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.

Using the glycemic index to stave off holiday weight gain

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

One way to avoid adding extra pounds over the holiday season is by relying on the glycemic index to choose your foods and snacks. The glycemic index is a measure of how fast carbohydrates are turned into sugar. The higher a food’s glycemic index, the faster your body turns that food into sugar, and the sooner the “hunger bell” rings again. This can set into motion the cycle of holiday overeating. One way to go low glycemic: Choose foods your grandmother used to eat—ones that resemble things in nature, and don’t come with long lists of ingredients.

Cold hands: Could it be Raynaud’s?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

If your fingers turn ghostly white and numb when they get cold, you may have Raynaud’s syndrome (or disease or phenomenon). This common condition Raynaud’s is an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to cold. It usually affects fingers and toes, but may also affect the nose, lips, ears, and nipples. Named after the French physician who first described it in 1862, Raynaud’s is a problem in the body’s arteries. They spasm and collapse in response to cold or stress. Without a steady supply of warm blood circulating through them, the affected body part becomes pale. When the spasm ends and the arteries reopen, allowing blood to flow again, the finger, toe, or other body part turns pink or red. It may throb or tingle. Prevention—staying warm—is the best medicine. It’s possible to cut an attack short by running your hands under warm water, putting them in your arm pits, or waving your arms in circles to get the blood flowing. Other options include thermal feedback and relaxation techniques. More experimental options include Botox injections and sildenafil (Viagra).

Vitamin D testing not recommended for most people

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Over the past decade, a barrage of reports linking low vitamin D levels to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other ills led many doctors to routinely test vitamin D levels in their healthy patients. But there is no good reason to do that, according to a new recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) published in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine. The task force concluded that it isn’t helpful for most people to know their vitamin D level, and that even if you have a “low” vitamin D level there’s little evidence that taking a vitamin D supplement will do most people any good.

Heavy drinkers aren’t necessarily alcoholics, but may be “almost alcoholics”

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Nearly one-third of American adults are “excessive” drinkers, but only 10% of them have alcohol use disorder (alcoholism). Those numbers, published yesterday in a national survey, challenge the popular idea that most people who drink too much are alcoholics. The new study, done by researchers with the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, found that about 70% of all American adults drink alcohol at least now and then, about 30% report excessive drinking, and 3.5% have alcohol use disorder. It is higher among heavy drinkers (10%) and binge drinkers, ranging from 4% among those who report binge drinking once or twice a month to 30% among those who binge drink 10 times or more in a month. The knowledge that only 10% of heavy drinkers are alcoholic may be reassuring, but that doesn’t mean the other 90% aren’t have problems with drinking. Some are what Drs. Robert Doyle and Joseph Nowinski call “almost alcoholics.”

Can an app help you lose weight?

Smartphones and tablets combine an extraordinary amount of portable computing power with connectivity to the world via cell phone signal and WiFi. Many health entrepreneurs are trying to harness that power to help people to get healthier. But do they work? A study published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine on one popular weight-loss app finds that the answer is “not so much.” University of California, Los Angeles researchers tested one free app called MyFitnessPal. Overweight women who used it lost about five pounds over six months—but so did women who didn’t use the app. In spite of the app’s poor showing in the UCLA trial, MyFitnessPal and other health apps can be useful tools for people who want to manage their weight and lifestyle. But it takes two things from the user—motivation to make a change and using the app enough to produce the desired effect.

Two bad reasons for not getting a flu shot

Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Each year, only 40% of U.S. adults get vaccinated against the flu, even though the vaccine is available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, workplaces, and other venues. Two common reasons people give for avoiding the flu shot are 1) it will give me the flu and 2) it won’t work. Neither are accurate. The virus in a flu shot or nose spray has been killed or made unable to replicate in the human lung. Because the most common strains of flu virus changes from year to year, experts have to predict a year in advance which ones will predominate. Some years the guesses are good and the vaccines are quite effective. Other years the guesses aren’t so good and the vaccines aren’t as protective as they could be. The flu vaccine may be imperfect, but it’s still worth getting. Who should be vaccinated? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone over the age of 6 months get vaccinated against the flu every year.

Two tricks to make it easier to swallow pills

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

The expression that something is “a hard pill to swallow” isn’t just a metaphor. Swallowing pills can be difficult and downright unpleasant. It causes one in three people to gag, vomit, or choke. That may keep people from sticking to their medication routines, which can make them sicker. A new study by researchers from the University of Heidelberg in Germany may help people with pill swallowing difficulties. They suggest two techniques — the pop-bottle method and the lean-forward method — that can help people swallow pills more easily. Both methods were tested among people with self-professed difficulty swallowing medicine, and offered improvements of 60% to 90%.

Medicare says it will cover lung cancer scans for long-time smokers

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

Last spring, an advisory panel for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recommended that Medicare not cover low-dose CT scans for smokers or former smokers. These scans can double the proportion of lung cancers found at an early stage, while they are still treatable. Yesterday, CMS announced that it would cover the cost of these scans for people between the ages of 55 and 74 who smoke, or who quit within the last 15 years, and who have a smoking history of 30 pack-years. (That means a pack a day for 30 years, two packs a day for 15 years, etc.) The new Medicare plan would cover scans for an estimated 4 million older Americans, at a cost estimated to be more than $9 billion over five years. In a wise addition, Medicare will require smokers to get counseling on quitting or the importance of staying smoke-free before having the annual scan.

CT test for hidden lung cancer is cost-effective but not covered for many likely to benefit

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

The best test for finding hidden lung cancer in smokers is a low-dose CT scan. Its use has been endorsed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent panel that makes recommendations for screening tests. Most insurers follow the recommendations of the task force, and pay for those services. But some opposition to this by Medicare may mean that the test isn’t covered for some of the people who could benefit from it the most. A new report in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the cost of adding one good year to a person’s life through CT screening is around $80,000. Tests or procedures that cost less than $100,000 per year added are considered cost effective. The analysis identified two groups for whom screening is the most cost-effective—current smokers and people ages 60-74. People with private insurance will have low-dose CT scans covered. But those with Medicare may not, thanks to the decision of a Medicare advisory committee. The CMS is expected to publish a draft of its decision within the next few days and come to a final decision in early 2015.

Bleeding risk from new blood thinner Pradaxa higher than first reported

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

The FDA’s approval in 2010 of the blood-thinner dabigatran (Pradaxa) got many doctors excited. It was at least as effective as warfarin for preventing stroke-causing blood clots, and possibly caused fewer bleeding side effects. In addition, it is easier to use. Since then, studies of Pradaxa have slightly dampened the enthusiasm for the new drug. For example, a new study from the University of Pittsburgh showed that Pradaxa cause more episodes of serious bleeding (9%) than warfarin (6%). The bleeding sites tended to differ. Bleeding in the stomach and intestines was slightly higher among Pradaxa users. Bleeding in the head was slightly higher among warfarin users. Black patients and those with chronic kidney disease were more likely to bleed from Pradaxa.