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.

Two-thirds of seniors need help doing one or more daily activities

A longer lifespan can be a double-edged sword. You live for more years, but the later years may not necessarily be what you had in mind. We’ve known for some time that about 25% of older Americans can’t perform some activities of daily living without help. But we don’t know much about the other 75%. A new study suggests that two-thirds of Americans over age 65 need help doing everyday activities such as eating, bathing, and getting in and out of bed or a chair. Things you can do to help ward off becoming frail or disabled include staying active, managing weight and eating a healthy diet, preventing falls, making connections with others, and seeing your doctor(s) regularly.

Treating severe snoring can help with tough-to-control blood pressure

Sleep apnea—pauses in breathing while sleeping followed by snoring-like gasps for breath—can cause daytime drowsiness and mental fatigue. It can also boost blood pressure and the risk for developing heart disease. A new study suggests that treating sleep apnea by using a breathing machine during sleep can make a difference for people with hard-to-treat high blood pressure. Although blood pressure medications offer a bigger bang for the buck to reduce blood pressure, treating sleep apnea can help, and offers other benefits as well. Getting used to using a breathing machine, which delivers continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), may take some work. One key is to find a mask that works, which may be a trial-and-error process.

Easy exercises for couch potatoes

If you have trouble finding the motivation to break away from the television and exercise, try couchersizing—staying on or near your couch and exercising during commercial breaks. Why bother? A growing body of evidence links the amount of time spent sitting to illness and even death. And just minimizing long periods of inactivity, like exercising during commercial breaks, can help reduce the risk of injury and may even help you live longer. You can work many different muscle groups while seated upright on a couch. Want to get your heart rate up, work the oblique muscles on the sides of the abdomen. To whittle your waist, try twisting your torso from side to side for the length of a commercial break. You can even exercise while lying on the couch.

Making peace with holiday buffets

Overeating during the holidays is practically a tradition. But overindulging can lead to weight gain, fatigue, and guilt. There are several tactical strategies you can employ to get you through the season of eating. Plan ahead: Find out when you’ll be eating, and plan your day around the meal; if you can bring a dish for the buffet, bring something healthy. At the buffet: Grab a salad plate instead of a dinner plate, and choose wisely; don’t waste calories on foods that aren’t special. At the table: Pace yourself by taking small bites, chewing slowly, and sipping water in between bites. Slowing down helps your brain get the message that you’re full. If all else fails: Don’t beat yourself up. Just get back to a healthy eating plan as soon as possible.

Heart attack chest pain is similar in women and men

In many ways, women are different from men. One way in which they are alike is how they “feel” a heart attack: with similar kinds of chest pain. Other heart attack symptoms may differ, but chest pain is pretty standard, according to European study of nearly 2,500 men and women. Few differences in chest pain were seen between the sexes. What’s more, the kind or duration of chest pain didn’t help tell a heart attack from some other problem. The conclusion? A careful medical history, an electrocardiogram, and blood tests are the best way to diagnose a heart attack in men and women. During a heart attack, more than three-quarters of men and women experience chest pain or discomfort. In the run-up to a heart attack, chest pain with exertion is a more common warning sign in men, while women often have other types of symptoms, such as fatigue and disturbed sleep.

Join the Great American Smokeout

If you smoke, you’ve probably heard that quitting is beneficial at any age. It’s good for your health, can make you feel and look better, and saves you money. But you also know, from personal experience or the experiences of friends, that quitting is hard. Take heart. Today, there are more ex-smokers than smokers in the United States. There are also more and better tools to help people quit. Each year on the third Thursday of November, the American Cancer Society sponsors the Great American Smokeout. It aims to make smokers and their loved ones more aware of the benefits of quitting and the tools available for achieving that goal. In support of the Great American Smokeout, Harvard Health Publications is giving away free electronic copies of the Harvard Medical School Guide: How to Quit Smoking. This offer ends at midnight tonight (Nov. 21, 2013).

Eating nuts linked to healthier, longer life

Move over, apples: A handful of nuts a day keeps the doctor away—and might help you live longer, according to new results from two long-running studies. Writing in tomorrow’s New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard researchers showed that daily nut-eaters were less likely to die from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease. Overall, the daily nut-eaters were 20% less likely to have died during the course of the study than those who avoided nuts. (Peanuts, which are actually legumes, counted as nuts in this study). While everybody is searching for the perfect nut, the health benefits hold true for variety of nuts.

Cholesterol guidelines update: controversy over heart risk calculator

It’s been a topsy-turvy few days in the world of heart health and disease. Last week, the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology released new guidelines that upended previous recommendations for who should take a cholesterol-lowering statin. A few days later, two Harvard physicians challenged the accuracy of the calculator included in the guidelines, saying it would cause many people to unnecessarily take a statin. The story made headlines in The New York Times and prompted a closed-door review by the guidelines committee. The controversy over the calculator should serve to improve this tool. Adoption of the guidelines should help prevent more heart attacks, strokes, and premature deaths. It’s important to keep in mind that guidelines are just that—information to guide a decision, not to mandate it. The best approach is to talk about what’s best for you with a trusted physician.

Do “energy boosters” work?

Stroll the aisles of any pharmacy or “health food” store and you’ll see a multitude of herbs and other supplements that claim to boost energy. Yet there is little or no scientific evidence to support such claims for most of these substances. The fact is, the only thing that’ll reliably boost your energy is caffeine or other stimulant—and their effects wear off within hours. Substances commonly touted as energy boosters include chromium picolinate, coenzyme Q10, creatine, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), ephedra, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, guarana, and vitamin B12. Instead of relying on a supplement for energy, try switching to a healthful diet—more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, lean protein, and unsaturated fats—and exercising more. That’s truly a better way to beat an energy shortage, and it’s one your whole body will appreciate.

Cholesterol and statins: it’s no longer just about the numbers

Updated cholesterol guidelines released yesterday by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology aim to prevent more heart attacks and strokes than ever before. How? By increasing the number of Americans who take a cholesterol-lowering statin. The previous guidelines, published in 2002, focused mainly on “the numbers”—starting cholesterol levels and post-treatment levels. The new guidelines focus instead on an individual’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The higher the risk, the greater the potential benefit from a statin. A statin is now recommended for anyone who has cardiovascular disease, anyone with a very high level of harmful LDL cholesterol, anyone with diabetes between the ages of 40 and 75 years, and anyone with a greater than 7.5% chance of having a heart attack or stroke or developing other form of cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years.