Anthony Komaroff, MD
Posts by Anthony Komaroff, MD
Beginning in March, 2013, reports started to come out of Eastern China that a new “bird flu” virus was loose and causing infections in humans. The new virus is called H7N9. Should we in the U.S. be worried? Neither I nor anyone I know can give a confident answer to that question. So far the news is reassuring. A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and another from a team from China in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, indicate that so far the new H7N9 virus has not clearly spread from one person to another, and has not spread outside of Eastern China. Even so, every public health agency around the world is keeping a close eye on China. That’s because a virus that cannot spread easily from one person to another can change or swap genes—and suddenly be capable of spreading easily.
In the past decade, a remarkable series of experiments from laboratories all over the world has begun to show what causes aging—and how to slow it. In the latest example of such aging research, two of my Harvard Medical School colleagues, cardiologist Richard T. Lee (co-editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter) and stem cell biologist Amy Wagers and their teams have found a substance that rejuvenates aging hearts in mice. The researchers joined the circulation of an old mouse with a thick, stiffened heart to that of a young mouse. After four weeks, the heart muscle of the old mouse became dramatically thinner and more flexible. The team then identified a substance called growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11) as the probable “anti-aging” substance. It’s too soon to tell if this discovery will ever help humans with heart failure. But it reveals that there are substances naturally present in all living things that cause aging and that retard it. By understanding them, we may someday be able to slow aging.
Type 2 diabetes doesn’t usually appear all of a sudden. Many people have a long, slow, invisible lead-in to it called prediabetes. During this period, blood sugar levels are higher than normal. However, they’re not high enough to cause symptoms or to be classified as diabetes. It’s still possible at this stage to prevent the slide into full-blown diabetes. Think of prediabetes as a wake-up call. Unfortunately, few people ever hear the alarm. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that among Americans age 20 and older, only 10% of those with prediabetes know they have it. Given that as many as 73 million Americans have prediabetes, that’s a lot of missed opportunities to prevent the ravages of diabetes. One reason many people don’t know that they may be headed toward diabetes is they’ve never had their blood sugar tested. This simple test isn’t part of routine preventive care, but perhaps it should be.
The results of a new trial being made public today should get everyone interested in following a Mediterranean-style diet. What makes these new results so important is that they come from a randomized controlled trial, what many consider to be the gold standard of medical research. In the five-year trial, there were fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from cardiovascular disease among participants who followed a Mediterranean-type diet than among those following a low-fat diet. A Mediterranean-style approach to food represents a diet of abundance, not restriction. Add not smoking and daily physical activity to this flexible eating strategy and you have a blueprint for protecting, and perhaps even improving, health.
The gun control proposals that President Barack Obama unveiled yesterday highlight the intensely personal nature of this issue. What often gets lost in the debate is the public health dimension of firearm possession. In 2011, the last year for which we have complete statistics, 32,163 American men, women, and children were killed by firearms. Since 2000, the running total is more than 400,000. That’s a staggering loss of life. A few are accidents, some are suicides, and about one-third are homicides. One way to sidestep the contentious debate over gun control would be to focus more effort on preventing gun violence. In a compelling article, three Harvard-affiliated researchers make the case for approaching gun violence as we have tackled other serious public health issues. Writing in JAMA, Drs. Dariush Mozaffarian, David Hemenway, and David Ludwig summarize lessons learned from successful efforts at reducing deaths from smoking, motor vehicle accidents, and poisoning and suggest ways to apply similar approaches to stemming gun violence. By talking about gun violence as a public health issue, and treating it that way, we may be able to save thousands of lives that are now needlessly lost each year.
At the stroke of midnight tonight we ring out the “old” year and begin a new one. For many people, the transition is a symbolic new start, a time to improve health or make other changes. If you are among the millions making a New Year’s resolution or striving to make improve your health in […]
On Monday, Dr. Joseph E. Murray passed away at age 93. A long-time member of the Harvard Medical School faculty, Murray pioneered the field of organ transplantation. This great achievement, for which he was honored with the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990, has given the gift of life to hundreds of thousands of people destined to die young. But his success did not come easily. Not only did Murray attempt to do something others judged impossible, but kept trying in the face of sometimes withering criticism from peers. Murray’s team successfully performed the first organ transplant, a kidney donation from one young man to his twin brother. Over the next decade, Murray and his colleagues learned how to quiet the immune system to make it possible to transplant organs between unrelated people.
Sometimes, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded for a discovery or invention that already is improving the practice of medicine and saving lives. Sometimes it is awarded for very basic research that might someday affect medical practice and human health. Such is the case with this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was awarded to Sir John Gurdon of Great Britain and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. If I had to put into one sentence the message of today’s Prize, it would be this: our cells are a lot smarter and more flexible than we once imagined, and capitalizing on that fact could greatly improve the treatment of many human diseases. The work of Gurdon and Yamanaka led the way to today’s work on stem cells, which could someday be used to treat human diseases. The 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine, like many before it, demonstrates that people with the curiosity and courage to ask what appear to be ridiculous questions, and a society that supports their work, can change our world for the better.
Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court that largely upholds the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should be viewed as a landmark event—whether one agrees with it or not. The Supreme Court’s ruling means that many more people will have health insurance; that health care will continue to be provided largely by the private sector; and that insurance companies won’t be able to deny an individual coverage because he or she has a chronic medical condition, drop coverage if an individual becomes sick, or put limits on the amount of lifetime coverage a person can get. It also means that individuals without health insurance will have to pay for it, and that many employers who do not currently offer health insurance as a benefit will be required to do so, or pay a stiff penalty.