Posts by Stephanie Watson
A study published in this month’s Journal of Nutrition suggests that drinking caffeinated beverages, having the occasional alcoholic drink, and eating a healthy diet may help preserve memory and thinking skills long into old age. In particular, foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet—fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, olive oil, and whole grains—show promise for preserving memory and preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Many of us have trouble parting with our possessions—even when we no longer need them. Some people hold onto decades’ worth of receipts, newspapers, and other seemingly useless items. They have hoarding disorder—a mental health condition characterized by a compulsive need to acquire and keep possessions, even when they’re not needed. Exactly when a “pack rat” crosses the line into true hoarding has to do with the intensity with which they’re saving, and the difficulty getting rid of things. Severe hoarders can accumulate so much that they render their living spaces unusable—and dangerous. Hoarding also takes an emotional toll on families and friends. Experts recommend treating hoarders with hoarding cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help the person better understand why he or she is hoarding, and to improve decision-making, organizational, and problem-solving skills.
Two reports released this week shed light on the current state of type 2 diabetes in this country, and their conclusions are promising and sobering. First, the good news: An article in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that rates of diabetes-related problems like heart attack, stroke, and lower-limb amputation are down by more than 50% over the last two decades. Now the bad news: during the same time period, the number of people with diabetes has soared, according to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Today, about 21 million American adults are living with diabetes, and that number is on the upswing. Nearly 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. Unless something is done to reverse this trend, millions more Americans could edge closer to diabetes. Dr. Osama Hamdy, medical director of the Obesity Clinical Program at Harvard-affiliated Joslin Diabetes Center and author of The Diabetes Breakthrough, a newly published book from Harvard Health Publishing, offers some strategies for preventing diabetes.
A new report from the Alzheimer’s Association says that as many as 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. That’s 470,000 Americans this year alone. Given that these thieves of memory and personality are so common and so feared, should all older Americans be tested for them? In proposed guidelines released yesterday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said “no.” Why not? Even after conducting a thorough review of the evidence, the panel said that there isn’t enough solid evidence to recommend screening, especially since not enough is known about the benefits and the harms. In part, the recommendation is based on the sad fact that so far there aren’t any truly effective approaches to stop the forward progress of dementia.
The grief of losing a spouse or partner affects not just emotional and mental health, but physical health as well. The surviving spouse or partner often develops health problems in the weeks and months that follow. A study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine found that individuals who had lost a spouse or partner were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke within the next 30 days. Grief activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for revving up the body’s fight-or-flight response. That can lead to stress-induced changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood clotting. There is also a tendency after such a profound loss for the surviving spouse or partner to disregard his or her own health. It can take several months to a year to work through grief and grieving. If it lasts much longer, and is interfering with daily life—seeing friends, doing once-pleasurable activities—it’s possible that grief has morphed into something more serious, like depression.
Many Americans spend most of each workday sitting in a chair, their fingers the only part of their bodies moving with any intensity. The ease of this modern workday could come at the expense of longevity. A new study of older women in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that sitting for long stretches of time increases the odds of an untimely death. And here’s the kicker: Regular exercise doesn’t do much to diminish the risk of sitting all day. When you sit, you expend fewer calories than you would while standing, and you demand little effort from your muscles. This can help set the stage for diabetes and heart disease. One way to avoid prolonged sitting during the workday is to switch to a standing desk, or one that can adjust to sitting and standing positions. An easier, no-cost solution is to set your smartphone timer to go off every 30 to 60 minutes during the day, and move around when the alarm rings.
Could tea be a health beverage? Eleven new studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlight the many ways that tea may improve health: Tea drinking appears to lower the risk for heart disease and stroke, may strengthen bones, and appears to improve mood, concentration, and performance. Natural compounds called polyphenols in tea might protect against several cancers, including those of the prostate, GI tract, lungs, breast, and skin, and may also increase metabolism and promote weight loss. Those possible benefits apply to tea, not tea extracts condensed into pills. If you’re a tea drinker, enjoy your favorite brew with the added satisfaction that it may be good for your health. If you aren’t, there’s no reason to start.
Radiation, on its own or coupled with other treatments, has helped many women survive breast cancer. Yet radiation therapy can cause the appearance of heart disease years later. New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine estimates that the increased lifetime risk for a heart attack or other major heart event in women who’ve had breast cancer radiation is between 0.5% and 3.5%. The risk is highest among women who get radiation to the left breast—understandable, since that’s where the heart is located. The heart effects of radiation begin emerging as soon as five years after treatment. However, future heart risk should not be the reason to abandon this important component of treatment. Cancer experts are doing more and more to minimize the amount of radiation the heart receives.
Having obstructive sleep apnea puts you at risk for a number of conditions, including high blood pressure and stroke. New guidelines from the American College of Physicians (ACP) emphasize lifestyle modifications for treating obstructive sleep apnea to prevent those conditions. The guidelines don’t offer any radical treatment updates, but they do reinforce the effectiveness of tried and true therapies. The first recommendation is weight loss for people who are overweight and obese. The link between excess weight and sleep apnea is well established. The second recommendation is using continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. This is typically the first-line treatment because weight loss can be so hard to achieve.
Nearly a third of Americans will develop osteoarthritis of the knee before age 70. With no “cure” beside knee replacement on the horizon for this painful joint condition, relief often has to come from pain pills. Assistive devices such as wedge insoles are often prescribed as a less drastic, side effect-free treatment option. But do they really work? A review of research published today in JAMA indicates that these shoe inserts do little—if anything—to relieve arthritis pain. The findings echo new osteoarthritis treatment guidelines released by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) in May. Based on current research, the AAOS said it couldn’t recommend lateral wedge insoles for people with medial knee osteoarthritis.