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Harvard Health Blog
Read the latest posts from experts at Harvard Health Publishing covering a variety of health topics and perspectives on medical news.
Snoring in kids linked to behavioral problems
Children who snore, or sometimes stop breathing during sleep for a few seconds then recover with a gasp (a pattern known as sleep apnea), are more likely to become hyperactive, overly aggressive, anxious, or depressed, according to a new new study in the journal Pediatrics. How could snoring or apnea contribute to behavioral or emotional problems? It is possible that nighttime breathing problems during the brain’s formative years decrease the supply of oxygen to the brain. That could interfere with the development of pathways that control behavior and mood. It is also possible that breathing problems disturb sleep, and it’s the interrupted or poor sleep by itself that may cause trouble in the developing brain.
Drinking at work: not a healthy trend
Drinking in the workplace may be an emerging trend, but it isn’t necessarily a healthy one. Although drinking on the job may not be as widespread as portrayed on the hit TV show Mad Men, it is still with us. About 8% of full-time employees report having five or more drinks on five or more occasions a month, and one survey showed that 23% of upper-level managers reported drinking during work hours in the prior month. In the United States, excessive drinking costs $223 billion a year. Some of these costs are generated by the nearly 18 million Americans who are alcoholics or have alcohol-related problems. But some also comes from a nearly invisible group, “almost alcoholics.”
FDA changes safety information on statin drugs
A new ruling from the FDA offers good news and some warnings for people who take a cholesterol-lowering statin. The good news—no more periodic blood tests for liver function. The warnings—taking a statin may increase the odds of developing type 2 diabetes or suffering reversible memory loss or problems thinking. The FDA warned that one statin, lovastatin, shouldn’t be taken with some antibiotics, anti-fungal agents, or medications used to treat AIDS.
Can an infection suddenly cause OCD?
Beginning in 1998, infectious disease and mental health experts have identified children who develop symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or tic disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome after an infection. First thought to be linked only to the group A streptococcus bacteria that cause strep throat or scarlet fever, it has been seen with other kinds of infections. Experts propose calling this frightening disorder pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). It probably happens when the infectious agent gets into the brain and inflames the basal ganglia. Rapid treatment with antibiotics can reverse the symptoms.
Virtual reality, exergames may improve mental and physical health
Games are meant to be fun and exciting. Some involve the body, some the mind. Others do both. Researchers are tapping into this engagement to use games to heal an ailing mind or body. Researchers are testing virtual reality to help people with mental and physical problems ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder and stroke rehabilitation to smoking cessation and stuttering. Exergames may also help people become more physically active. Although they won’t help you lose weight or train for a marathon, many meet the American Heart Association’s criteria for “moderate-intensity daily activity,” meaning they could stand in for taking a walk.
Quick injection helps stop epileptic seizures
An epileptic seizure is a frightening thing to experience, and almost as frightening to watch. Fortunately, most seizures stop on their own after a couple minutes. Any that last longer than five to 10 minutes (doctors call a long-lasting seizure status epilepticus) are a medical emergency and must be halted with medication. A new study shows that delivering anti-seizure medication with a hand-held auto-injector—much like the epi pens used by people with life-threatening allergies—is better than delivering them intravenously. This study could pave the way for home treatment of epileptic seizures.
Pregnancy-related high blood pressure, diabetes linked to later heart disease
Most of the changes that come with pregnancy—growing a belly “bump,” being tired, mood swings, cravings for particular foods, and the like—are normal, temporary, and harmless. Two other changes, pregnancy-related high blood pressure and diabetes, may have long-lasting implications for heart health. The development of high blood pressure during pregnancy is known as preeclampsia; pregnancy-related diabetes is called gestational diabetes. They are different from “regular” high blood pressure and diabetes because both are “cured” by delivery. A new study published this week in the journal Circulation suggests that these complications boost a woman’s risk of cardiovascular disease during middle age.
Is there a link between diet soda and heart disease?
I’m a big fan of diet soda. I like the taste, and I love that it doesn’t have any calories. I can drink two or three diet sodas a day and not worry about gaining weight. But a new study has me wondering if enjoying the sweetness of soda without the sugar and calories is such a good thing after all. University of Miami and Columbia University researchers found that daily diet soda drinkers were more likely to have had a stroke or heart attack over the course of a 10-year study, or to have died from vascular disease, as folks who didn’t imbibe diet soda. My husband gently (but persistently) tells me there is nothing good about drinking diet soda, not even the taste I claim to enjoy so much. The evidence seems to be backing him up.
