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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.

Articles

Vitamin 12 deficiency can be sneaky and harmful

Updated March 23, 2022

Like most vitamins, B12 can't be made by the body and must be gotten from food or supplements. A B12 deficiency –– which might stem from a vegan or vegetarian diet, or problems with absorption due to weight loss surgery or aging –– can seriously harm nerves, mood, thinking, energy, and more.

Generic drugs: don’t ask, just tell

Published January 7, 2013

Greater use of generic drugs could save the healthcare system—and American consumers—billions of dollars that would be better spent elsewhere. What’s holding us back? Some consumers are reluctant to use generic medications, thinking they are inferior to “the real thing.” Doctors are also a big part of the problem. Up to half of physicians hold negative perceptions about generic drugs. And a new study to be published in tomorrow’s JAMA Internal Medicine shows that about 4 in 10 doctors sometimes or often prescribe a brand-name drug just because their patients ask for it. Prescribing a brand-name drug when a generic is available is a huge source of wasteful spending that could easily be prevented. People ask for brand-name drugs because they have heard of them through advertising or word of mouth, while their generic alternatives generally aren’t advertised. Doctors could help save billions of dollars by just saying “no.”

Many drivers asleep at the wheel

Published January 4, 2013

If you’ve ever nodded off while driving, you aren’t alone. In a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.2% of Americans admitted to falling asleep while driving at least once in the previous month. The just-published survey, conducted in 19 states and the District of Columbia, found the sleepiest drivers in Texas (6.1%) and Hawaii (5.7%), and the most alert ones in Oregon (2.5%) and the District of Columbia (2.6%). Individuals most likely to have fallen asleep while driving were those who said they unintentionally fell asleep during the daytime at least once during the preceding month, those who said they snore at night, and those who reported sleeping less than six hours a night. Keep in mind that these numbers reflect only the percentage of people who were aware they had fallen asleep. They don’t include those who fell asleep while driving without recognizing that had happened.

For a New Year filled with good health

Published December 31, 2012

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 […]

Build your core muscles for a healthier, more active future

Published December 28, 2012

Many exercise programs these days spotlight the ever-present abs (abdominal muscles) but pay little attention to the other muscles that form the body’s core. Yet building up all of your core muscles is essential for staying strong and flexible and improving performance in almost any sport. It’s also vital for sidestepping debilitating back pain. Your core includes your back, side, pelvic, and buttock muscles, as well as the abdominal muscles. The core forms a sturdy central link between your upper and lower body. Much like the trunk of a tree, core muscles need to be strong yet flexible. A strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do, from everyday actions like bending to put on shoes to on-the-job tasks, sports and sexual activity, and more. A strong core can also help you keep your back healthy or recover from back pain. It’s unwise to aim all your efforts at developing rippling abs. Overtraining abdominal muscles while snubbing muscles of the back and hip can set you up for injuries and cut athletic prowess.

New health books series: The Harvard Medical School Guide

Published December 26, 2012

Need a new book to read on the Kindle you received as a holiday present? I’d like to recommend one or more of the eight just-published eBooks that kick off the Harvard Medical School Guide series. Published by RosettaBooks, this series aims to give readers help with tricky health issues, like trouble sleeping or dealing […]

Seasonal affective disorder: bring on the light

Published December 21, 2012

December 21st marks the shortest daytime of the year in the northern hemisphere. Although the winter solstice marks a seasonal turning point, with daylight getting incrementally longer from here until June 21, for people with seasonal affective disorder it’s just another day of feeling lousy. People with this condition lose steam when the days get shorter and the nights longer. Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include loss of pleasure and energy, feelings of worthlessness, inability to concentrate, and uncontrollable urges to eat sugar and high-carbohydrate foods. Although they fade with the arrival of spring, seasonal affective disorder can leave you overweight, out of shape, and with strained relationships and employment woes. A unique approach to this problem is the use of light therapy. It involves sitting near a special lamp that emits bright light for 30 minutes a day as soon after waking up as possible.

Simple blood test helps bring celiac disease out of the shadows

Published December 20, 2012

What happens when the body rejects a protein found in many foods? Ask anyone with celiac disease. This increasingly common condition—it’s grown four-fold since the 1950s—causes a host of aggravating and potentially disabling symptoms such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, cramps, fatigue, weight loss, and more. But it’s also a trickster, causing subtle changes that may not be identified as stemming from celiac disease, like iron-deficiency anemia, low vitamin D, or a suspicious broken bone in an otherwise healthy person. People with celiac disease can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, even in small amounts. It once took an average of 10 years to diagnose celiac disease. Today it can happen faster, thanks to a simple blood test that detects anti-gluten antibodies.

