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.

Daily protein needs for seniors still unsettled

A new study that linked eating more protein to lower risk of stroke isn’t the last word on the subject. But that doesn’t make dietary protein any less vital, especially in older adults who are at greater risk for malnutrition and illness. How much protein is enough? Current guidelines for adults of any age recommend 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Do older people need more protein than younger ones? That’s still an open question.

Antidepressants cause minimal weight gain

Antidepressant medications have helped millions of people cut through the dark fog of depression. Many others try these medications but stop taking them, often because of side effects such as weight gain. A new Harvard-based study, one of the largest and longest studies of the connection between antidepressant use and weight so far, shows that the amount gained is usually small, and that it differs little from one antidepressant to another. Using citalopram as a reference, because earlier studies suggested that it is “average” when it comes to weight gain, bupropion was associated with the least amount of weight gain, close to none. Two others that also appeared to have relatively less weight gain were amitriptyline and nortriptyline. At the other end of the spectrum, citalopram caused the most weight gain. Even so, the differences between the drugs was small. The results of the study were published online this week in JAMA Psychiatry.

Erectile dysfunction drugs and skin cancer — should you worry?

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine this week found that men who used the erection-enhancing drug sildenafil (Viagra) were 84% more likely to develop melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, over a period of 10 years. That finding makes for an attention-grabbing headline. But it doesn’t tell the real story—that the study found an association (not cause and effect), that this hasn’t been seen in other studies of men, and that, even if it holds true, the absolute increase is small, from 4.3 cases of melanoma for every 1,000 men who didn’t take Viagra to 8.6 of every 1,000 men who took it. The take-home message is that it’s important to worry about melanoma—which is largely caused by getting too much sun—but not yet about Viagra and melanoma.

Dietary supplements often promise more than they deliver

Dietary supplements are big business, even though few of the 85,000 products on the market have proven benefits. An article in JAMA Internal Medicine highlights a bizarre case of supplement overuse: a man, worried about memory loss, was spending nearly $3,000 a month on more than 50 supplements recommended by his “anti-aging” physician, plus hundreds of dollars more on other products he chose himself. Most of the products had no proven benefit on memory, and some may have contributed to the memory loss he was so worried about. had possible negative effects on brain function. People often assume that dietary supplements are effective, because of the claims they make, and are harmless, because they are “natural.” Not so. Unlike pharmaceuticals, which undergo extensive testing to prove they’re effective and safe before they can be sold, dietary supplements can be sold with without proof of effectiveness, safety, or purity.

Walking, other exercise helps seniors stay mobile, independent

If you want to stay healthy and mobile well into old age, start walking today—even if you’ve already edged into “old age.” That’s the conclusion of a report from the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders (LIFE) trial, published online yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Frail, inactive older people between the ages of 70 and 89 who started exercising were less likely to have become disabled over the course of a 30-month trial than a similar group who took part in workshops on healthy aging. Some older people they have passed the age at which starting an exercise program will do them any good. These new findings reinforce what other studies have shown: You’re never too old to exercise.

When you can’t let go: What to do about hoarding

Many of us have trouble parting with our possessions—even when we no longer need them. Some people hold onto decades’ worth of receipts, newspapers, and other seemingly useless items. They have hoarding disorder—a mental health condition characterized by a compulsive need to acquire and keep possessions, even when they’re not needed. Exactly when a “pack rat” crosses the line into true hoarding has to do with the intensity with which they’re saving, and the difficulty getting rid of things. Severe hoarders can accumulate so much that they render their living spaces unusable—and dangerous. Hoarding also takes an emotional toll on families and friends. Experts recommend treating hoarders with hoarding cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help the person better understand why he or she is hoarding, and to improve decision-making, organizational, and problem-solving skills.

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.