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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.

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Straight talk needed to choose health care at the end of life

Published July 17, 2013

Birth, childhood, adulthood, and death span the book of life. Unfortunately, many people tend to avoid thinking or talking about how they want the final chapter to read. For the seriously ill or elderly—and even those who aren’t—not expressing wishes and desires about health care at the end of life can lead to getting care you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself. Families often bear the brunt of delaying or avoiding a discussion about a loved one’s end-of-life preferences. That often leaves family members making decisions without knowing what their loved one would have wanted. Doctors in Canada just published recommendations for starting the end-of-life conversation. The Conversation Project offers a “starter kit” to help people prepare to discuss their end-of-life wishes. Another resource is Five Wishes, a planning document distributed by the Aging with Dignity Foundation.

Taking aspirin linked to lower risk of colorectal cancer

Published July 16, 2013

Aspirin has many uses, from easing a headache or cooling a fever to preventing heart attacks and the most common kind of stroke. It may be time to add “preventing colorectal cancer” to the list. New results from the Women’s Health Study, a clinical trial that evaluated the benefits and risks of low-dose aspirin and vitamin E among nearly 40,000 women, show that aspirin reduces the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 20%. The effect isn’t immediate, but instead takes ten to 20 years to be seen. Aspirin isn’t without its drawbacks, including gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcer formation. Both occurred slightly more often among women taking aspirin. Although the Women’s Health Study results sound promising, don’t go reaching for the aspirin bottle just yet. Taking aspirin—and any other drug—is really a balancing act between benefits and risks.

Genetic testing to guide prostate removal: too soon to know if it helps

Published July 12, 2013

Is it possible for a gene test to identify whether a prostate that’s healthy today is sure to develop cancer down the road? And should results of such a test be the basis for removing a seemingly healthy prostate gland? Those are questions raised by recent press reports of a British man who had his prostate gland removed because he carried a faulty gene called BRCA2.

Aspirin-like drug may help diabetics control blood sugar

Published July 10, 2013

An old, aspirin-like drug called salsalate could help control blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes. In the TINSAL-T2D trial, 286 volunteers took pills containing either salsalate or a placebo for nearly a year. Over the course of the trial, those in the salsalate group had lower blood sugar levels, and some were even able to reduce dosages of other diabetes medications they were taking. Experts aren’t exactly sure how salsalate helps control blood sugar, but its effectiveness supports the idea that inflammation plays a role in type 2 diabetes. Although the results are promising, what we really need to know about salsalate (or any new or repurposed drug) is how its long-term benefits and risks stack up against each other. The trial was too small and too short to determine those risks. According to the researchers, such “outcomes require continued evaluation before salsalate can be recommended for widespread use” by people with type 2 diabetes.

Medical crises don’t take vacations

Published July 8, 2013

The sudden hospitalization yesterday of Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while vacationing on Nantucket Island is high-profile testimony that illness can happen at any time—even during a vacation. Heinz Kerry was taken by ambulance on Sunday afternoon to Nantucket Cottage Hospital. She was accompanied by her husband. After being stabilized, she and the Secretary of State were flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Neither the hospital nor Heinz Kerry’s family has commented on the nature of her illness. News reports say she is in critical but stable condition. Heinz Kerry’s situation highlights the value of electronic medical records, and the hazards of not having, or being able to access, medical information when you are travelling or on vacation.

Fluids, cool air key to avoiding heat stroke

Published July 5, 2013

Summer’s heat is as predictable as winter’s chill. Heat-related illnesses—and even deaths—are also predictable. But they aren’t inevitable. In fact, most are preventable. Most healthy people tolerate the heat without missing a beat. It’s not so easy for people with damaged or weakened hearts, or for older people whose bodies don’t respond as readily to stress as they once did. There are three different levels of heart-related illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Some simple choices can help you weather the weather. Drinking water and other hydrating fluids is essential. Putting off exercise or other physical activity until things cool down also helps. Chilled air is the best way to beat the heat. Sticking with smaller meals that don’t overload the stomach can also help.

Checking blood pressure at home pays off

Published July 3, 2013

Do-it-yourselfers, take heart. Here’s something else to do at home that can have a substantial benefit on your health: measure your blood pressure. It’s easy, inexpensive, and helps control blood pressure better than visits to the doctor. The latest evidence for the benefits of home blood pressure monitoring comes from researchers in Minnesota. In a 12-month clinical trial, 72% of those doing home monitoring had their blood pressure under control compared to 57% who received usual care. The benefits persisted six months after the program had ended. Anyone can monitor blood pressure at home. You can buy a good home blood pressure monitor at a pharmacy or online merchant for anywhere from $50 to $100. Some insurance companies cover the cost.

