Women’s Health

Carolyn Schatz

Study supports alcohol, breast cancer link

Carolyn Schatz, Former Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

A 28-year study of 106,000 women found that moderate alcohol slightly increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Women who had the equivalent of three to six drinks a week had a modest increase in their risk of breast cancer (15%) compared to women who never drank alcohol. That would translate into an extra 3 cases of breast cancer per 1,000 women per year. The risks were the same for wine, beer, and spirits. Because moderate drinking appears to prevent some types of heart disease—which affects more women than breast cancer does—it’s important for women to think about alcohol in light of their own personal health situation.

Lloyd Resnick

Blockages in tiny heart arteries a big problem for women

Lloyd Resnick, Former Editor, Harvard Health

About 10% of women who have heart attacks seem to have clear, unblocked arteries. They don’t, really. Instead, they have a problem inside tiny arteries supplying the heart muscle, called microvessels. Traditional diagnostic tests can’t “see” into microvessels. In larger coronary arteries, the buildup of cholesterol-filled plaque creates distinct bulges that narrow the vessel at a particular spot, reducing blood flow. In microvessels, plaque uniformly coats the inner layer. This reduces the space for blood flow and makes the arteries stiff and less able to expand in response to exercise or other stress. Researchers are still trying to determine the best ways to diagnose and treat microvessel disease. Talking to cardiologists at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz said that the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra (sildenafil), which was originally developed to improve blood flow to the heart, is being tested as one possible therapy.

Carolyn Schatz

Painful, disabling interstitial cystitis often goes undiagnosed

Carolyn Schatz, Former Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Millions of Americans—most of them women—suffer from a bladder condition known as interstitial cystitis. According to a new study of this disorder, fewer than 10% of women with symptoms of interstitial cystitis are actually diagnosed with the disorder, even though it severely affects their lives. Without a proper diagnosis, women with interstitial cystitis are missing […]

Patrick J. Skerrett

Gaining weight? Beware potatoes—baked, fried, or in chips

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Potato chips and potatoes (baked, boiled, and fried) were the foods most responsible for weight gained gradually over four-year periods among 120,000 healthy women and men in long-term studies. Other key contributors included sugar-sweetened beverages and red and processed meats. On the flip side, yogurt, nuts, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables were linked to weight loss or maintenance. Potatoes may be a “perfect food” for lean people who exercise a lot or who do regular manual labor. But for the rest of us, it might be safer for the waistline to view potatoes as a starch—and a fattening one at that—not as a vegetable.

Harvey B. Simon, M.D.

Belly fat is the shape of cardiovascular risk

Harvey B. Simon, M.D., Editor, Harvard Health

Extra fat that accumulates around the abdomen goes by many names: beer belly, spare tire, love handles, apple shape, middle-age spread, and the more technical “abdominal obesity.” No matter what the name, it is the shape of risk.

Carolyn Schatz

Mindfulness meditation improves connections in the brain

Carolyn Schatz, Former Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Mindfulness meditation can ease stress. It also seems to do a lot more, like help with physical and psychological problems from high blood pressure and chronic pain to anxiety and binge eating. New research shows that mindfulness meditation changes the way nerves connect.

Patrick J. Skerrett

At Harvard Forum, experts debate how much vitamin D is enough

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

A panel discussion at Harvard School of Public Health called “Boosting Vitamin D: Not Enough or Too Much?” highlights the current controversy over the once-overlooked sunshine vitamin. A panel of experts assembled by the Institute of Medicine recommends a daily dose of 600 IU per day for everyone from ages 1 to 70 and 800 IU for those over 70. Other experts think the IOM recommendation is too low. One way to get vitamin D is to spend a few minutes a day outside in the sun, but that’s a hot-button issue because sun exposure is a cause of skin cancer.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Understanding heart failure

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Heart failure, the condition that took Elizabeth Taylor’s life, affects millions of Americans. The term “heart failure” is a scary one, conjuring up images of a heart that is suddenly unable to work. In truth, it represents a gradual decline in the heart’s ability to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. As the heart weakens, all parts of the body suffer the consequences. Harvard Heart Letter editor PJ Skerrett explains what heart failure is, how it affects the body, and what can be done to treat it.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Oh please, not the “sex causes heart attack” story again

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Having sex (or performing any kind of physical activity) triples the risk of having a heart attack, according to a new study. But there’s more to the story. The odds of having a heart attack during sex are about 1 in one million; tripling the risk boosts it to 3 in one million. In other words, sex can cause a heart attack, but usually doesn’t. And the more a person exercises, or has sex, the lower the chances of having a heart attack during the activity.

Kay Cahill Allison

When it comes to fiber, cereal fiber may be your best choice

Kay Cahill Allison, Former Editor, Harvard Health

Cereal fiber–from whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, barley and other whole grains–seems to offer more protection against heart disease and other chronic conditions than fiber from fruits and vegetables. The benefit isn’t necessarily from the fiber alone, but the natural package of nutrients that comes with the fiber. Processed foods, which are often stripped of their fiber and nutrients and then “fortified” in the manufacturing process, don’t measure up.