Heart Health

Stephanie Watson

Radiation for breast cancer can increase heart risks

Radiation, on its own or coupled with other treatments, has helped many women survive breast cancer. Yet radiation therapy can cause the appearance of heart disease years later. New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine estimates that the increased lifetime risk for a heart attack or other major heart event in women who’ve had breast cancer radiation is between 0.5% and 3.5%. The risk is highest among women who get radiation to the left breast—understandable, since that’s where the heart is located. The heart effects of radiation begin emerging as soon as five years after treatment. However, future heart risk should not be the reason to abandon this important component of treatment. Cancer experts are doing more and more to minimize the amount of radiation the heart receives.

Julie Corliss

Flu shot linked to lower heart attack, stroke risk

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Getting the flu shot may do more than protect against the flu and its lingering aftermath. It also lowers a person’s odds of a having heart attack, stroke, heart failure, or other major cardiac event—including death—by about a third over the following year. What’s the connection between flu and cardiovascular problems? The body mounts an impressive immune response against the flu. That causes a lot of inflammation, which destabilizes cholesterol-filled plaque inside blood vessels. Plaque rupture can cause a heart attack or stroke. Experts recommend a flu shot for everyone six months of age and older. It is especially important for those who face the highest risk of complications: young children; adults over age 50; those of all ages with serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, asthma or other lung disease, liver or kidney disease, or diabetes; and those who care for young children or other individuals at high risk of flu complications.

Daniel Pendick

PET scans peer into the heart of dementia

What’s bad for the heart is often bad for the brain. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and unhealthy “hardening” of the arteries increase the risk of mental decline or dementia later in life. A study published online today in Neurology shows that older people with the stiffest arteries are more likely to show the kinds of damage to brain tissue often seen in people with dementia. The study adds support to the “two hit” theory of dementia. It suggests that the accumulation of Alzheimer’s-linked amyloid protein in the brain may not pose problems until damage to small blood vessels that nourish the brain nudges them over into dementia. There may be a silver lining to this line of research: Efforts to improve cardiovascular health can also protect the brain.

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.

Harvard Health and Orca Health launch heart-focused iBook series

Anthony Komaroff, M.D., Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

The ability of today’s electronic books to display videos, images explained by a spoken voice, animations, interactive tools, and quizzes gives doctors new ways of explaining things. Harvard Health Publications and Orca Health have created a series of ten interactive iBooks focused on heart disease. Currently, these are available only as iBooks. Need to know what happens in the heart when a heart attack is underway, how doctors open up cholesterol-clogged arteries, or how to cope with the irregular heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation? The answers are in these iBooks. They let users view the heart in ways and detail they’ve never seen before to learn about common heart conditions and procedures.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

200,000 heart disease, stroke deaths a year are preventable

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

It’s easy to think of heart disease and stroke as an almost inevitable part of aging in a developed country like the United States. After all, they are our leading causes of death and disability. But the truth is that these are largely preventable conditions. New estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that one-quarter of all deaths from heart disease and stroke are preventable. And that is almost certainly an underestimate. According to the report, published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, among American adults under age 75, approximately 200,000 of deaths caused each year by heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure (hypertension) are preventable. Surprisingly, more than half of those preventable deaths occurred among individuals under age 65. The good news is that the rate of preventable death declined 29% from 2001 to 2010, the last year for which there are complete statistics.

Stephanie Watson

Women often fear sex after a heart attack

A heart attack can be a frightening wake-up call with long-lasting aftereffects. It’s no surprise that women often tread gently after having a heart attack—and many don’t tread back into the bedroom for sex. Up to 60% of women are less sexually active after a heart attack, often due to worries that sex could trigger a repeat heart attack. A new study suggests that although women believe sex is important for resuming a sense of normalcy and intimacy with their partners, many are fearful that it would be too much for their hearts to take. Reassurance from a doctor is sometimes all that’s needed to ease those fears. How does a woman know if she’s physically ready for sex after a heart attack? It’s safe to have sex if you can work up a light sweat without triggering symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Fluids, cool air key to avoiding heat stroke

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Summer’s heat is as predictable as winter’s chill. Heat-related illnesses—and even deaths—are also predictable. But they aren’t inevitable. In fact, most are preventable. Most healthy people tolerate the heat without missing a beat. It’s not so easy for people with damaged or weakened hearts, or for older people whose bodies don’t respond as readily to stress as they once did. There are three different levels of heart-related illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Some simple choices can help you weather the weather. Drinking water and other hydrating fluids is essential. Putting off exercise or other physical activity until things cool down also helps. Chilled air is the best way to beat the heat. Sticking with smaller meals that don’t overload the stomach can also help.

Heidi Godman

Checking blood pressure at home pays off

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

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.

Stephanie Watson

Volunteering may be good for body and mind

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.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

New trial muddies the water about diet, exercise, and diabetes

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

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.