Volunteering may be good for body and mind

Published June 26, 2013

There’s something gratifying about volunteering. Whenever I work a charity event—which I try to do with some regularity—I often get more out of it than I give. A new study suggests that volunteering has positive implications that go beyond mental health, and may include better physical health. They study, from Carnegie Mellon University, found that adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. High blood pressure is an important indicator of health because it contributes to heart disease, stroke, and premature death. It’s impossible for this study to prove that volunteering was directly responsible for the lower blood pressure readings, but the results are in line with other findings on the topic. Aristotle once surmised that the essence of life is “To serve others and do good.” If this line of research is any indication, serving others might also be the essence of good health.

New trial muddies the water about diet, exercise, and diabetes

Published June 25, 2013

Long-awaited results from a nearly 10-year trial exploring the effect of changes in diet and exercise among people with diabetes weren’t what most people expected. The Look AHEAD trial found that intensive efforts to lose weight by eating less and exercising more didn’t provide any more protection against heart disease—a common co-traveler with diabetes—than standard diabetes support and education. The spin from some media reports is that weight loss doesn’t reduce heart disease risk among people with type 2 diabetes, but I think that’s the wrong interpretation. The results of the Look AHEAD trial don’t contradict the value of lifestyle changes. People in the intensive change group improved their blood sugar with fewer drugs, saving an estimated $600 per year, they were also less likely to have developed chronic kidney disease and less self-reported vision problems. The Look AHEAD results reinforce for me that diabetes care needs to be tailored to the individual.

Better use of medicines could save billions

Published June 21, 2013

Wiser use of prescription medications by everyone—doctors and their patients—could save the U.S. health care system more than $200 billion a year. That’s the conclusion of a new report, Avoidable Costs in U.S. Healthcare, from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. Inefficient or ineffective use of medications lead to six million hospitalizations, four million trips to the emergency room and 78 million visits to doctors and other care providers each year, according to the report. Those are huge numbers. Although $213 billion represents less than 8% of what Americans spend on health care each year, it’s still a staggering sum. It also exacts human costs that aren’t reflected in the estimates. The report identifies 6 things that can be improved to address the problem: 1) not taking medications as directed, 2) taking too many medications, 3) delayed treatment, 4) overuse of antibiotics, 5) medication errors, and 6) underuse of generic medications.

Cities can learn lessons about diabetes from rural areas

Published June 19, 2013

City dwellers often think of rural America as a throwback to past “good old days.” But when it comes to obesity and diabetes, people living outside urban areas offer a frightening glimpse of the future. While more than 8% of Americans now have diabetes, in some rural counties 20% of the residents have diabetes. Those counties also tend to have high rates of obesity. Barriers to healthy living contribute to both obesity and diabetes. So does lack of primary care physicians. One answer may be greater reliance on community health workers—lay people trained to provide diabetes education and outreach. In Birmingham, Alabama, the Cities for Life program has doctors refer people with diabetes to “patient navigators” who help them find local resources such as nearby exercise classes or mobile farmers’ markets.

Infection, autoimmune disease linked to depression

Published June 17, 2013

Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems arise when something goes wrong with brain function. What causes that malfunction is an open question. A new study from Denmark suggests that a serious infection or autoimmune disease could trigger a mood disorder. How might an infection or autoimmune disorder lead to a mood or other mental health disorder? Infection causes localized and body-wide inflammation. Inflammation generates substances called cytokines that have been shown to change how brain cells communicate. In autoimmune diseases, the body’s defense system attacks healthy tissues rather than threatening invaders. It’s possible that in some cases the wayward immune reaction could target brain cells and other nerve cells throughout the body.

Ask questions to get the most out of a health care visit

Published June 14, 2013

During visits with your doctors or other health care providers, do you speak up and ask questions? If the answer is “yes,” congratulations. You’ve taken an important step to getting the most out of your health care visits. You’re also in the minority. Most people have trouble asking their doctors questions. It can be even harder to disagree with your doctor, or make known your preferences for care and even your worries. There are many reasons for poor patient-doctor communication. One is what Timothy J. Judson and colleagues call the asymmetry of power. Medical lingo is another key barrier. The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s “Questions to Ask Your Doctor” campaign and the Joint Commission’s “Speak Up Initiatives” offer free information to help people ask the sometimes difficult questions needed for good health care.

Healthy fats may fight early-stage prostate cancer

Published June 12, 2013

Each year, nearly a quarter of a million American men learn they have prostate cancer. Most are diagnosed with early-stage cancer that has not spread beyond the prostate gland. Traditional treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, and a “watch and wait” strategy called active surveillance. A new study published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that diet may be an important add-on. The study, part of the ongoing Harvard-based Health Professionals Follow-up Study, suggests that eating more foods that deliver healthy vegetable oils can help fight the second leading cause of cancer death in men. Earlier studies have implicated the traditional Western diet, which is relatively high in red meat and other sources of animal fats, with a higher risk for developing prostate cancer in the first place, while eating more vegetable oils and vegetable protein may help prevent it.

