Archive for June, 2011

Should smokers be tested for lung cancer?

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Routinely checking smokers for early signs of lung cancer hasn’t translated into fewer deaths. New results from the National Lung Screening Trial indicate that yearly low-dose CT scans can reduce the death rate from lung cancer by 20%, which could save up to 30,000 lives a year. Despite the encouraging results, it is too early to recommend that heavy smokers immediately begin getting yearly CT scans for lung cancer. The physical, emotional, and monetary costs of saving these lives with yearly screening would be enormous. Researchers must look carefully at the financial and personal costs to determine who, if anyone, might benefit most from lung cancer screening.

Strengthening your core: Right and wrong ways to do lunges, squats, and planks


Former Editor, Harvard Health

Your body’s core—the girdle of muscles, bones, and joints that connects your upper and lower body—gives you stability and helps power the moves you make every day. Whether it’s bending to pick up a laundry basket, paddling a kayak, or reaching to pull a vase from the top shelf of a cabinet, a strong and flexible core makes the move more fluid, efficient, and robust. Strong, well-balanced core muscles can also improve your posture and help prevent back injuries. Exercise and fitness programs increasingly focus on the core. Lunges, squats, and planks (a move that looks a bit like a push-up and is often substituted for sit-ups) are key moves in most good core workouts. But it’s important to pay attention to proper form to protect you from injury and help you gain the most benefit from each exercise.

Gaining weight? Beware potatoes—baked, fried, or in chips


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Potato chips and potatoes (baked, boiled, and fried) were the foods most responsible for weight gained gradually over four-year periods among 120,000 healthy women and men in long-term studies. Other key contributors included sugar-sweetened beverages and red and processed meats. On the flip side, yogurt, nuts, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables were linked to weight loss or maintenance. Potatoes may be a “perfect food” for lean people who exercise a lot or who do regular manual labor. But for the rest of us, it might be safer for the waistline to view potatoes as a starch—and a fattening one at that—not as a vegetable.

FDA hopes to apply new sunscreen rules


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

After two decades of dithering, the FDA has announced its proposed new rules for sunscreens. Under the rules, sunscreen makers would be expected to test products for their ability to screen out ultraviolet B rays (UVB), which are largely responsible for sunburn) and ultraviolet A rays (UVA), which contribute to premature aging of the skin, wrinkles, and the development of skin cancer. Products that protect against both UVA and UVB will be labeled “Broad Spectrum.” The FDA is also proposing an upper limit of 50 for the sun protection factor (SPF) and wants to get rid of claims that a sunscreen is waterproof, sweatproof, or a “sunblock.”

Some “natural” therapies may be safe, effective for mental health

Ann MacDonald

Contributor, Harvard Health

A symposium on complementary and alternative medicine put on by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mood and Anxiety Disorders Institute indicates that a handful of so-called natural supplements may be worth trying against depression and other mood disorders. The symposium focused on several for which there is good evidence. These include omega-3 fats, St. John’s wort, maca root, and valerian. Just because these remedies come from plants and animals doesn’t automatically mean they are safe. Herbal remedies have unwanted side effects and can interact with medications just like antidepressants and other drugs do. Talk with your doctor before trying any alternative approach, especially if you take any medications.

Taking part in a clinical trial advances knowledge, medical care


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

More than 18,000 clinical trials are underway right now in the United States, covering nearly every aspect of health and disease. Harvard Heart Letter editor P.J. Skerrett describes his experience as a volunteer in a clinical trial called TINSAL-T2D at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.

Hospitals mislead patients about robotic surgery

Nancy Ferrari

Senior editor, Harvard Health

Johns Hopkins researchers found that 40% of hospital Web sites promote robot-assisted surgery, even though little evidence shows it’s better than conventional methods.

Smoking may increase risk of prostate cancer recurrence

Nancy Ferrari

Senior editor, Harvard Health

The findings were presented at the American Urological Association annual meeting in May 2011.

Taking the pain out of runner’s knee

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

Patellofemoral pain syndrome, also known as runner’s knee, makes it painful to walk up and down stairs, get out of the car, and, of course, run. It happens when the kneecap doesn’t run smoothly up and down its track—a groove called the trochlea. Although anyone can get patellofemoral pain syndrome, it is more common in women than men—especially in mid-life women who’ve been running for many years. Strengthening the quadriceps (thigh) muscles and stretching the iliotibial band, connective tissue that runs from the knee to the hip, can help, as can cutting back on exercises or movements that put repetitive force on the knees.

Crumbling, confusing Food Pyramid replaced by a Plate


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

With much fanfare, the USDA launched MyPlate, a replacement for the outdated and much-maligned Food Pyramid. The colorful quarters of the plate–green for vegetables, red for fruits, orange for grains, and purple for protein–are aimed at nudging Americans away from meals dominated by meat and starch and towards meals made up mostly of plant-based foods. It offers information on portion sizes and sends the message that a balanced meal should be at least half vegetables and fruits. But it ignores important issues like what are the healthiest choices for grains, protein, and fat. Nor does it counsel Americans to avoid the sugary baked goods, breakfast cereals, and drinks, and the salty processed foods and snacks, that make up a big chunk of the average American’s daily caloric intake. In spite of its shortcomings, MyPlate is better than the old pyramids–may they rest in peace. But whether MyPlate will help stem Americans’ frightful eating habits is anyone’s guess.