How drug shortages happen
Worrisome shortages of important medications—from drugs to manage the symptoms of ADHD to standard cancer drugs—have been in the headlines lately. A shortage can be frightening to the people who need a hard-to-get medication, and frustrating for the clinicians who prescribe it. Manufacturing and quality control issues are among the primary reasons for drug shortages. The FDA can sometimes help ease a drug shortage. What can you do if you are affected? Ask your doctor if another medication might work for you. Be especially wary of Internet or faxed advertisements for alternatives (often highly priced and sometimes counterfeit).
Addiction: It retrains the brain, is tougher on women
It’s hard for someone who has never battled an addiction to understand how or why a person can’t break free of one. An exchange on the radio about pop star Whitney Houston’s addictions underscores the misconceptions many people have about addiction. Addictions retrain the brain in a way that couples liking something with wanting it. There are important gender differences in addiction. Although men are more likely than women to become addicted to drugs or harmful behaviors, women who have an addiction face tougher challenges.
Sleep helps learning, memory
Sleep may be time off for the body, but it’s part of a day’s work for the brain. During sleep, the brain is hard at work processing the events of the day, sorting and filing, making connections, and even solving problems. New research suggests that dreaming can improve memory, boost performance, and even improve creativity. Naps have been shown to improve recall. Napping won’t make you smart or assure success, but it can help improve your memory and solve problems. Sleeping well at night, and long enough, is associated with good health. The combination is a two-step approach that should give everyone something to sleep on.
The science behind “broken heart syndrome”
Media reports describing “broken heart syndrome” often lump together two completely different conditions. One is stress cardiomyopathy, sometimes known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The other is myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack. A huge sudden stress—like news that a loved one has died, experiencing an earthquake, or learning that your accountant has stolen all of your retirement savings—unleashes a torrent of stress hormones that can trigger one of those conditions. Stress cardiomyopathy is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. Over the course of a week or longer, the left ventricle tends to recover its pumping power. Heart attacks occur when something—usually a blood clot—blocks blood flow to part of the heart muscle.
Natural recoverers kick addiction without help
We tend to think that stopping an addictive behavior means joining a group, seeing a therapist, going to a treatment center, or taking a medication that helps with cravings. Some people manage to break an addiction without any help. These “natural recoverers” tend to take two key steps: They find a new hobby, challenge, or relationship to help fill the void left by the addiction. And they start exercising. Exercise is important because it acts as a natural antidepressant. It also prompts the body to release its own psychoactive substances—endorphins—that trigger the brain’s reward pathway and promote a feeling of well-being. Natural recovery isn’t a sure thing, and the more severe the addiction, the harder it is to do.
New anti-lice lotion is good news for nitpickers
ARCHIVED CONTENT: As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date each article was posted or last reviewed. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. […]
The 11 most expensive medications
Some medications can cost as much as $2,000 a year. But according to a post on the Medical Billing and Coding blog, that’s peanuts. The price tag for a year’s worth of Soliris, a drug used to treat a rare blood disease known as paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, is $409,500. The blog lists 10 other drugs that cost $200,000 or more a year. All 11 are so-called orphan drugs, developed specifically to treat rare conditions. The post raises questions about how much is too much when it comes to drug costs. If one of these drugs is keeping you or a family member alive, the sky’s the limit. If not, the cost can seem excessive.
Everyday foods are top 10 sources of sodium
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that just 10 types of deliver almost half of the average American’s daily sodium. Topping the list are breads and rolls, cold cuts, pizza, poultry, and soups. Almost two-thirds of our daily sodium comes from food bought in stores, and one-quarter comes from food bought in restaurants (which includes fast-food shops and pizza places).The report also showed that Americans take in an average of 3,266 milligrams of sodium a day (about 1½ teaspoons of salt), well above the healthy target of 2,300 milligrams a day. As a nation, cutting back on salt by an average of 400 milligrams a day could prevent 28,000 deaths a year and save $7 billion in health care costs.
