Do-it-yourselfers, take heart. Here’s something else to do at home that can have a substantial benefit on your health: measure your blood pressure. It’s easy, inexpensive, and helps control blood pressure better than visits to the doctor. The latest evidence for the benefits of home blood pressure monitoring comes from researchers in Minnesota. In a 12-month clinical trial, 72% of those doing home monitoring had their blood pressure under control compared to 57% who received usual care. The benefits persisted six months after the program had ended. Anyone can monitor blood pressure at home. You can buy a good home blood pressure monitor at a pharmacy or online merchant for anywhere from $50 to $100. Some insurance companies cover the cost.
There’s something gratifying about volunteering. Whenever I work a charity event—which I try to do with some regularity—I often get more out of it than I give. A new study suggests that volunteering has positive implications that go beyond mental health, and may include better physical health. They study, from Carnegie Mellon University, found that adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. High blood pressure is an important indicator of health because it contributes to heart disease, stroke, and premature death. It’s impossible for this study to prove that volunteering was directly responsible for the lower blood pressure readings, but the results are in line with other findings on the topic. Aristotle once surmised that the essence of life is “To serve others and do good.” If this line of research is any indication, serving others might also be the essence of good health.
Long-awaited results from a nearly 10-year trial exploring the effect of changes in diet and exercise among people with diabetes weren’t what most people expected. The Look AHEAD trial found that intensive efforts to lose weight by eating less and exercising more didn’t provide any more protection against heart disease—a common co-traveler with diabetes—than standard diabetes support and education. The spin from some media reports is that weight loss doesn’t reduce heart disease risk among people with type 2 diabetes, but I think that’s the wrong interpretation. The results of the Look AHEAD trial don’t contradict the value of lifestyle changes. People in the intensive change group improved their blood sugar with fewer drugs, saving an estimated $600 per year, they were also less likely to have developed chronic kidney disease and less self-reported vision problems. The Look AHEAD results reinforce for me that diabetes care needs to be tailored to the individual.
The Mediterranean diet has been getting a lot of press as being the very best for health. But there’s another diet that appears to be equally good: a vegetarian diet. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who ate a vegetarian diet were 12% less likely to have died over the course of the five-year study than nonvegetarians. The benefits were especially good for men, who had a significant reduction in heart disease. This study underscores the idea that meat consumption influences long-term health, and not in a good way. Should you consider ditching the Mediterranean diet and becoming a vegetarian instead? Either one is healthier than the typical American diet, so it’s really a matter of personal choice.
My twice-daily walks with my border collie, Clair DeNoon, are the highlights of my day. A new report from the American Heart Association will put an extra spring in my steps on these walks. A panel of experts from the American Heart Association has weighed all the available evidence on pet ownership and cardiovascular disease. The verdict: Having a pet—a dog in particular—likely lowers the risk of heart disease. Some of the connection can be attributed to the extra walks dog owners take. Companionship also contributes. If dog ownership is heart healthy, should everyone who cares about heart health have a dog? No. According to the heart association panel, “the primary purpose of adopting, rescuing, or purchasing a pet should not be to achieve a reduction in cardiovascular risk.”
• Fast-food restaurants deliver filling, inexpensive meals and snacks. But there’s usually a hidden added cost: a wallop of salt (sodium) that isn’t good for cardiovascular health. Even with the current clamor for reducing sodium in the American diet, and industry promising to do just that, the amount of sodium in prepared foods hasn’t changed much since 2005, according to a report published in the latest issue of JAMA Internal Medicine. The average sodium in chain restaurant items increased 2.6% between 2005 and 2011. In packaged foods, it fell on average 3.5%. While some are calling for tighter government regulation on the sodium content in processed and restaurant foods, you can take action now.
In the past decade, a remarkable series of experiments from laboratories all over the world has begun to show what causes aging—and how to slow it. In the latest example of such aging research, two of my Harvard Medical School colleagues, cardiologist Richard T. Lee (co-editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter) and stem cell biologist Amy Wagers and their teams have found a substance that rejuvenates aging hearts in mice. The researchers joined the circulation of an old mouse with a thick, stiffened heart to that of a young mouse. After four weeks, the heart muscle of the old mouse became dramatically thinner and more flexible. The team then identified a substance called growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11) as the probable “anti-aging” substance. It’s too soon to tell if this discovery will ever help humans with heart failure. But it reveals that there are substances naturally present in all living things that cause aging and that retard it. By understanding them, we may someday be able to slow aging.
Is red meat bad for your heart? A new study suggests it is, but not for the reasons you might expect—like the saturated fat or cholesterol in red meat. A team from a half dozen U.S. medical centers says the offending ingredient is L-carnitine, an amino acid that is abundant in red meat. Their work shows that eating red meat delivers L-carnitine to bacteria that live in the human gut. These bacteria digest L-carnitine and turn it into a compound called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which has been shown to cause atherosclerosis, the disease process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries, in mice. There’s still a long way to go before we know the full story about L-carnitine and heart disease, but this work suggests that cutting back on L-carnitine (and avoiding L-carnitine supplements) may be good steps for heart health.
Salt is a cheap, easy way to turn on taste buds. That’s one reason why it’s in so many of the foods we eat. It’s so commonly used that most Americans consume more than double the recommended daily limit for it. Three new studies in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) once again confirm the relationship between salt intake and health problems. They show that reducing salt intake can help lower blood pressure and lower the odds of having a heart attack or stroke or developing heart failure. They also show that consuming more potassium is also linked to lower blood pressure and lower risk of stroke. Current dietary guidelines recommend that Americans get no more than 1 teaspoon of salt a day. That’s the equivalent of 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. Most Americans get much more than that. It’s possible to cut back by avoiding processed and packaged foods, using herbs and spices to season food instead of salt, and other strategies. It’s best to get potassium from food, especially fruits and vegetables. Green leafy vegetables, beans, and bananas have a lot of potassium.
Chest pain brought on by exercise or stress, a condition known as angina, holds back millions of Americans from living life to the fullest. There’s long been a perception that angina symptoms in women are different than they are in men. Doctors often use the term “typical angina” to describe the angina symptoms that men relate. Symptoms more commonly described by women have been dubbed “atypical angina”—suggesting that women are somehow experiencing an unusual manifestation of heart trouble. A new Harvard study shows that women and men probably experience the same symptoms, but describe them differently. By any name or description, chest discomfort is crucial for women—and their doctors—to pay attention to. And that means acknowledging the possibility of angina no matter how a women describes suspicious chest-related symptoms.