s according to two studies led by Harvard researchers, both published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association. The new guidelines, published in 2013 by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, recommend a statin for men and women between the ages of 40 and 75 who have a 7.5% or higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke over the next 10 years. The JAMA studies show that the new guidelines provide a more accurate assessment of who would benefit from a statin and who wouldn’t, and are more cost-effective than the older guidelines. Statins aren’t a cure-all. Eating a healthier diet, exercising often, and not smoking will go a long way to preventing heart attack and stroke.

Combination of a cholesterol-lowering statin and ezetimibe lowers risk of a heart attack or stroke

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

High cholesterol is a key culprit in the development of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States and many other developed countries. We know that lowering cholesterol helps prevent heart attacks and strokes. But an unanswered question remains: how low should you go? New research published online today in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that lower is better. In a large clinical trial, participants who took a cholesterol-lowering statin plus ezetimibe, a different type of cholesterol-lowering drug, had lower levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and experienced fewer heart attacks and strokes than participants taking a statin alone. The new findings provide a strong rationale for using ezetimibe when a statin alone isn’t enough.

Surgery still trumps “antibiotics first” approach to appendicitis

Urmila Parlikar
Urmila Parlikar, Senior Content Editor, Harvard Health Publications

When appendicitis strikes, an operation to remove the appendix has long been the route to recovery. But a new strategy called “antibiotics first” could help some people avoid surgery for appendicitis. A clinical practice article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine explores the idea of antibiotics first for appendicitis. The main advantage is that it could eliminate the need for surgery in some people with appendicitis. The drawbacks are that it leaves open the possibility of repeat bouts of appendicitis, with an appendectomy still down the road. It could also lead to lingering symptoms and a sense of uncertainty that could affect quality of life. Although immediate surgery is the standard of care for appendicitis, an antibiotics first approach could be appropriate now for individuals who prefer not to have surgery, aren’t healthy enough for surgery, or aren’t near a medical center that routinely does laparoscopic appendectomy.

New recommendations aim to improve safety of pain-relieving spinal steroid injections

Daniel Pendick

Each year, several million people with neck or back pain get injections of anti-inflammatory steroid medications. When they work (they don’t always), such injections can bring profound relief. But injecting these medications into the spine can cause partial or total paralysis, brain damage, stroke, and even death. Case reports beginning in 2002 highlighted serious problems linked to spinal steroid injections. In 2014, the FDA started requiring a warning on the labels of injectable steroids. A Viewpoint article in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association spotlights new safety recommendations to help prevent these rare but real problems. The new recommendations are part of the FDA’s Safe Use Initiative.