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.

Early scans for back pain add cost but offer little benefit for seniors

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

Older adults with new back pain usually end up getting a CT scan or MRI. That’s often a waste of time and money and has little or no effect on the outcome, according to a new study from the University of Washington. The results of the study contradict current guidelines from the American College of Radiology. The guidelines say that it’s “appropriate” for doctors to order early MRIs for people ages 70 and older with new-onset back pain, and many doctors do just that. The study, which followed more than 5,200 men and women over the age of 65 who saw a primary care physician for a new bout of back pain, found that people who got early back scans did no better than those who didn’t have scans. The scans added about $1,400 per person to the overall cost of back pain care — with no measurable benefit.

Are you 65 or older? Get two vaccinations against pneumonia

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

If you or a loved one is age 65 or older, getting vaccinated against pneumonia is a good idea — so good that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now recommends that everyone in this age group get vaccinated against pneumonia twice. For the past 30 years or so, the CDC has recommended that everyone ages 65 and older get a single-dose pneumonia vaccine called pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine 23 (PPSV23). This vaccine is also recommended for those between the ages of two and 64 who are at high risk of getting pneumonia. Findings from a large clinical trial called CAPiTA, published today in The New England Journal of Medicine, show that a second vaccine, called pneumococcal conjugate vaccine 13 (PCV13), provides further protection against pneumonia and related infections. When it comes to preventing pneumonia, the bottom line for older individuals is clear: Get vaccinated twice.

Folic acid, a B vitamin, lowers stroke risk in people with high blood pressure

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

If you’re among the one in three American adults with high blood pressure, be sure you’re getting plenty of the B vitamin known as folate. Doing so may lower your odds of having a stroke, an often disabling or deadly event linked to high blood pressure. That’s the conclusion of a large trial conducted in China, where many people don’t get enough folate. Most Americans get plenty of folate or its synthetic version, folic acid. That’s largely because grain folic acid is added to most grain products, including wheat flour, cornmeal, pasta, and rice. It’s a good idea for everyone to do a diet check to make sure it delivers enough folate. Good sources include green leafy vegetables, beans, and citrus fruits.

PCSK9 inhibitors: a major advance in cholesterol-lowering drug therapy

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

Every so often, a medical advance comes along that rewrites the script for treating a disease or condition. After today’s announcement of impressive results of a new type of cholesterol-lowering drug, that scenario just might happen in the next few years. The results of three clinical trials presented today at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, and simultaneously published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that a class of new drugs called PCSK9 inhibitors can dramatically reduce the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream and prevent heart attacks, strokes, and other problems related to cholesterol-clogged arteries. The drawbacks are that PCSK9 inhibitors must be given by injection every 2 to 4 weeks, may cause mental confusion or trouble paying attention, and, if approved, will likely be expensive.

Edible marijuana — a half-baked idea?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Marijuana-laced brownies have long been a way to get high. Now a new generation of “food companies” is taking the concept of edible marijuana in a somewhat scary new direction: marijuana-laced foods that mimic popular candies. These sweets could pose a danger to children, warns a Perspective article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine. From a marketing perspective, it’s a cute concept to sell Buddahfingers that look like Butterfingers, Rasta Reese’s that mimic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or Pot Tarts that resemble Pop-Tarts. But the availability of edible marijuana products has led to an increase in emergency visits to hospitals because of kids accidentally eating edible marijuana products and in marijuana-related calls to poison and drug hotlines.

Vegetarian diet linked to lower colon cancer risk

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Looking for ways to ward off colorectal cancer? According to a new study, a pescovegetarian diet — that’s a vegetarian diet that includes fish — was linked to a 43% reduction in the risk of developing colorectal cancer. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, adds more support to the notion that something in red meat, or the way it is cooked, encourages the growth of colorectal cancer. It’s also possible that eating more plant foods provides extra beneficial nutrients such as folate, calcium, and fiber that may protect against colorectal cancer. Fish contain healthful omega-3 fats and vitamin D. Another good strategy for preventing harm from colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States? Have colonoscopies as needed.

Peanuts linked to same heart, longevity benefits as more pricey nuts

Nuts have been gaining traction as an all-natural health food. Tree nuts like almonds, pecans, and walnuts are especially prized for their rich cargo of vitamins, minerals, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The downside is that tree nuts tend to be pricey. But a study published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine puts the humble peanut squarely in the same nutritional league as its upscale cousins. This work makes the health benefits of nuts more accessible to lower-income shoppers. An international team of researchers found that in more than 200,000 people from Savannah to Shanghai, those who regularly ate peanuts and other nuts were substantially less likely to have died of any cause — particularly heart disease — over the study period than those who rarely ate nuts. A key take-home message from this study is that eating peanuts appears to be just as potent for preventing heart disease as eating other nuts.

Will the Supreme Court send Obamacare into a death spiral?

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

The Supreme Court heard arguments this morning in a case that could threaten the viability of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature health care law. The law, also known as Obamacare, survived a previous Supreme Court challenge in 2012. But this new case, called King vs. Burwell, has many people worried, and rightfully so. At issue in the case are the financial subsidies provided to millions of Americans to buy health insurance through the insurance marketplaces, called exchanges. Without these subsidies, many people of lower income would not be able to afford coverage. Stopping these subsidies would put a big dent in the “affordable” part of the law’s name. The plaintiffs argue that the Affordable Care Act allows for subsidies to be provided when insurance is purchased on exchanges “established by the State” (there are 17 of these), but not on the exchange established by the federal government for the other states. The outcome of the case may hinge on how the justices interpret those four words in the health law.

This year’s flu vaccine “disappointing” against main flu virus

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

Some years the flu vaccine works quite well. Other years it doesn’t. It has done a particularly poor job this year against the main flu virus. The CDC reported yesterday that this year’s flu vaccine has been just 18% effective. The estimate for children is even lower. And it looks like the nasal spray vaccine may not have worked at all among children. One reason for this year’s mismatch between virus and vaccine is that experts must decide months in advance which of the hundreds of flu viruses to include in the vaccine. What became the dominant flu virus this year, a new strain of H3N2 influenza A, wasn’t around last year when experts were determining this year’s vaccine.

Sauna use linked to longer life, fewer fatal heart problems

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

Sitting in a sauna is one way to chase away the cold. A new report in JAMA Internal Medicine makes this pastime even more appealing: regularly spending time in a sauna may help keep the heart healthy and extend life. Among 2,300 middle-aged Finnish men, those who took a sauna bath four or more times a week were less likely to have died over a 20-year period than those who took a sauna once a week or less. Frequent visits to a sauna were also associated with lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and stroke. Sauna baths are generally safe and likely beneficial for people with well-controlled coronary artery disease or mild heart failure, but may not be so hot for those with unstable angina or a recent heart attack. The high temperature in a sauna can boost the heart rate to a level often achieved by moderate-intensity physical exercise. Is sitting in a sauna the equivalent of exercising? No. But exercising and then taking a sauna seems like a very healthy routine.