Medical Research

Patrick J. Skerrett

Editorial calls for more research on link between football and brain damage

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Is brain damage an inevitable consequence of American football, an avoidable risk of it, or neither? An editorial published yesterday in the medical journal BMJ poses those provocative questions. Chad Asplund, director of sports medicine at Georgia Regents University, and Thomas Best, professor and chair of sports medicine at Ohio State University, offer an overview of the unresolved connection between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of gradually worsening brain damage caused by repeated mild brain injuries or concussions. The big question is whether playing football causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy or whether some people who play football already at higher risk for developing it. The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University hopes to provide a solid answer to that and other health issues that affect professional football players.

PCSK9 inhibitors: a major advance in cholesterol-lowering drug therapy

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

Every so often, a medical advance comes along that rewrites the script for treating a disease or condition. After today’s announcement of impressive results of a new type of cholesterol-lowering drug, that scenario just might happen in the next few years. The results of three clinical trials presented today at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, and simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that a class of new drugs called PCSK9 inhibitors can dramatically reduce the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream and prevent heart attacks, strokes, and other problems related to cholesterol-clogged arteries. The drawbacks are that PCSK9 inhibitors must be given by injection every 2 to 4 weeks, may cause mental confusion or trouble paying attention, and, if approved, will likely be expensive.

For joggers, less may be more

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

Jogging is one of those activities that seems to embody the concept of healthy physical activity. A new study from Denmark may prompt a rethinking of the benefits of strenuous jogging. Researchers with the ongoing Copenhagen City Heart Study found that, compared to healthy but inactive non-joggers, the death rate of light joggers was 90% lower. No surprise there. But the death rate for strenuous joggers was no different than that of sedentary non-joggers. In this study, the most beneficial exercise was jogging at a slow or moderate pace two to three times a week for a total of 60 to 145 minutes. This one study certainly shouldn’t change the current recommendations for physical activity. But it helps debunk the “no pain, no gain” myth of exercise and supports the idea that any activity is better than none—but there may be an upper limit.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Bleeding risk from new blood thinner Pradaxa higher than first reported

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

The FDA’s approval in 2010 of the blood-thinner dabigatran (Pradaxa) got many doctors excited. It was at least as effective as warfarin for preventing stroke-causing blood clots, and possibly caused fewer bleeding side effects. In addition, it is easier to use. Since then, studies of Pradaxa have slightly dampened the enthusiasm for the new drug. For example, a new study from the University of Pittsburgh showed that Pradaxa cause more episodes of serious bleeding (9%) than warfarin (6%). The bleeding sites tended to differ. Bleeding in the stomach and intestines was slightly higher among Pradaxa users. Bleeding in the head was slightly higher among warfarin users. Black patients and those with chronic kidney disease were more likely to bleed from Pradaxa.

Julie Corliss

Memory slips in your 70s may be an early hint of future dementia

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Of all the health issues that loom large with age, memory loss is among those that provoke the most worry. A big reason is the uncertainty: people often wonder if their occasional memory slips are just a normal part of growing old or a sign of impending Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. A new study of older adults, published in today’s issue of the journal Neurology, sheds some light—and perhaps offers a bit of reassurance—about the connection between self-reported memory loss and a diagnosis of dementia. Over a 10-year period as 70-somethings turned into 80-somethings, about 1 in 6 developed dementia. About 80% had reported memory changes. But it took about nine years from the first self-report of a memory change to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, an intermediate stage between normal memory loss and dementia. The transition to dementia usually took about 12 years.

Daniel Pendick

Some doctors oversell artery-opening angioplasty

A heart attack in progress is a medical emergency. The leading way to stop it is with artery-opening angioplasty. But many angioplasties are done for reasons other than heart attack. Some are performed to ease chest pain that appears with physical activity or stress. This is the chest pain known as stable angina. Sometimes the prospective patient has no symptoms at all — just test results that indicate one or more clogged arteries. Cardiologists continuously debate when it’s appropriate to do non-emergency angioplasty. Two studies in JAMA Internal Medicine add some provocative new information: that incomplete or even misleading advice from doctors contributes to unnecessary angioplasties. And that’s a problem because angioplasty can harm as well as help.

Heidi Godman

Diet rich in resveratrol offers no health boost

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine and certain foods, has been touted as a natural way to slow aging and fight cancer, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. As promising as it sounds, we don’t really know how resveratrol affects humans, since most studies have been conducted on animals and microbes. A study out this week from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found no link between consumption of resveratrol from food and rates of heart disease, cancer, and death in a study of older men and women living in Italy’s Chianti region. The disappointing results don’t mean that resveratrol and other molecules like it won’t help extend the lifespan or protect against the development of aging-related diseases. Higher doses may be needed to do that. What’s needed now are trials to determine if taking high-dose resveratrol supplements is safe.

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.

Surgeon General’s 1964 report: making smoking history

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

On a Saturday morning 50 years ago tomorrow, then Surgeon General Luther Terry made a bold announcement to a roomful of reporters: cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and probably heart disease, and the government should do something about it. Terry, himself a longtime smoker, spoke at a press conference unveiling Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service. That press conference was held on a Saturday in part to minimize the report’s effect on the stock market. The 1964 Surgeon General’s report, and others that followed, have had a profoundly positive effect on the health of Americans, despite the tobacco industry’s concerted and continuing efforts to promote smoking. By one new estimate, the decline in smoking triggered by the 1964 report and others that followed prevented more than 8 million premature deaths, half of them among people under age 65. But we still have a long way to go. Some 42 million Americans still smoke, and tobacco use accounts for millions of deaths each year around the world.

Julie Corliss

Eating nuts linked to healthier, longer life

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Move over, apples: A handful of nuts a day keeps the doctor away—and might help you live longer, according to new results from two long-running studies. Writing in tomorrow’s New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard researchers showed that daily nut-eaters were less likely to die from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease. Overall, the daily nut-eaters were 20% less likely to have died during the course of the study than those who avoided nuts. (Peanuts, which are actually legumes, counted as nuts in this study). While everybody is searching for the perfect nut, the health benefits hold true for variety of nuts.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Doctors often don’t reveal cancer test overtreatment and harms

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

There’s no question that tests to detect cancer before it causes any problems can save lives. But such tests can also cause harm through overdiagnosis and overtreatment. A study published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that the majority of people aren’t informed by their doctors that early warning cancer tests may detect slow-growing, or no-growing, cancers that will never cause symptoms or affect health. Undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation for such cancers provides no benefits and definite harms. The researchers found that only 9.5% of people were informed by their doctors of the risk of overdiagnosis and possible overtreatment. Compare that to 80% who said they wanted to be informed of the possible harms of screening before having a screening test. Informing patients about the risks of screening isn’t easy to do in a brief office visit. It’s complicated information. And the researchers suggest that many doctors don’t have a good grip on relative benefits and harms of screening.