Recent Blog Articles

Harvard Health Blog

Read the latest posts from experts at Harvard Health Publishing covering a variety of health topics and perspectives on medical news.


The power of positive psychology: finding happiness in a cold ocean swim

Published July 27, 2011

One way to experience happiness is to go with the “flow.” Flow is a state of intense absorption in which you lose awareness of time. It occurs when you strike the right balance between challenge and skill. It is also one of the elements that help create happiness. No matter what your natural tendency, recognizing how flow occurs (or doesn’t) in your life and creating opportunities for more flow experiences can be a potent route to increased happiness. A new report from Harvard Medical School, called Positive Psychology, explores both time-tested and modern avenues to happiness, including flow, expressing gratitude, and developing self compassion.

Therapy dog offers stress relief at work

Published July 22, 2011
One of the newest therapists at Harvard Medical School is a 4-year-old Shih-Tzu who recently joined the school’s Countway Library as a registered therapy dog. From the confines of his very own office, Cooper is on duty at the Countway to help students, staff, and faculty members who need a little midday stress relief.

Painkillers pose problems for people with heart disease

Published July 19, 2011

Millions of people take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and others), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn, and others), and celecoxib (Celebrex) to relieve pain and inflammation. During the last few years, researchers have raised concerns that taking these drugs often may be hard on the heart as well. The latest study, published in the July 2011 issue of the American Journal of Medicine, suggests that regular use of NSAIDs poses a special problem for people who already have heart disease, boosting their chances of having a heart attack or stroke. This research doesn’t mean that people with high blood pressure and heart disease should stop taking NSAIDs, especially if they are used to ease pain from a chronic condition like arthritis. But it may make sense to try an alternative first.

Is sunlight addictive?

Published July 13, 2011

Is sunlight addictive? That provocative idea was raised by Dr. David Fisher, chief of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, in a presentation at Harvard Medical School. He cited new evidence suggesting that being in the sun stimulates the so-called “pleasure center” in the brain and releases a rush of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, much as happens with addictive substances or activities. Why? Humans need vitamin D to survive. Once upon a time, it came mainly from skin—skin exposed to sunlight makes vitamin D. So the feelings of pleasure we get from sunlight may be part of a survival mechanism to get us the vitamin D we need.

Fight fatigue by finding the cause

Published July 6, 2011

Feeling tired? If so, it’s not surprising. Fatigue is one of the most common problems people report to their doctors. But fatigue is a symptom, not a disease. Different people experience it in different ways. The tiredness you feel at the end of a long day or after a time zone change might feel similar to that resulting from an illness. Fatigue from stress or lack of sleep usually subsides after a good night’s rest, while disease-related lethargy is more persistent and may be debilitating even after restful sleep. Either way, you don’t have to live with it. You can find out what is causing you to feel tired and discover what you can do to renew your energy levels.

Should smokers be tested for lung cancer?

Published June 30, 2011

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.

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

Published June 24, 2011

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

Published June 21, 2011

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

Published June 20, 2011

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

Published June 16, 2011

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

Published June 10, 2011

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

Published June 10, 2011

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

Taking the pain out of runner’s knee

Published June 7, 2011

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

Published June 3, 2011

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.

Cell phones and brain cancer—tips for reducing even the possibility of risk

Published June 2, 2011

The back and forth about whether or not cell phones cause brain cancer is likely to go on for a while. Until the issue gets settled, there are some things that folks who like to reduce their risks (even ones that may never pan out to be substantial risks) can do to minimize the amount of energy their cell phone wafts into their heads. These include holding your phone an inch away from your ear, using a Bluetooth or wired headset, using the phone’s speakerphone feature, and choosing a phone that transmits at a lower power level.

Cell phones and brain cancer—the evidence doesn’t ring any bells

Published June 1, 2011

An expert panel assembled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) met last week to assess what, if any, cancer threat cell phones pose to the 5 billion or so people who use them. After reviewing hundreds of studies, the IARC panel concluded that cell phone use may be connected to two types of brain cancer, glioma and acoustic neuroma. But the evidence on which the panel based its conclusion is weak or, as the IARC called it, “limited.” The move puts cell phones in the IARC’s Group 2B category of cancer-causing agents. Things in Group 2B are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Other denizens of this group include coffee, pickled vegetables, bracken ferns, and talcum powder. Harvard Health editor P.J. Skerrett is more worried being rammed by someone talking on his or her cell phone while driving than about getting brain cancer from a phone. For more cautious souls, the FDA offers suggestions for reducing your exposure to energy from a cell phone.

Testing the Harvard 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating: Keep it going

Published June 1, 2011

Two volunteers testing the new “Harvard Medical School 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating” may have come to the end of the plan, but both are just beginning their independent journeys to a lifetime of healthy eating. Helen Hoart and Tonya Phillips talk about the goals they set for themselves, whether they achieved them, and their dietary plans for the future.

Using food to fight prostate cancer

Published May 26, 2011

Nutritionist Sheila Wolfson spoke about healthful eating for men who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer at the Massachusetts Prostate Cancer Coalition’s 14th annual symposium in May 2011. A good diet, she said, can boost energy and improve quality of life.

Gay men more vulnerable to drops in quality of life after prostate treatment

Published May 25, 2011

For the first time, a study measures the impact of prostate cancer treatment on the quality of life of gay men.

Testing the Harvard 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating: Making sense of snacks

Published May 25, 2011

Two volunteers testing the new “Harvard Medical School 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating” describe following Week 5 of the plan: Making sense of snacks. Both related the challenge of avoiding the bowl of M&Ms in the office. Tonya realized how many calories she got from snacking each day, while Helen made herself some simple rules, like planning her snacks and drinking water first if she thinks she’s hungry.

How your friends make you fat—the social network of weight

Published May 24, 2011

One of the big health news stories of 2007 was a study showing that your friends influence your weight. A new study from Arizona State University suggests that this happens because people consciously and subconsciously change their habits to mirror those of their friends. Here’s an example: You’re at a restaurant with friends and the waiter brings over the dessert menu. Everyone else decides not to order anything, so you pass, too, even though you were dying for a piece of chocolate mousse cake. The study provides another motivation for making healthy diet choices—in addition to helping your weight, it could help your friends and family members weights, too.

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