Aspirin’s heart benefits trump possible small risk of macular degeneration

Published December 19, 2012

Many adult Americans take aspirin every day, often to prevent a heart attack. Headlines about a study published today linking aspirin use with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) may scare some aspirin users to stop, but that’s the wrong message. In the study, aspirin’s effect on vision was small—far smaller than the lifesaving benefit it offers people with heart. Macular degeneration occurs when something goes wrong with the macula, a small part of the eye’s light-sensing retina. The macula is responsible for sharp central vision. In the new study, published in JAMA, 1.4% of long-term daily aspirin users and 0.6% of non-users developed macular degeneration over a 20-year period. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that people age 65 and older have comprehensive exams at least every other year to check for macular degeneration and other eye problems.

Tweets, Google searches may help solve migraine mysteries

Published December 17, 2012

When migraine or another type of headache strikes, some people turn to … Twitter and Google. And their Tweets and searches are providing a glimpse into how—and when—migraine and headache affect lives. In a letter to the editor published in the January 2013 issue of Cephalalgia (the journal of the International Headache Society), researchers from Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital analyzed Google searches conducted between January 2007 and July 2012. There were more searches for “migraine” on weekdays than on weekends or holidays. A similar pattern was seen in Twitter feeds. In the Google searches, the work week peak came on Tuesday and the low on Friday; on Twitter it was Monday and Friday. The most common time for migraine Tweets was between 6:00 am and 8:00 am, which the researchers say is a peak time for migraine attacks. Tweets could help researchers learn more about migraine triggers.

Studies explore global burden of disease and heart disease in the United States

Published December 14, 2012

If you like numbers and statistics, especially those about health, two reports released this week should keep you occupied for days: the massive Global Burden of Disease study was published in The Lancet, and the American Heart Association released its annual “Heart and stroke statistics” report. The Global Burden of Disease project found that average life expectancy continues to rise in most countries. It also found that infection and other communicable causes of disease no longer dominate deaths and disability. Today, so-called non-communicable causes like traffic accidents, violence and war, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions account for two-thirds of world deaths and the majority of years lost to disability and death. According to the American Heart Association’s annual report, the percentage of deaths due to heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases has fallen by nearly one-third since 1999, but don’t expect that to continue. Increases in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, overweight, and inactivity threaten to reverse these gains.

‘Tis the season—for the flu

Published December 12, 2012

The holiday season gets all the hype at this time of year, but the flu season needs your attention as well. It has come early this year—the earliest since 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and is expected to be severe. In the last month, new cases of flu in the U.S. have gone from a few hundred a week to more than a thousand a week. Forty-eight states and Puerto Rico have already seen lab-confirmed cases of the virus, and five children have died from it. Getting vaccinated and washing your hands often are your best bets against getting flu. The vaccine isn’t an anti-flu guarantee, but it can reduce your risk by up to 80%. Yet barely one-third of Americans have been vaccinated against the flu so far this year. Why aren’t more people getting a flu shot?

Is retirement good for health or bad for it?

Published December 10, 2012

For many people, retirement is a key reward for decades of daily work—a time to relax, explore, and have fun unburdened by the daily grind. For others, though, retirement is a frustrating period marked by declining health and increasing limitations. For years, researchers have been trying to figure out whether the act of retiring is good for health, bad for it, or neutral. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at rates of heart attack and stroke among men and women in the ongoing U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Those who had retired were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working. The increase was more pronounced during the first year after retirement, and leveled off after that. The results, reported in the journal Social Science & Medicine, are in line with earlier studies that have shown that retirement is associated with a decline in health. But others have shown that retirement is associated with improvements in health, while some have shown it has little effect on health.

Fear of breast cancer recurrence prompting women to choose prophylactic mastectomy

Published December 5, 2012

Living through the physical and emotional toll of breast cancer is so traumatic that some women can’t bear the thought of doing it again. That’s why a growing number of women who have already been diagnosed with cancer in one breast are taking the drastic measure of having both breasts removed (a procedure called prophylactic mastectomy). Yet a University of Michigan study presented last week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Quality Care Symposium showed that nearly three-quarters of women who had this procedure were actually at very low risk of developing cancer in the healthy breast. In other words, many women are unnecessarily exposing themselves to the potential risks of a double mastectomy—including pain, infection, and scarring. The new study suggests that more and better information about breast cancer recurrence—and the risks and benefits of prophylactic mastectomy—are needed as women consider this procedure.

Recipe for health: cheap, nutritious beans

Published November 30, 2012

Beans, the butt of countless flatulence jokes, are often written off as food for poor people, or cheap substitutes for meat. Given what beans can do for health, they should be seen as food fit for royalty—or at least for anyone wanting to get healthy or stay that way. The beans described here are what botanists call legumes, and others call “pulses.” They include black beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas), lentils, peanuts, soybeans, and others. Legumes are an excellent source of protein and fiber. They are low in fat. They are also nutrient dense, meaning they deliver plenty of vitamins, minerals, and other healthful nutrients relative to calories. An article in the current Archives of Internal Medicine showed that adding more beans to the diet can help people with diabetes lower their blood sugar. These findings are in line with a growing body of evidence on the health benefits of eating beans. They’ve been linked to reduced risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon and other cancers, as well as improved weight control.

