Archive for August, 2012

Investing in fitness now pays health dividends later

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

What would you pay to keep from getting sick as you get older? How about a daily walk or other exercise? A new study suggests that’s exactly the right investment. In the study, people who were the most fit at midlife lived longer and spent less time being sick than middle-aged folks who weren’t fit. There are many benefits to staying physically active and exercising daily. One important effect of exercise that doesn’t get enough attention is that it improves fitness. Fitness is a measure of how well your heart, blood vessels, blood, and lungs work together to supply muscles with oxygen during sustained exercise. How do you improve your fitness? Increase the amount and the intensity of exercise over time. Don’t rush it. Improving fitness starts within weeks but will continue for months.

Global cancer research database reveals what you can do to lower your risk

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Based on data presented this week at the Union for International Cancer Control meeting in Montreal, a startling 40% of cancers may stem from modifiable causes, such as diet, exercise, tobacco and alcohol exposure, and appropriate screening. Although adapting a healthy lifestyle isn’t an ironclad guarantee against cancer, it can help lower a person’s individual risk.

Rock Health startups offer a look at the future of medicine

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

This summer, Harvard Health Publishing hosted a group of mobile health startup companies, all part of the first Rock Health Boston class. I had the pleasure of attending their end-of-program demonstrations. It was 1) fun and 2) inspiring to see the future of medicine as told by young, savvy, energetic teams. All seven startups have similar goals—using the Web or apps to provide faster, better access to health care and to identify health issues before they become huge problems. Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd of potential investors, reviewers, and friends at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, the companies made polished pitches that had come a long way from those they offered upon their arrival at Harvard Health Publishing in June. The seven companies include (in alphabetic order): Home Team Therapy, NeuMitra, NeuroTrack, NoviMedicine, Podimetrics, Reify Health, and RxApps.

Threat level high for West Nile infection

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

The United States is in the midst of the largest outbreak of West Nile virus since that virus was first discovered here in 1999. So far this year, more than 1,100 cases of human West Nile infection have been reported, about half of them in Texas, and at least 40 people have died from the virus. More cases are expected, since West Nile virus infections generally peak in late August and September. The virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes pick it up by feeding on birds carrying the virus. Very rarely, West Nile virus infection occurs due to transfusion of infected blood. It can’t spread from human to human by casual contact. None of the antiviral drugs currently available kill West Nile virus. And no vaccine is available. Prevention is best: stay inside when mosquitoes are most likely to bite, and use insect repellant when outside.

Try tai chi to improve balance, avoid falls

Stephanie Watson

Compared to the pumping intensity of spin or Zumba, a tai chi class looks like it’s being performed in slow motion. But this exercise program is far more dynamic than it looks. As an aerobic workout, tai chi is roughly the equivalent of a brisk walk. And as a resistance training routine, some studies have found it similar to more vigorous forms of weight training. It is especially useful for improving balance and preventing falls—a major concern for older adults. Tai chi helps improve balance because it targets all the physical components needed to stay upright—leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, and reflexes—all of which tend to decline with age. It also offers an emotional boost to balance by removing the fear of falling that can make some people afraid to exercise.

Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack a lesson for women

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

You’ve probably heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” After reading about Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack, I’d like to coin a new one: “It takes a celebrity to sound the alarm about important health issues.” The 50-year-old actress, comedienne, and talk show host suffered a surprise (aren’t they all) heart attack last week. Word got out when she wrote about it on her blog. O’Donnell brushed off some chest pain and arm pain as muscle aches related to some heavy lifting, ditto later feelings of nausea and clammy skin. When she went to the hospital the next day, a key artery in her heart was 99% blocked. At age 50, O’Donnell may have thought she was too young for those problems to signal a heart attack. She also wasn’t familiar with a heart attack’s sometimes sneaky signs and symptoms. O’Donnell urges “know the symptoms ladies/listen to the voice inside/the one we all so easily ignore/CALL 911/save urself.”

New ads offer help, resources for caregivers

Reena Pande, M.D.
Reena Pande, M.D., Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Taking care of yourself and your nuclear family is not always easy. Add the need to take care of an aging and ailing parent or family member and the stress can become overwhelming. According to some estimates, more than 40 million adults in the United States care for older or sick adult relatives or friends on a regular basis. AARP has estimated that these family and friends provide up to $450 billion worth of care. The responsibility often falls on family members, because long-term care outside the home can be very expensive and most Americans can’t afford private long-term care insurance that might cover these costs. Regular health insurance, or Medicare, does not pay for the kind of regular daily care many adults need later in life. A new ad campaign sponsored by AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and the nonprofit Ad Council wants caregivers to know that they are not alone and that help is available. The goal of the ads is to raise awareness of the effects that family caregiving can have and to help people find the resources they need to reduce the stress.

Migraines: Stop them before they start

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Migraines can be debilitating events. As Harvard Health editor Christine Junge wrote in this space last year about her battle with migraine, “On the days when I couldn’t get out of bed, it felt like someone was tightening screws into the sides of my head and pounding a hammer above my left eye.” Most migraine sufferers long to prevent these painful episodes. About one-third of migraineurs could benefit from taking a preventive pill. But only a minority of them actually take advantage of this option. New treatment guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society profile the best preventive medications, and an herbal preparation, for migraine. Preventive medications include antiseizure drugs, beta blockers, antidepressants, and triptans. The guidelines also indicate that an herbal remedy made from butterbur, a plant in the daisy family, can help prevent migraine. The downside of these preventive pills is that they must be taken every day, and may cause unwanted side effects.

New test may speed detection of heart attacks

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

A heart attack (more formally known as myocardial infarction) isn’t always an instantly recognizable event. Severe chest pain often has nothing to do with the heart or blood vessels. Some heart attacks are so small they pass almost unnoticed, written off as indigestion or the flu. Others are major catastrophes, causing death or long-lasting disability. A new blood test may help speed the diagnosis. This is important, because the sooner a heart attack is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin. The sooner treatment begins, the more heart muscle can be saved. The new test can detect very small amounts of troponin in the blood. This protein is one of the chemical signatures of dying heart cells. This new test could let doctors identify small heart attacks that would otherwise go undiagnosed, or identify heart attacks earlier—and begin treatment earlier.

Use glycemic index to help control blood sugar

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Picture an old-fashioned roller coaster with plenty of ups and downs. That’s what your blood sugar and insulin levels look like over the course of a day. The highs that follow meals and snacks drop to lows later on. Learning to eat in a way that makes your blood sugar levels look more like a kiddie coaster with gentle ups and downs than a strap-’em-in, hang-on-tight ride with steep climbs and breathtaking drops can make a difference to your health. How can you do this? A tool called the glycemic index (GI) can help. It rates carbohydrate-containing foods by how much they boost blood sugar (blood glucose). Using the glycemic index to choose a healthier diet is easier than you might think. Focus on foods with a low glycemic index (55 or less), and try to limit those with a high glycemic index (70 or higher).