Move over Mediterranean—a vegetarian diet is equally good for health

Published June 5, 2013

The Mediterranean diet has been getting a lot of press as being the very best for health. But there’s another diet that appears to be equally good: a vegetarian diet. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who ate a vegetarian diet were 12% less likely to have died over the course of the five-year study than nonvegetarians. The benefits were especially good for men, who had a significant reduction in heart disease. This study underscores the idea that meat consumption influences long-term health, and not in a good way. Should you consider ditching the Mediterranean diet and becoming a vegetarian instead? Either one is healthier than the typical American diet, so it’s really a matter of personal choice.

HPV transmission during oral sex a growing cause of mouth and throat cancer

Published June 4, 2013

Actress Angelina Jolie recently went public with her double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer. Governor Chris Christie told us his reasons for gastric bypass surgery. And now actor Michael Douglas is shining the spotlight on the human papilloma virus (HPV)—the number one cause of mouth and throat cancer. In an interview published in The Guardian newspaper in London, Douglas mentioned that his own throat cancer could have been brought on by oral sex, a common way to become infected with HPV. HPV transmitted by sexual contact often doesn’t become active enough to cause symptoms. When it does become active, it tends to invade mucous membranes, such as those covering the lining of the vagina, cervix, anus, mouth, tongue, and throat. An HPV infection can cause warts in and around these tissues. Most people sexually exposed to HPV never develop symptoms or health problems, and most HPV infections go away by themselves within two years. But the infection can persist and cause long-term problems. These include cervical cancer in women, penis cancer in men, and in both sexes some cancers of the anus and oropharyngeal cancer (cancer in the back of throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils).

Celebrating cancer survivors

Published May 31, 2013

Sunday, June 2, is National Cancer Survivors Day. It was started 26 years ago as a way to recognize and support people living with cancer. The foundation that organizes the yearly event defines survivor as “anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life.” National Cancer Survivors Day offers survivors and their family members and friends a chance to acknowledge the hard work that goes into fighting cancer and to show the world that survivors can live fulfilling lives. The day is observed in many different ways. Around the U.S. and in 18 other countries, community groups, hospitals, and other organizations hold breakfasts, picnics, walks, fun runs, and other activities.

Base shared decision making on good information, personal preferences

Published May 29, 2013

We are taught to share at an early age, and sharing is encouraged and praised across the life span. One area in which there has been a lack of sharing is medicine. Doctors have traditionally made decisions for their patients with little or no discussion about the preferences of the person who will ultimately have to live with the decision. That’s changing. More and more, doctors are trying to implement a model known as shared decision making or informed decision making. These terms refer to a process that includes a thoughtful, informed conversation between you and your doctor aimed at making a decision that’s right for you. Shared decision making is gaining acceptance as a medical “best practice.” Many studies suggest that it improves health outcomes, taking medications as directed and following other instructions, and satisfaction with a treatment or course of action.

Discovery could someday help people with diabetes make more insulin

Published May 24, 2013

A lot is known about diabetes. But a discovery that could change how this disease is treated shows just how much more there is to learn. A team of Harvard Medical School researchers has discovered a hormone called betatrophin made by liver and fat cells that signals the body to make more insulin-producing beta cells. A report of their work appears in this month’s issue of the prestigious scientific journal Cell. In mice with diabetes, experimentally turning on the production of betatrophin inside liver and fat cells caused an increase in beta cells and a dramatic improvement in blood sugar. It will, of course, take much more research in mice—and then in humans—to determine if this newly discovered hormone can serve as a treatment for diabetes. So it’s too soon to get excited that the discovery of betatrophin will translate directly into a new treatment for diabetes. But it is another example of the human body’s power to naturally repair itself.

A dog could be your heart’s best friend

Published May 22, 2013

My twice-daily walks with my border collie, Clair DeNoon, are the highlights of my day. A new report from the American Heart Association will put an extra spring in my steps on these walks. A panel of experts from the American Heart Association has weighed all the available evidence on pet ownership and cardiovascular disease. The verdict: Having a pet—a dog in particular—likely lowers the risk of heart disease. Some of the connection can be attributed to the extra walks dog owners take. Companionship also contributes. If dog ownership is heart healthy, should everyone who cares about heart health have a dog? No. According to the heart association panel, “the primary purpose of adopting, rescuing, or purchasing a pet should not be to achieve a reduction in cardiovascular risk.”

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