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.

Tight blood sugar control in type 2 diabetes linked to fewer heart attacks and strokes

Urmila Parlikar, Senior Content Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Diabetes damages every part of the body, from the brain to the feet. High blood sugar, the hallmark of diabetes, wreaks havoc on blood vessels. It makes sense that keeping blood sugar under control should prevent diabetes-related damage — but how low to push blood sugar is an open question. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) provides reassuring evidence that so-called tight blood sugar control is good for the heart and circulatory system. A 10-year follow-up of the Veterans Affairs Diabetes Trial showed that participants who aimed for tight blood sugar control had lower blood sugar and fewer heart attacks and strokes than participants whose blood sugar was allowed to float a bit higher. Although tight blood sugar control can help prevent diabetes-related damage, it can have drawbacks such as bouts of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which can be dangerous. Current guidelines from the American Diabetes Association recommend tight blood sugar control, but also recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all rule.

Combination of a cholesterol-lowering statin and ezetimibe lowers risk of a heart attack or stroke

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

High cholesterol is a key culprit in the development of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States and many other developed countries. We know that lowering cholesterol helps prevent heart attacks and strokes. But an unanswered question remains: how low should you go? New research published online today in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that lower is better. In a large clinical trial, participants who took a cholesterol-lowering statin plus ezetimibe, a different type of cholesterol-lowering drug, had lower levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and experienced fewer heart attacks and strokes than participants taking a statin alone. The new findings provide a strong rationale for using ezetimibe when a statin alone isn’t enough.

Report proposes new “vital signs” to measure the nation’s health

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

Doctors use vital signs as a relatively straightforward way to detect an illness or monitor a person’s health. Key ones include blood pressure, body temperature, breathing rate, and heart rate. A report from the newly christened National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) proposes using 15 “vital signs” to track how health care in the United States measures up. These include life expectancy, well-being, access to care, patient safety, evidence-based care, and others. Why bother creating such a list? Health care costs in the U.S. are the highest in the world, yet people in many countries that spend less on health care are in better health overall and have better health care outcomes. In order to improve the performance of health care, we need to measure how it is doing in a logical, sustainable way. These vital signs will help us answer questions about what we are doing well and where we must improve.

Can hospice care reduce depression in the bereaved?

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

Hospice care improves quality of life in the dire circumstances of a person’s last days. It can enable the dying to spend this time in peace, surrounded by family and friends, and in little pain. Studies confirm what many know intuitively. Family members are likely to experience major depression following the loss of a loved one. A recent study published in today’s online JAMA Internal Medicine looked at whether hospice care reduces the severity of bereavement-related depression in people who had recently lost a spouse. While the researchers saw no difference between spouses whose partners were enrolled in hospice and those how weren’t, major depression was less common in spouses who received support from a hospice program.

New hospital ratings evaluate delivery of “typical care”

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

For the past 25 years, US News and World Report has been listing the “best hospitals” in the United States. In a Viewpoint article in this week’s JAMA, the magazine’s top health analysts describe how they are expanding and changing the way they rate hospitals. The current ratings aren’t designed for use by patients in need of typical hospital care. That’s changing. The US News team has spent more than a year analyzing more than 5 million patient records regarding more than a dozen common procedures and medical conditions from more than 4,300 hospitals. Ratings for five of these — hip replacement, knee replacement, coronary artery bypass surgery chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure — were published online today. The new ratings use only performance measures such as patient safety, technology, and survival rates after admission. Keep in mind that ratings like these can help, but they’re mostly limited to data, and aren’t the whole picture. Other organizations also provide hospital rankings and ratings.

Grip strength may provide clues to heart health

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

A strong or weak hand grip carries more than just social cues. It may also help measure an individual’s risk for having a heart attack or stroke, or dying from cardiovascular disease. As part of the international Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological (PURE) study, researchers measured grip strength in nearly 140,000 adults in 17 countries and followed their health for an average of four years. Each 11-pound decrease in grip strength over the course of the study was linked to a 16% higher risk of dying from any cause, a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, a 9% higher risk of stroke, and a 7% higher risk of heart attack. Interestingly, grip strength was a better predictor of death or cardiovascular disease than blood pressure. What’s the connection? It’s possible that grip strength measures biological age.

Draft recommendations on screening mammography continue to stir debate

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

The release of new guidelines on mammography never fails to renew the heated controversy over the potential benefits and harms of this procedure. The latest draft guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) are no exception. The USPSTF recommends that women begin having mammograms at age 50 and stop at age 75. (The American Cancer Society and other medical organizations recommend that women begin getting regular mammograms at age 40.) The draft recommendations say there isn’t enough evidence to recommend or discourage the use of a new technique called 3-D mammography for screening, and also say there isn’t enough evidence to recommend that women with dense breasts, who are at higher risk of breast cancer, should have an ultrasound or MRI in addition to screening mammography. Comments can be made on the USPSTF draft until 8:00 pm Easter Time today. A final version of the recommendations is expected to be released in the fall of 2015.

Surgery still trumps “antibiotics first” approach to appendicitis

Urmila Parlikar, Senior Content Editor, Harvard Health Publications

When appendicitis strikes, an operation to remove the appendix has long been the route to recovery. But a new strategy called “antibiotics first” could help some people avoid surgery for appendicitis. A clinical practice article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine explores the idea of antibiotics first for appendicitis. The main advantage is that it could eliminate the need for surgery in some people with appendicitis. The drawbacks are that it leaves open the possibility of repeat bouts of appendicitis, with an appendectomy still down the road. It could also lead to lingering symptoms and a sense of uncertainty that could affect quality of life. Although immediate surgery is the standard of care for appendicitis, an antibiotics first approach could be appropriate now for individuals who prefer not to have surgery, aren’t healthy enough for surgery, or aren’t near a medical center that routinely does laparoscopic appendectomy.

Mediterranean diet may help counteract age-related declines in memory and thinking skills

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Can a Mediterranean-type diet with extra servings of nuts and extra-virgin olive oil help protect memory and thinking skills with age? A study in this week’s JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that it might. The findings come from a small substudy done as part of the PREDIMED trial, which showed that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems among people at high risk for them. Although the results of the new PREDIMED study are promising, its small size and the fact that it wasn’t designed to look at connections between diet and brain health mean the results need to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, since there’s no downside to following a Mediterranean diet, an added bonus beyond great taste could be protecting memory and thinking skills.

Environmentally friendly inhalers double the cost for people with asthma

Jake Miller, Contributing Editor

Environmentally friendly asthma inhalers may be good for the atmosphere, but they have nearly doubled what people with asthma are paying out of pocket for their inhalers. That’s the take-home message from a study led by Dr. Anupam Jena, an assistant professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School and an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital. The findings were published online today in JAMA Internal Medicine. In 2008, the FDA banned a class of asthma inhalers that contained ozone-depleting propellants called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The switch to CFC-free inhalers has led to an average increase of $10 per inhaler prescription, which has effectively doubled their cost.