Trans fats, once seen as harmless additives that ended up in everything from Twinkies to French fries, are finally getting the reputation they deserve—bad for health. For years, the FDA has labeled trans fats as “generally recognized as safe.” That term applies to substances added to foods that experts consider safe, and so can be used without testing or approval. Yesterday the FDA proposed removing trans fats from the generally recognized as safe list, a step that would eliminate artificial trans fats from the American food supply. Oils rich in trans fats, long a workhorse of the food industry, boost harmful LDL cholesterol. They also depress protective HDL, which trucks LDL to the liver for disposal; have unhealthy effects on triglycerides; make blood platelets more likely to form artery-blocking clots in the heart, brain, and elsewhere; and feed inflammation, which plays key roles in the development of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
It’s been a big year for the Mediterranean diet. Convincing evidence published in 2013 has shown that this kind of eating pattern is effective at warding off heart attack, stroke, and premature death. While you probably get the biggest payoff by adopting such a diet early in life, a new study shows that doing it during midlife is good, too. In the study, women who followed a healthy diet during middle age were about 40% more likely to live past the age of 70 without chronic illness and without physical or mental problems than those with less-healthy diets. The healthiest women were those who ate more plant foods, whole grains, and fish; ate less red and processed meats; and had limited alcohol intake. That’s typical of a Mediterranean-type diet, which is also rich in olive oil and nuts.
Telling the difference between run-of-the-mill sore throat caused by a virus, which doesn’t require medication, from bacteria-caused strep throat, which should be treated with antibiotics, is a tricky thing at any age. Physicians from Harvard Medical School, MIT, and the Skaggs School of Pharmacy in California have come up with a scoring system that could save adults a trip to the doctor for what would most likely turn out to be a garden variety sore throat (it hasn’t been tested in kids yet). It’s based on symptoms, age, and the percentage of people in your area who have tested positive for strep within the last two weeks. If your score is high, then head to your doctor’s office. If it indicates that you are unlikely to have strep, there’s little need for you to rush in for an exam or throat culture. The researchers estimate that use of this kind of score could prevent 230,000 office visits in the United States each year and keep 8,500 men and women from getting antibiotics they don’t need.
Daylight Saving Time officially ends at 2:00 am this Sunday. In theory, “falling back” means an extra hour of sleep this weekend. But it doesn’t usually work out that way. Many people don’t, or can’t, take advantage of this weekend’s extra hour of sleep. And the focus on gaining or losing an hour of sleep overlooks the bigger picture—the effect of Daylight Saving Time transitions on the sleep cycle. This seemingly small one-hour shift in the sleep cycle can affect sleep for up to a week. It’s difficult to side-step the effects of Daylight Saving time on sleep. So be aware that it can take your sleep rhythms a week or so to get adjusted to the new clock.
Most people take balance for granted. They navigate without thinking, effort, or fear. For millions of others, though, poor balance is a problem. Some struggle with long-term dizziness or imbalance. Others suffer balance-related falls and injuries. A new study concludes that exercise can reduce not only the odds of falling but the odds of sustaining fall-related injuries. In many urban areas, there’s no shortage of classes aimed at improving balance. You can find them at senior centers, Y’s and Jewish Community Centers, health clubs, and the like. There’s also a lot you can do at home. The American College of Sports Medicine Standing recommends standing with one foot in front of another, lifting a foot off the floor, and shifting weight in various directions as three examples of home exercises.
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.
Today is World Stroke Day. It offers a good reminder of the profound impact that stroke has on individuals and communities. Nearly 800,000 Americans have strokes each year. Worldwide, one in six adults will have a stroke during their lifetime. Although most survive, stroke is a leading cause of disability in the United States and many other countries. A report published last week in The Lancet documents a troubling trend: more and more young people are experiencing strokes. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of strokes among people aged 20 to 64 years increased 25%. This age group now accounts for one-third of strokes worldwide. Some stroke survivors recover fully and regain their previous levels of function. Others don’t. Keys to full recovery include rapid identification of stroke symptoms, immediate evaluation and treatment, early rehabilitation, and support
There’s something satisfying about getting immediate feedback about exercise, sleep, and other activities. That’s why more and more people are joining the “quantified-self” movement. It involves formal tracking of health and habits, usually using apps and devices that feed data to them—from heart rate, activity, and sleep monitors to Bluetooth connected scales. But with so many apps and connected devices on the market, it can be hard to decide which ones are worth trying. Wellocracy, a website launched by the Harvard-affiliated Center for Connected Health, aims to give people impartial information about fitness trackers, mobile health apps, and other self-help technologies. It reviews dozens of sleep trackers, wearable activity trackers, mobile running apps, and mobile pedometer apps, lets you compare apps and devices in each category, provides a guide for beginners and offers tips for adding activity “bursts” throughout the day.
Millions of baseball fans will tune in tonight for the opening game of the World Series. Boston Red Sox versus St. Louis Cardinals. Sportswriters are saying it will be an interesting series between two well-matched teams. Football fans have it easy. They have to sit through just one big game to decide the year’s champion. For us baseball fans, it could take seven games spread over nine days to determine this year’s champion. That means fans need to approach the series as a marathon, not a sprint. Pay attention to sleep, exercise, food, alcohol, and emotions. The Red Sox and Cardinals are two very likable teams. Commentators point out that these guys play the game the “right way.” The players themselves say it’s going to be fun. Let’s see if we fans can remember that baseball is a game. This World Series should be fun to watch. Whoever you’re rooting for, have fun watching.
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.