Health

Gregory Curfman, MD

New vaccine is an important advance in stopping cervical and other HPV-related cancers

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

If you knew that a vaccine could prevent your daughter or son from developing a relatively common and potentially deadly cancer later in life, would you have her or him get it? Such a vaccine is available, and it’s about to get even better than it is now — but fewer than half of all teens have gotten it. The vaccine helps prevent infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). It is responsible for cervical cancer, which strikes 12,000 women each year in the United States and kills 4,000. HPV also causes cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. The vaccine, approved in 2006, attacks four types of HPV. The new one attacks nine types, and can help prevent most types of cervical cancer. Some parents worry that having their pre-teen daughters and sons vaccinated against HPV will nudge them into becoming sexually active or becoming sexually promiscuous. Studies, including a new one from Harvard, show that doesn’t happen.

Mindfulness meditation helps fight insomnia, improves sleep

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Worrying about a problem or a long to-do list at bedtime can be a recipe for insomnia. Mindfulness meditation — a mind-calming practice that focuses on breathing and awareness of the present moment — can help, according to a report in JAMA Internal Medicine. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. It helps you break the train of your everyday thoughts and relax. In addition to calling on mindfulness meditation at night to fight insomnia, it’s a good idea to practice it during the day, too, so it’s easier to evoke the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep.

Making one change — getting more fiber — can help with weight loss

Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Getting to a healthy weight and staying there isn’t always easy. Many complicated diets offer solutions. A study published in today’s Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that something as simple as aiming to eat more fiber each day can be just as good as a more complicated diet. In a head-to-head study of a simple diet (eat more fiber) and a complex one (eat more fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods, fish, and lean protein but also cut back on salt, sugar, fat, and alcohol), participants lost almost the same amounts of weight on either diet. Both diets led to similar improvements in blood pressure the body’s response to insulin. The results of the study don’t prove that a high-fiber diet is necessarily as good (or better) for health than the AHA diet or the highly in-vogue Mediterranean diet. But it does suggest that one simple step can make a difference and that encouraging healthy behaviors may be more effective than discouraging unhealthy ones.

Panel suggests that dietary guidelines stop warning about cholesterol in food

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Warnings against eating foods high in cholesterol, like eggs or shrimp, have been a mainstay of dietary recommendations for decades. That could change if the scientific advisory panel for the 2015 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has its say. A summary of the committee’s December 2014 meeting says “Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” Translation: You don’t need to worry about cholesterol in your food. Why not? There’s a growing consensus among nutrition scientists that cholesterol in food has little effect on the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream. And that’s the cholesterol that matters. Doing away with the beware-cholesterol-in-food warning would simplify the art of choosing healthy foods. And it would let people enjoy foods that contain higher amounts of cholesterol, such as eggs, shrimp, and lobster, without worrying about it. A better focus is on reducing saturated fat and trans fat in the diet, which play greater roles in damaging blood vessels than dietary cholesterol.

A healthy diet is the key to getting the iron you need

Nearly 2 billion people around the world are anemic, meaning they don’t get enough iron to produce the red blood cells and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin needed to nourish their myriad cells. In developed nations like the United States, though, iron-poor blood is uncommon. The body stores most of its iron in hemoglobin inside red blood cells and in ferritin, a protein that latches onto iron and sequesters it in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Most Americans get all the iron they need from food. The body absorbs iron from meat more easily than it absorbs it from plants. Getting enough vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from food. Because the body does not excrete iron rapidly, it can build up over time and possibly cause problems. That’s why it’s a good idea to ask your doctor if you need to take an iron supplement.

Gregory Curfman, MD

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.

Cocoa: a sweet treat for the brain?

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

There are many reasons why you might want to give someone chocolate on Valentine’s Day. There’s the tradition of it, and the idea of sweets for your sweetheart. Here’s another tempting reason: certain compounds in chocolate, called cocoa flavanols, have recently been linked with improved thinking skills. Italian researchers found people who drank a daily cocoa brew with a lot of flavanols (more than 500 milligrams) significantly improved their scores on tests that measured attention, executive function, and memory. How might cocoa flavanols boost thinking skills? They may help brain cells connect with each other. Dark chocolate is a good source of flavonols. It’s also a good source of calories. Adding it to your diet without taking out other foods can lead to weight gain, which may wipe out any health gain.

Millions of adults skip medications due to their high cost

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

Medications can do wonderful things, from fighting infection to preventing stroke and warding off depression. But medications don’t work if they aren’t taken. Some people don’t take their medications as prescribed because they forget, or are bothered by side effects. A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics shines the light on another reason: nearly 1 in 10 people skip medications because they can’t pay for them. Other strategies for saving money on drug costs included asking doctors for lower-cost medications, buying prescription drugs from other countries, and using alternative therapies. Not taking medications as prescribed can cause serious problems. It can lead to unnecessary complications related to a medical condition. It can lead to a bad outcome, like a heart attack or stroke. It can also increase medical costs if hospitalization or other medical interventions are needed. Safe money-saving options include using generic drugs when possible, pill splitting, shopping around, and making lifestyle changes such as exercising more and following a healthier diet, which can sometimes decrease the number and dose of drugs needed.

Common anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl linked to increased dementia risk

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

A new report from the University of Washington links long-term use of anticholinergic medications and dementia. Anticholinergic drugs block the action of acetylcholine. This substance transmits messages in the nervous system. In the brain, acetylcholine is involved in learning and memory. In the rest of the body, it stimulates muscle contractions. Anticholinergic drugs include some antihistamines, tricyclic antidepressants, medications to control overactive bladder, and drugs to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The study found that people who used anticholinergic drugs were more likely to have developed dementia as those who didn’t use them. Dementia risk increased with the cumulative dose. Taking an anticholinergic for the equivalent of three years or more was associated with a 54% higher dementia risk than taking the same dose for three months or less. Safer alternatives to anticholinergic drugs exist.

Being part of a walking group yields wide-ranging health benefits

If you are a sociable soul, here’s some interesting news about exercising with others: A study published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that being part of an outdoor walking group can improve health in many ways, including improvements in blood pressure, resting heart rate, total cholesterol, body weight, body fat, physical functioning, and risk of depression. In addition, people who were part of a walking group tended to keep exercising and not slack off. The findings are interesting because walking group participants reaped health benefits even though many of the groups did not meet international guidelines for moderate activity. This supports the idea that any activity is better than none.