Health

Heidi Godman

Stopping foodborne illness — faster testing, vigilance at home

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

The steady stream of reports about foodborne illness is making many people think twice about their food. Foodborne illness sickens 48 million people annually, sending 128,000 to the hospital and killing 3,000. To improve testing for foodborne illness the FDA sponsors a Food Safety Challenge. Purdue University researchers walked away with the $300,000 grand prize, announced last week, for their new method that would dramatically shorten the time it takes to test for Salmonella, a disease-causing bacteria. While faster ways to detect microbes in food are a step in the right direction, we need to take action at home right now. All fresh foods contain at least low levels of potentially harmful microbes. Handling food properly and cooking it thoroughly can prevent most cases of foodborne illness.

Gregory Curfman, MD

A promising new treatment for high triglycerides

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

Say “fat in the bloodstream” and most people think of cholesterol. But there’s another type of fat shouldn’t be ignored: triglycerides. High triglycerides can increase the risk of having a heart attack. Existing drugs lower triglycerides, but aren’t that good at preventing heart attacks. That’s why a report on a new way to lower triglycerides, published in today’s New England Journal of Medicine, is generating some excitement among cardiologists. The new approach uses weekly injections of “antisense oligonucleotides,” or ASOs. These are pieces of DNA that short-circuit the liver’s production of triglycerides. The NEJM report shows that ASOs can reduce triglyceride levels by as much as 70%. Keep in mind that this was a phase 2 trial, which is designed to test whether a drug does what it is supposed to do (in this case, lower a person’s triglyceride levels). Larger, longer-term studies will be needed to see whether ASOs actually reduce the risk of heart disease, and what sorts of side effects they cause.

Daniel Pendick

CPR during cardiac arrest: someone’s life is in your hands

Cardiac arrest is the ultimate 911 emergency. The heart stops sending blood to the body. Death occurs in minutes — unless a bystander takes matters into his or her hands and starts cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). This keeps blood circulating until trained and better-equipped first responders arrive on the scene to jump-start the heart back into a normal rhythm. Two new studies in JAMA provide compelling proof that efforts to train people to do life-saving CPR pay off. Many organizations sponsor CPR and AED training programs. Two notable ones are the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross. Many local departments of public health also provide CPR training, including “friends and family” classes for people close to someone at risk of cardiac arrest. The investment of time and effort to learn CPR is small. The potential payoff — saving a life — is huge.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Bypass surgery an “uncommon” cause of memory loss, cognitive decline

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

Coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG) offers a new lease on life for thousands of people each year. But it has also been blamed for “brain fog,” a loss of memory and thinking skills that follows the procedure in some people. Such brain problems are often called “cognitive impairment.” But the operation itself may not be to blame, according to a review in today’s Annals of Internal Medicine. A team of mostly Veteran’s Affairs researchers concluded that intermediate and long-term cognitive impairment after cardiovascular procedures “may be uncommon.” That said, they recommend that anyone thinking about open-heart surgery or other large cardiovascular procedure should discuss with the surgeon the possibility of cognitive impairment.

Julie Corliss

Studies support broader use of cholesterol-lowering statins

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.

Gregory Curfman, MD

FDA strengthens warning that NSAIDs increase heart attack and stroke risk

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

Back in 2005, the FDA warned that taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen increased the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Last week it took the unusual step of further strengthening this warning. This was done on the advice of an expert panel that reviewed new information about NSAIDs and their risks. Because NSAIDs are widely used, it’s important to be aware of downsides of taking an NSAID and to take steps to limit the risk. The new warnings point out that heart attack and stroke risk increase even with short-term use, and the risk may begin within a few weeks of starting to take an NSAID. The risk increases with higher doses of NSAIDs taken for longer periods of time. The risk is greatest for people who already have heart disease, though even people without heart disease may be at risk.

Fourth of July grilling tip: Check for stray bristles after cleaning with a wire brush

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Like millions of Americans, I plan to fire up the grill today for a Fourth of July cookout. But I’ll be adding an extra step to my routine: checking the grate for bristles that may have fallen off my cleaning brush. An article in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describes six people injured by consuming grill-cleaning bristles hidden in grilled meat. Three had abdominal pain from wire bristles poking through the small intestine or colon. Three others had bristles stuck in the neck. All of the wire bristles were safely removed with open surgery or laparoscopy (“keyhole” surgery). The same team had published a report of six other cases earlier this year in the American Journal of Roentgenology. Twelve cases from one medical center over a three-year period does not an epidemic make. But it’s enough to suggest that ingesting wire bristles happens wherever home grilling is going on. Keep your grill bristle free by using a brush that’s in good shape. After you use a brush to clean your grill rack, use a towel or wadded up bunch of paper towels to wipe it down.

Beverly Merz

Dissolvable tablets don’t work for people with severe allergies to grass pollen

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

People with allergies to grass pollen may have cheered last year when the FDA approved a no-needles treatment —a daily tablet you dissolve under your tongue. These tables deliver low doses of grass pollen to the bloodstream. This is done to “teach” the immune system not to wage war on grass pollen. It turns out that these tablets don’t work that well. An analysis of 13 controlled clinical trials indicates that dissolvable tablets are only slightly more effective than placebos in curtailing classic symptoms of grass pollen allergy—runny nose, itchy eyes, and tickly throat. To make matters worse, more than 60% of people who used the tablets experienced irritating side effects.

Half of heart disease deaths could be prevented

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases kill nearly three-quarters of a million Americans each year. They are the leading cause of death, accounting for nearly 30% of all deaths in the United States. But according to a new study published online yesterday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, many of these deaths can be prevented. Researchers from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta estimated that eliminating five key risk factors for cardiovascular disease — smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity — would prevent more than half of all U.S. deaths from cardiovascular disease. Realizing that elimination may not be possible, they asked what would happen if, as a nation, we were able to do as well as the residents of the best-performing states. The result was a more modest 10% reduction in cardiovascular disease–related deaths.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Hidden cancer rarely causes out-of-the-blue clots in the bloodstream

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

Blood clots can be lifesavers when they form outside the bloodstream to stop bleeding from an injury. But they can wreak havoc when they form inside the bloodstream. A blood clot in a coronary artery can cause a heart attack. One in the brain can cause a stroke. Blood clots that form in a leg vein cause a problem known as venous thromboembolism, or VTE. If the clot stays in the leg, it can cause swelling or pain. If it breaks away and travels to the lungs, it can cause a potentially deadly pulmonary embolism. In about half of people who develop a VTE, doctors can identify what caused it. In the other half, VTE is something of a mystery. These are called “unprovoked” VTEs. Such unprovoked VTEs often spark a search for hidden cancer. But a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that these searches are usually fruitless — and costly.