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.

Panel suggests that dietary guidelines stop warning about cholesterol in food

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Warnings against eating foods high in cholesterol, like eggs or shrimp, have been a mainstay of dietary recommendations for decades. That could change if the scientific advisory panel for the 2015 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has its say. A summary of the committee’s December 2014 meeting says “Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” Translation: You don’t need to worry about cholesterol in your food. Why not? There’s a growing consensus among nutrition scientists that cholesterol in food has little effect on the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream. And that’s the cholesterol that matters. Doing away with the beware-cholesterol-in-food warning would simplify the art of choosing healthy foods. And it would let people enjoy foods that contain higher amounts of cholesterol, such as eggs, shrimp, and lobster, without worrying about it. A better focus is on reducing saturated fat and trans fat in the diet, which play greater roles in damaging blood vessels than dietary cholesterol.

A healthy diet is the key to getting the iron you need

Nearly 2 billion people around the world are anemic, meaning they don’t get enough iron to produce the red blood cells and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin needed to nourish their myriad cells. In developed nations like the United States, though, iron-poor blood is uncommon. The body stores most of its iron in hemoglobin inside red blood cells and in ferritin, a protein that latches onto iron and sequesters it in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Most Americans get all the iron they need from food. The body absorbs iron from meat more easily than it absorbs it from plants. Getting enough vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from food. Because the body does not excrete iron rapidly, it can build up over time and possibly cause problems. That’s why it’s a good idea to ask your doctor if you need to take an iron supplement.

For joggers, less may be more

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

Jogging is one of those activities that seems to embody the concept of healthy physical activity. A new study from Denmark may prompt a rethinking of the benefits of strenuous jogging. Researchers with the ongoing Copenhagen City Heart Study found that, compared to healthy but inactive non-joggers, the death rate of light joggers was 90% lower. No surprise there. But the death rate for strenuous joggers was no different than that of sedentary non-joggers. In this study, the most beneficial exercise was jogging at a slow or moderate pace two to three times a week for a total of 60 to 145 minutes. This one study certainly shouldn’t change the current recommendations for physical activity. But it helps debunk the “no pain, no gain” myth of exercise and supports the idea that any activity is better than none—but there may be an upper limit.

Cocoa: a sweet treat for the brain?

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

There are many reasons why you might want to give someone chocolate on Valentine’s Day. There’s the tradition of it, and the idea of sweets for your sweetheart. Here’s another tempting reason: certain compounds in chocolate, called cocoa flavanols, have recently been linked with improved thinking skills. Italian researchers found people who drank a daily cocoa brew with a lot of flavanols (more than 500 milligrams) significantly improved their scores on tests that measured attention, executive function, and memory. How might cocoa flavanols boost thinking skills? They may help brain cells connect with each other. Dark chocolate is a good source of flavonols. It’s also a good source of calories. Adding it to your diet without taking out other foods can lead to weight gain, which may wipe out any health gain.

Millions of adults skip medications due to their high cost

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

Medications can do wonderful things, from fighting infection to preventing stroke and warding off depression. But medications don’t work if they aren’t taken. Some people don’t take their medications as prescribed because they forget, or are bothered by side effects. A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics shines the light on another reason: nearly 1 in 10 people skip medications because they can’t pay for them. Other strategies for saving money on drug costs included asking doctors for lower-cost medications, buying prescription drugs from other countries, and using alternative therapies. Not taking medications as prescribed can cause serious problems. It can lead to unnecessary complications related to a medical condition. It can lead to a bad outcome, like a heart attack or stroke. It can also increase medical costs if hospitalization or other medical interventions are needed. Safe money-saving options include using generic drugs when possible, pill splitting, shopping around, and making lifestyle changes such as exercising more and following a healthier diet, which can sometimes decrease the number and dose of drugs needed.

Common anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl linked to increased dementia risk

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

A new report from the University of Washington links long-term use of anticholinergic medications and dementia. Anticholinergic drugs block the action of acetylcholine. This substance transmits messages in the nervous system. In the brain, acetylcholine is involved in learning and memory. In the rest of the body, it stimulates muscle contractions. Anticholinergic drugs include some antihistamines, tricyclic antidepressants, medications to control overactive bladder, and drugs to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The study found that people who used anticholinergic drugs were more likely to have developed dementia as those who didn’t use them. Dementia risk increased with the cumulative dose. Taking an anticholinergic for the equivalent of three years or more was associated with a 54% higher dementia risk than taking the same dose for three months or less. Safer alternatives to anticholinergic drugs exist.

Being part of a walking group yields wide-ranging health benefits

If you are a sociable soul, here’s some interesting news about exercising with others: A study published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that being part of an outdoor walking group can improve health in many ways, including improvements in blood pressure, resting heart rate, total cholesterol, body weight, body fat, physical functioning, and risk of depression. In addition, people who were part of a walking group tended to keep exercising and not slack off. The findings are interesting because walking group participants reaped health benefits even though many of the groups did not meet international guidelines for moderate activity. This supports the idea that any activity is better than none.

Some exercise beats none; more is better

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

The standard recommendation for exercise is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. But that may not be the best recommendation for everyone, especially those who are older and have trouble exercising, or those who don’t exercise at all. If we think of exercise as a spectrum, with no activity on one end and 150 minutes or more a week on the other end, there’s a continuum in between. Getting individuals to move along that continuum, from no exercise to a little, a little to more, and so on, is an important goal. New research on the hazards of sitting for prolonged periods should get all of us to sit less and stand or move more.

Too much sitting linked to heart disease, diabetes, premature death

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

More than half of the average person’s waking hours are spent sitting: watching television, working at a computer, commuting, or doing other physically inactive pursuits. But all that sitting could be sending some to an early grave. That’s the conclusion of a Canadian study published in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine. People in the study who sat for prolonged periods of time had a higher risk of dying from all causes — even those who exercised regularly. The negative effects were even more pronounced in people who did little or no exercise. In addition to premature death, the study documented higher rates of type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cancer-related deaths in very sedentary people. If you sit for work, try standing or moving around for one to three minutes every half hour. Better yet, think about working at a standing desk. At home, stand when watching TV or talking on the phone.

Report highlights the dangers of opioid painkillers

Opioid painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone offer blessed relief from pain. But the body gets used to them, requiring ever-higher doses. They are also addictive, cause side effects, and can kill. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine says prescription painkiller abuse accounts for about 17,000 deaths a year. Doctors are learning to say no to opioids, but have limited scientific guidance on when and how to best use them for chronic pain. Ideally, these drugs should prescribed for the shortest time possible and, if pain persists, a transition made to a non-addictive form of pain control. This may be other medications or specialized counseling from a pain specialist that might include complementary and alternative treatments, like acupuncture and meditation.