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Harvard Health Letter: December 2013

Articles in this issue:

Choosing a high-tech alerting device

Medical alerting devices are effective tools for people who want to live independently and safely in their own homes. The wearable devices summon help immediately in a medical emergency, such as a bad fall, a stroke, or a heart attack. When looking for a device, it’s important to consider one that’s easy to use, has free replacement service for equipment that’s not working, is waterproof so that it can be worn in the bathroom (where most falls occur), and is portable for travel.

Ask the doctor

High levels of trans fats in the diet raise blood levels of LDL cholesterol as much as saturated fat does. One swallow will not cause harm, but eating a lot of trans fats over time does endanger health.

Ask the doctor

People monitoring blood pressure at home should take two measurements per day: one in the morning and one in the evening, for a week. This will help a doctor determine if a patient has high blood pressure.

Can you name that headache?

The most common types of headaches in older adults include tension, migraine, and sinus headaches. Knowing which type of headache one has will indicate which medications to use first. Sometimes a headache is a sign of a serious medical problem, such as a stroke or high blood pressure. People should seek immediate care for headaches that interfere with daily activities, and headaches that come on suddenly like a blow to the head or cause confusion, eye or ear pain, fever, convulsions, or weakness. Read More »

Easy exercises for couch potatoes

Utilizing time in front of a TV by exercising during commercial breaks can help improve health. That’s because minimizing long periods of inactivity can help reduce the risk of injury and may even increase life span. Simple exercises or “couchersizes” include standing up and sitting down repeatedly to help strengthen quadriceps and gluteal muscles; squeezing a rubber ball to improve grip strength; and stretching the calf muscles to keep them flexible and protect the walking stride. Read More »

The savvy sleeper: Wean yourself off sleep aids

There are two challenges when it comes to fighting sleep aid dependence. One is that stopping the drugs suddenly results in rebound insomnia, which makes symptoms worse. The other is that the rebound insomnia then convinces users they need the drugs to sleep. Gradual reduction of sleep medication, with a doctor’s supervision, can help a person wean himself off the drugs. Cognitive behavior therapy, relaxation techniques, and improving sleep hygiene can also help.

Medication errors and how to avoid them

Medication errors at home cause many thousands of emergency room visits and hospitalizations every year. The most frequent errors are taking doses at the wrong time or missing doses. The most serious errors are in dosage, especially when someone is given too high a dose. To avoid medication errors, doctors advise that people learn the names of medications, what they do, and what they look like, before taking them. They should also read the instructions and ask their doctor what to avoid while on the drug. 

News briefs: How long will you stay healthy?

It appears that people in the United States are enjoying about two more years of good health than Americans of 20 years ago. Experts chalk it up at least partly to healthier lifestyles, medical advances, better treatments, and new drugs.

News briefs: Is your cholesterol drug putting you at risk for vision loss?

It appears that people who take statins to keep their cholesterol in check may also be at increased risk for developing cataracts. However, doctors do not advise stopping statin use because of the risk.

News briefs: Rethink drinking juice vs. eating whole fruit

Fruit juice is associated with increasing diabetes risk, possibly because the juicing processes lead to lower contents of beneficial phytochemicals and dietary fiber. Eating whole fruits is associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes.

Caffeine caution: Watch for surprising sources

Caffeine is showing up in non-natural places such as snacks, energy bars, meal replacements, and other processed foods. It’s listed on food labels only when it is added to a food. If it occurs naturally in an ingredient, caffeine will not be listed. That means any food or drink made with coffee, cola, or chocolate will have caffeine. Caffeine can be spotted in products marked by marketing terms on packages such as “energy,” “wired,” or “buzz,” and by labels that list caffeine or caffeine-containing ingredients.

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