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.

Let National Hepatitis Testing Day nudge you to getting a hepatitis check

Today is National Hepatitis Testing Day. The point of this day is to raise awareness of viral hepatitis, a condition that can lead to liver failure, liver cancer, and death. Early detection of hepatitis in the millions of people who have it but don’t know it can protect them from its harms and keep them from spreading the infection to others. There are five main types of viral hepatitis: A, B, C, D, and E. Some hepatitis viruses make people sick soon after infection but don’t cause long-term harm. Others are mostly silent, but stay active in the liver for years, possibly causing long-term damage. Advances in testing and treatment make early diagnosis more important today than it has ever been.

Diet rich in resveratrol offers no health boost

Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine and certain foods, has been touted as a natural way to slow aging and fight cancer, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. As promising as it sounds, we don’t really know how resveratrol affects humans, since most studies have been conducted on animals and microbes. A study out this week from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found no link between consumption of resveratrol from food and rates of heart disease, cancer, and death in a study of older men and women living in Italy’s Chianti region. The disappointing results don’t mean that resveratrol and other molecules like it won’t help extend the lifespan or protect against the development of aging-related diseases. Higher doses may be needed to do that. What’s needed now are trials to determine if taking high-dose resveratrol supplements is safe.

Not quite a threat yet, but MERS merits watching

In 2012, after the CDC declared SARS presented a threat to the public’s health and safety, public health and infectious disease experts took note of a new viral respiratory disease that was also caused by a coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). So far, roughly one-third of the people with confirmed cases of MERS have died. Until recently, most cases of MERS occurred in countries in the Arabian Peninsula. But this month, two cases of MERS have been confirmed in the United States. At the most recent meeting of WHO’s Emergency Committee members expressed growing concern about MERS, but since there is currently “no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission” the situation doesn’t yet meet the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

For women on osteoporosis drug “holiday,” bone testing at one year offers little benefit

For women with osteoporosis who are embarking on a “holiday” from taking a bone-building drug, the message from a study released today is “Bon voyage—see you in two years or so.” After menopause, loss of bone (osteoporosis) can lead to crippling fractures of the hip and spine. Drugs called bisphosphonates—alendronate (Fosamax) was the first on the market in the mid-1990s—slow bone loss. But after taking these drugs for a number of years, the balance can begin to tip from help to harm. A new report from the Fracture Intervention Trial Long-term Extension (FLEX) shows that measuring bone density after one year added no information that would have helped doctors identify who was at risk and perhaps should start taking a bisphosphonate again. Waiting two years is a good option for most women.

Too little sleep, and too much, affect memory

When it comes to memory, sleep is a Goldilocks issue: both too much and too little aren’t good. Aim for “just right,” says a new report from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study. Study participants who slept five hours or fewer per night or nine hours or more did worse on tests of memory and thinking skills that those getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night. The researchers estimated that undersleepers and oversleepers were mentally two years older than the women who got seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night. Although this study couldn’t prove that getting too little or too much sleep causes memory and thinking problems, it’s in line with other work showing the potentially harmful effects of poor sleep. Previous research has linked poor sleep with higher risks of heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and depression.

Make smart seafood choices to minimize mercury intake

Fish and shellfish are great sources of lean protein, and many types are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But there’s a catch: some species of fish contain worrisome amounts of methylmercury, a toxin that’s especially dangerous to developing brains. That’s why women who are or could become pregnant and young children shouldn’t eat high-mercury fish such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish. A new study hints that eating too much—or the wrong kind—of salmon and tuna can also boost mercury levels. But the study also offered reassurance: 95% of the nearly 11,000 people surveyed, including those who ate fish often, had blood mercury levels in the safe zone.

New drugs offer easier, more effective hepatitis C treatment

If you are a baby boomer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you be tested for infection with the hepatitis C virus. The virus can live in the liver for decades, often causing silent damage that leads to liver failure or liver cancer. But wide-scale testing has proved to be a hard sell. One reason is that treatments to eliminate HCV infection have required weekly injections of one drug and oral doses of others. Treatment could take up to a year. Typical side effects of the injected drug required to clear the virus, called peginterferon, include depression, anxiety, irritability, anemia, and fatigue. Two drug studies published today in The New England Journal of Medicine mark the latest advance in making treatment for HCV easier and more effective. Researchers report that combining several oral antivirals—drugs taken in pill form, not as injections—clear the virus from the liver in more than 95% of people in just 12 weeks. One big obstacle is cost—oral therapy tops $80,000.

Diabetes complications are falling while number of cases continues to rise

Two reports released this week shed light on the current state of type 2 diabetes in this country, and their conclusions are promising and sobering. First, the good news: An article in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that rates of diabetes-related problems like heart attack, stroke, and lower-limb amputation are down by more than 50% over the last two decades. Now the bad news: during the same time period, the number of people with diabetes has soared, according to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Today, about 21 million American adults are living with diabetes, and that number is on the upswing. Nearly 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. Unless something is done to reverse this trend, millions more Americans could edge closer to diabetes. Dr. Osama Hamdy, medical director of the Obesity Clinical Program at Harvard-affiliated Joslin Diabetes Center and author of The Diabetes Breakthrough, a newly published book from Harvard Health Publications, offers some strategies for preventing diabetes.

Ceremonies, remembrances mark one-year anniversary of Boston Marathon bombing

One year ago today, the detonation of two improvised bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people, injured more than 260 others, and shattered a day traditionally filled with joy and camaraderie. Although the bombing immediately extinguished the celebration, it sparked an outpouring of extraordinary work and compassion that continues to this day. Residents of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and beyond rallied to help those injured by the bombs. It is a testament to the extraordinary care and preparation by first responders and staff members at all Boston-area hospitals that only three people died. Many of the wounded were taken to teaching hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School. The medical school and its institutions take time today to mourn this senseless tragedy, pray for those who lost a loved one or who themselves still bear physical and emotional scars from the bombing, and acknowledge the work of first responders, emergency department staff, and others who have been part of the healing effort.

Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills

There are plenty of good reasons to be physically active. Big ones include reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Maybe you want to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, prevent depression, or just look better. Here’s another one, which especially applies to anyone experiencing the brain fog that comes with age: exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.