Overnight treatment for chronic insomnia
For some people, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep is just a now-and-then hitch. For others, insomnia is a chronic problem that affects mood, daytime alertness and performance, and emotional and physical health. Some people turn to medications, others to behavioral approaches that often take weeks to get results. A new approach using a 25-hour program called intensive sleep retraining may be enough to break the cycle in a day. Australian researchers showed that it worked better than standard behavioral therapy. As the researchers themselves point out, intensive sleep retraining is expensive. Let’s hope that the Australian study stimulates the creation of similar boot-camp approaches that can be done at home.
Switching to generic Lipitor
Lipitor, the blockbuster cholesterol-lowering drug, is now being sold as a less-expensive generic. Several other best-selling prescription drugs are set to lose patent protection this year, including Actos, a diabetes drug; Plavix, which helps prevent heart attacks and strokes; and Singulair, an important asthma drug. Although the lower price is great, some people worry that changing from a brand-name drugs to a “no-name” generic one might be risky. Not so, says Dr. Anthony Komaroff, editor in chief of the Harvard Health Letter. In the newsletter’s February 2012 issue, he tackles the brand-versus-generic issue. The FDA is legally required to determine that generic products are “bioequivalent” to brand-name drugs, which means that they produce similar blood concentrations of the same chemical. The vast majority of studies show that generic versions are just as safe and effective as their brand-name counterparts.
Resveratrol—the hype continues
Resveratrol is a compound found in red wine. A new report published in the journal Cell suggesting that resveratrol blocks the action of a muscle enzyme called phosphodiesterase 4 in mice had headline writers in a tizzy, proclaiming that “Scientists May Be Closer to Developing ‘Red Wine’ Drug” and the like. It didn’t merit that kind of hype. Some research, most of it on cell cultures or laboratory experiments with yeast, roundworms, fruit flies, the short-lived turquoise killifish, or mice, suggest that resveratrol may help fight heart disease, some cancers, and other chronic conditions. But there is little evidence about what it can do for humans, and even less about possible side effects.
FDA needs stronger rules to ensure the safety of dietary supplements
Back in 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) allowed companies to sell dietary supplements with established ingredients (meaning those that had been sold in the United States before 1994) without any evidence that they are effective or safe. Manufacturers are supposed to give the FDA evidence that a new ingredient should be safe, but this aspect of the law hasn’t been enforced, writes Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Pieter A. Cohen in a commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine. Compare this hands-off approach with the strict rules and regulations for drugs. Last July, the FDA proposed some rules to help it test new dietary supplements. This is a good first step, but the FDA’s plan doesn’t go far enough, argues Dr. Cohen.
Different blood pressure in right and left arms could signal trouble
Anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders in midlife and beyond
Eating disorders don’t afflict only adolescents and young women, but plague older women, too, and may be shrouded in even greater shame and secrecy. Many women don’t seek help, especially if they fear being forced to gain weight or stigmatized as having a “teenager’s disease.” As reported in the February 2012 Harvard Women’s Health Watch, clinicians are reporting an upswing in requests from older women for help with eating disorders. For some of these women, the problem is new; others have struggled with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or another eating disorder for decades. Eating problems at midlife and beyond stem from a variety of causes, ranging from grief and divorce to illness, shifting priorities, and heightened awareness of an aging body.
Heart’s “fountain of youth” starts flowing early
If you want to have a healthy heart in your senior years, take care of it while you’re young. In a large study, researchers from Northwestern University found that a 45-year-old man who had normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, who didn’t smoke, and who didn’t have diabetes had just a 1.4% chance of having a heart attack or stroke during the rest of his life. Having one major risk factor boosted the risk 20-fold. The results were similar for men and women, blacks and whites. Lead researcher Donald Lloyd-Jones said that making it to middle age with no heart disease risk factors is like “the fountain of youth for your heart.”
Doctors debate use of email for communicating with their patients
Among doctors, there is some controversy over whether or not to use email to communicate with patients. The Wall Street Journal offered a peek into the controversy by asking two prominent doctors to write about why they do, and don’t, use email to communicate with their patients. Writing in favor of email was Dr. Joseph C. Kvedar, a dermatologist and founder of the Center for Connected Health, a Harvard-affiliated organization that aims to move health care from the hospital and doctor’s office into the day-to-day lives of people who need help. Taking the opposite side was Dr. Sam Bierstock, an ophthalmologist who is now the president of Champions in Healthcare, an information technology consulting group. Both doctors make good points making me think that, at least for a while, the use of email will probably come down to personal preference, for doctors and the rest of us.
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