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.
A longer lifespan can be a double-edged sword. You live for more years, but the later years may not necessarily be what you had in mind. We’ve known for some time that about 25% of older Americans can’t perform some activities of daily living without help. But we don’t know much about the other 75%. A new study suggests that two-thirds of Americans over age 65 need help doing everyday activities such as eating, bathing, and getting in and out of bed or a chair. Things you can do to help ward off becoming frail or disabled include staying active, managing weight and eating a healthy diet, preventing falls, making connections with others, and seeing your doctor(s) regularly.
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.
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.
If you’ve ever had a kidney stone, you surely remember it. The pain can be unbearable, coming in waves until the tiny stone passes through your urinary plumbing and out of the body. For many, kidney stones aren’t a one-time thing: in about half of people who have had one, another appears within seven years without preventive measures. Preventing kidney stones isn’t complicated but it does take some determination. Prevention efforts include drinking plenty of water, getting enough calcium from food, cutting back on salt (sodium), limiting animal protein, and avoiding stone-forming foods like beets, chocolate, spinach, rhubarb, tea, and others.
One key instruction in the operating manual for healthy aging is remaining ever vigilant about osteoporosis. The quest to identify osteoporosis early has led to widespread testing of bone mineral density (BMD), the key measure of bone strength. Medicare pays for the gold-standard test, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), every two years, regardless of whether their previous scan was normal or not. A study published today found that repeat bone-density testing after four years improved the ability to identify those at higher risk by only 4%. This study raises the fundamental question: Is repeating testing of older people with normal bone strength every two years too much?
Checking seemingly healthy people for cancer—what doctors call screening—seems like a simple process: Perform a test and either find cancer early and cure it or don’t find it and breathe easy. It works for colon, breast, and cervical cancers, but not for others. For colon cancer, there are several effective screening tests: colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, and stool testing. Two new studies in yesterday’s New England Journal of Medicine help further quantify their benefits. In the studies, all three types of test reduced the risk of developing or dying from colon cancer. Colonoscopy worked best, followed by sigmoidoscopy and then stool testing. The biggest challenge for colon cancer screening is getting people to have the available tests. About 50,000 Americans die of colon cancer each year—many of these can be prevented with early screening.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria sicken more than two million Americans each year and account for at least 23,000 deaths. The main cause? Overuse of antibiotics. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, details the health and financial costs of antibiotic resistance in the United States. In terms of health, antibiotic resistance should be in the CDC’s top 15 causes of death. It also adds as much as $20 billion in direct health-care costs. And the problem could get worse before it gets better. Antibiotic resistance is a problem because commonly used antibiotics will become less able to treat common infections. The CDC identified three types of bacteria as urgent hazards: Clostridium difficile, Enterobacteriaceae, and Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Decreasing the use of antibiotics and preventing infection in the first place are two key steps to halting the problem.
As medical research and healthy living continues to extend life, the Pew Research Center asked more than 2,000 Americans if they would take advantage of medical treatments to slow the aging process and let them live to age 120. More than half (56%) said they would not, but 65% thought that other people would want it. The Pew survey did not ask why most adults would not want life extending treatment. Previous work has identified what people fear about getting too old. These include loss of independence, running out of money, not being able to live at home, pain, and more. But there are ways to minimize the problems that come with age. The strategies, like exercising and not smoking aren’t sexy, nor do they rely on medical breakthroughs. But they can maximize one’s “healthspan” as well as lifespan.
More than 17,000 American youths end up in emergency departments each year with injuries from a falling television set. Two-thirds of them are under age 5, according to a report published online today in the journal Pediatrics. From 1996 to 2011, nearly 400,000 children under 18 years old were treated in emergency departments for TV-related injuries. In 1996, most of the injuries occurred when kids ran into television sets. By 2011, injuries from falling TVs dominated. The rate of TVs falling from dressers, bureaus, chests of drawers, and armoires nearly quadrupled. The authors of the study suggest that adding TVs to the list of furniture types that come with anti-tip devices “would be an important step in decreasing the number of injuries resulting from falling TVs.”