Harvard Health Blog

Join the discussion with experts from Harvard Health Publications and others like you on a variety of health topics, medical news and views.

Switching to a fiber-rich diet may lower colon cancer risk in blacks

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

Switching from a “Western” diet with lots of fat and meat to a fiber-rich diet for just two weeks makes conditions in the large intestine less favorable to the development of colon cancer. The opposite switch may promote the formation of cancer. That’s the conclusion from a small but elegant study done in urban Pittsburgh and rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In the study, 20 volunteers from each area switched diets. For two weeks, the Americans ate a traditional high-fiber African diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans, while the Africans ate a Western diet with more fat, protein, and meat. In just two weeks, significant changes occurred in the lining of the colon and in its chemical and bacterial make-up in both groups, but in different directions. Those following the African diet showed improvements in colon health likely to protect against colon cancer, while those following the Western diet showed changes that could lead to colon cancer.

Special MRI scan could identify stroke risk in people with atrial fibrillation

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

Atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm disorder that affects millions of people. It can lead to potentially disabling or deadly strokes. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine adding motion-tracking software to standard MRI heart scans of 149 men and women with atrial fibrillation. The scans revealed specific changes in the muscles of the left atrium that increased stroke risk in some of the volunteers. These changes were not associated with age or other risk factors for stroke. This could help many people with this condition to avoid taking warfarin or other clot-preventing medications for life. But it is much too early to include MRI as part of the standard evaluation of people with atrial fibrillation — not to mention that such scans would significantly increase the cost of these evaluations. For now, doctors will continue to use standard tools to help determine stroke risk.

Number of babies born in withdrawal from prescription painkillers is on the rise

Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Each year, an alarming number of babies born in the United States spend their first few days withdrawing from drugs, often prescription painkillers their mothers took during their pregnancies. This problem, called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), has increased fourfold since 2004, according to a report published online yesterday in The New England Journal of Medicine. NAS occurs in many babies whose mothers took a type of medication called an opioid during pregnancy. (Two commonly used opioids are OxyContin and Vicodin.) These drugs easily pass from the mother’s bloodstream to the baby’s. In effect, NAS is a baby’s withdrawal from opioids. With medication and time, babies with NAS get better, but they have to spend time in the hospital. In short, they get a rough start on life that can set them back and possibly have long-term repercussions. With so many safe options for pain control, women who are pregnant should use opioids only if these medications are absolutely necessary.

No “best” treatment for common uterine fibroids

Urmila Parlikar, Senior Content Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Fibroids are noncancerous tumors that grow in the uterus. They may be smaller than a seed or bigger than a grapefruit. Depending on their size, number, and location, fibroids can cause heavy bleeding and long menstrual periods (which can, in turn, cause anemia), pelvic pain, frequent urination, or constipation. Fibroids can also cause infertility and repeated miscarriages. About 7 in 10 women will develop this condition at some point. Given how common uterine fibroids are, it’s surprising how few randomized trials have been done to compare treatment options. A clinical practice article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine lays out the options for treating uterine fibroids and discusses the factors women and their doctors should consider when making treatment decisions.

Hospitalization after fainting can do more harm than good

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Fainting can be alarming. Sometimes it’s a signal of a heart or other problem that needs to be fixed. But sometimes it is nothing to worry about, caused by not eating, having blood drawn, or even laughing too hard. Up to one-third of people at low risk for serious short-term problems after fainting end up being hospitalized. A research letter in this week’s JAMA Internal Medicine points out that hospitalization for low-risk fainting can do more harm than good. Just because you’re in the emergency department after fainting doesn’t mean you need to be admitted to the hospital. Ask your physician if you’re at risk for a worse event if you go home, and make sure that if you’re admitted it’s because there’s a potential serious cause for your fainting that can’t be fully assessed in the emergency department.

5 tips to make the Boston Marathon your marathon

Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

On Marathon Monday, thousands of runners will start in Hopkinton, Mass., and finish in Copley Square. Some will glide along, some will lope, and others will shuffle. No matter how they run, or how fast they run, running the Boston Marathon is something special. Here are a few tips to make the Boston Marathon your marathon. 1) Never wear something on marathon day you haven’t worn for a distance run before. 2) If family or friends will be watching you along the route, try to know in advance where they will be. 3. “The wall” is real so have a plan. 4. Try to take in the atmosphere. 5. Enjoy the camaraderie.

More than a stretch: Yoga’s benefits may extend to the heart

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Yoga is good for the muscles and the mind. New research suggests that it may also be good for the heart. A review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise, such as brisk walking. It can help people lose weight, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and ease stress. Each of those changes works to prevent heart disease, and can help people who already have cardiovascular problems.

Physical therapy as good as surgery and less risky for one type of lower back pain

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

One type of lower back pain, called lumbar spinal stenosis, can be painful and potentially disabling. An operation known as laminectomy or decompression is sometimes done to ease the pain of lumbar spinal stenosis. Physical therapy can also help. Researchers compared the results of laminectomy to those of a special physical therapy program among nearly 170 Pittsburgh-area men and women with lumbar spinal stenosis. The two approaches worked equally well — pain declined and physical function improved. There were more complications in the surgery group. Since there are no hard and fast rules for choosing the right treatment for lumbar spinal stenosis, the results of this study offer some guidance — try a well-designed physical therapy program first.

Germanwings Flight 9525 shows the limits of predicting human violence

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The tragic story of copilot Andreas Lubitz, the man who apparently crashed Germanwings flight 9525 into the Alps in an act of suicide and murder, demonstrates the opaqueness of mental illness. It is difficult to know when a person is struggling with private psychological and emotional pain that might lead to dangerous or destructive behavior. All of us tend to keep our thoughts, especially our most disturbing ones, to ourselves. Even when encouraged to speak those thoughts aloud — to a mental health professional, for example — it is very difficult to do so. This tragedy will likely spark calls for increased scrutiny of pilots. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it could lead to the unintended and undesirable consequence that pilots will become even more wary of seeking help. To honor the lives lost will require policies that protect the public while not being punitive to pilots.

An apple a day may not keep the doctor away, but it’s a healthy choice anyway

This week’s inaugural April Fool’s Day edition of JAMA Internal Medicine carried a report entitled “Association Between Apple Consumption and Physician Visits: Appealing the Conventional Wisdom That an Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.” Based on actual national nutrition data collected from nearly 8,400 men and women it concludes, “Evidence does not support that an apple a day keeps the doctor away; however, the small fraction of US adults who eat an apple a day do appear to use fewer prescription medications.” Apples may have failed this critical scientific test, but they are still an excellent choice as a snack, pick-me-up, or dessert.