Remembering Dr. Joseph Murray, a surgeon who changed the world of medicine

Published November 28, 2012

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.

A logical approach to treating erectile dysfunction

Published November 27, 2012

Thanks to an aging population and a lot of direct-to-consumer advertising, many American men of a certain age know to ask about the “little blue pill” or similar medications if they develop erectile difficulties. But an ED drug like sildenafil (Viagra) or its competitors may not always be the best place to start. Since ED can sometimes act like the canary in a coal mine for a future heart attack, it should be approached more systematically. A blood test for testosterone is a good first step. If the testosterone level is low, then trying testosterone replacement restores erections and may add more “pep” and more desire for sex in the first place. If that doesn’t improve erections, an ED drug is a next logical step.

Mini-relaxations to ease holiday stress

Published November 23, 2012

With Black Friday upon us, the holiday season is now officially underway. Although the next month or so provides many opportunities to see family and friends, be generous, and spread good cheer, it can also be a difficult time. In a stressed-out heartbeat, the holiday season can morph into the hell-iday season. Deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can evoke a state of rest and release. Doing them can slow your heartbeat, calm your breathing, lower your blood pressure, and help you chill out. You can’t necessarily eliminate the seasonal stressors. But you can counter them using mini-relaxation exercises, whether you have 10 minutes to spare or just one minute.

In praise of gratitude

Published November 21, 2012

The Thanksgiving holiday began, as its name implies, when the colonists gave thanks for surviving their first year in the New World and for a good harvest. Nearly 400 years later, we’re learning that the simple act of giving thanks is not just good for the community but may also be good for the brain and body. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. By acknowledging the goodness in their lives, expressing gratitude often helps people recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. This can connect them to something larger—other people, nature, or a higher power. In the relatively new field of positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently linked to greater happiness. Although some people may be born with a gift for expressing gratitude, anyone can learn how to do it. And this mental state grows stronger with use and practice. Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude.

Turkey: a healthy base of holiday meals

Published November 19, 2012

Done just right, Thanksgiving dinner can be good for the heart. The bird at the center of the feast was once in line to be our country’s mascot. Benjamin Franklin and other turkey aficionados thought of this fowl as wild, wary to the point of genius, and courageous. When cooked, it has another excellent quality—turkey meat is much easier on the heart than many other holiday main courses. Other mainstays of traditional Thanksgiving feasts, like cranberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and pecans, are healthy on their own, but tend to lose their virtue by the company they keep (butter, brown sugar, whipped cream, marshmallows, and more). If you’re set on a traditional dinner, alternative recipes abound for healthier stuffing, vegetables, and desserts. You can also start your own traditions. After all, today’s Thanksgiving dinner bears little resemblance to the original feast.

Doctors aren’t immune to addiction

Published November 16, 2012

It’s easy to think of doctors as paragons of the health and wellness they try to restore in their patients or help them maintain. Some are, and some definitely aren’t. One in 10 physicians develop problems with alcohol or drugs at some point during their careers. Those who admit they have an addiction to alcohol or drugs, as well as those who slip up and get reported, usually have to go through an intense substance abuse program before they can practice medicine again. Such physician health programs are pretty effective, helping around 80% of doctors recover from their problems. But these programs raise some ethical questions, according to Harvard Medical School’s J. Wesley Boyd and John R. Knight, who wrote a review of physician health programs in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. They should know, having spent a total of 20-plus years as associate directors physician health programs.

Losing weight and belly fat improves sleep

Published November 14, 2012

Do you have trouble sleeping? If you’re carrying extra pounds, especially around your belly, losing weight and some of that muffin top may help you get better ZZZs. So say researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who presented their findings at this year’s annual meeting of the American Heart Association. In a six-month trial that included 77 overweight volunteers, weight loss through diet plus exercise or diet alone improved sleep. A reduction in belly fat was the best predictor of improved sleep. Among people who are overweight, weight loss can reduce sleep apnea, a nighttime breathing problem that leads to frequent awakenings. Exercise has also been shown to improve sleep quality. Despite what thousands of websites want you to believe, there are no exercises or potions that “melt away” belly fat. Instead, the solution is old-fashioned exercise and a healthy diet.

The Affordable Care Act—moving forward

Published November 13, 2012

Last week, Americans reelected President Obama and returned a Democratic majority to the Senate. How that will affect the economy, foreign policy, and other aspects of government remain to be seen. One thing we can say for certain—it pulls the Affordable Care Act (ACA) out of limbo. The President’s re-election means we can expect to see the ACA implemented. Some popular elements of the law are already in place: allowing children to stay on their parent’s health coverage until age 26, and allowing for cost-free preventive services. Other more complicated aspects of the ACA remain to be realized. These include the establishment of state-run exchanges through which the millions of uninsured Americans covered by the ACE can buy health insurance; extension of eligibility for Medicaid to Americans who earn less than 133% of the poverty level; and innovations to improve the how health care is paid for and delivered while improving care and lowering costs.

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