Recent Blog Articles
Close relationships with neighbors influence cardiovascular health in Black adults
Why play? Early games build bonds and brain
5 numbers linked to ideal heart health
Rating the drugs in drug ads
Postpartum anxiety is invisible, but common and treatable
The popularity of microdosing of psychedelics: What does the science say?
Pouring from an empty cup? Three ways to refill emotionally
Is pregnancy safe for everyone?
New pediatric guidelines on obesity in children and teens
Screening tests may save lives — so when is it time to stop?
Harvard Health Blog
Read the latest posts from experts at Harvard Health Publishing covering a variety of health topics and perspectives on medical news.
Rub-on pain reliever can ease arthritis discomfort
When it comes to relieving the pain of achy joints, many people reach for a pain-relieving pill like aspirin or ibuprofen. There may be a better way. When the source of pain is close to the surface, applying a cream, gel, patch, or spray that contains a pain reliever right where it hurts can ease pain and help avoid some of the body-wide side effects of oral pain relievers. These so-called topical analgesics work best for more superficial joints like the knees, ankles, feet, elbows, and hands. The active ingredient in most topical analgesics is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin, or diclofenac. These medications target inflammation, which contributes to pain, swelling, and stiffness. The advantage of using a topical analgesic is that the medication works locally. Targeting pain more precisely using a medication applied to the skin can help skirt the side effects of oral drugs. This can be a boon for people whose stomachs are sensitive to NSAIDs.
Focusing on gun violence could pave the way to fewer firearm-related deaths
The gun control proposals that President Barack Obama unveiled yesterday highlight the intensely personal nature of this issue. What often gets lost in the debate is the public health dimension of firearm possession. In 2011, the last year for which we have complete statistics, 32,163 American men, women, and children were killed by firearms. Since 2000, the running total is more than 400,000. That’s a staggering loss of life. A few are accidents, some are suicides, and about one-third are homicides. One way to sidestep the contentious debate over gun control would be to focus more effort on preventing gun violence. In a compelling article, three Harvard-affiliated researchers make the case for approaching gun violence as we have tackled other serious public health issues. Writing in JAMA, Drs. Dariush Mozaffarian, David Hemenway, and David Ludwig summarize lessons learned from successful efforts at reducing deaths from smoking, motor vehicle accidents, and poisoning and suggest ways to apply similar approaches to stemming gun violence. By talking about gun violence as a public health issue, and treating it that way, we may be able to save thousands of lives that are now needlessly lost each year.
Sleep drug dosage change aims to avoid daytime drowsiness
The FDA is urging doctors to lower the starting dose of zolpidem, a popular prescription sleep aid, due to concerns that the drug can linger too long in the body. This causes daytime drowsiness that has led to car accidents. Sleep aids affected by the FDA’s announcement includes generic zolpidem and brand names Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar, and Zolpimist. The FDA lowered the starting dose for women from 10 milligrams (mg) to 5 mg; for men it is now 5 to 10 mg. The drug should be taken right before going to bed. Taking too much of a sleep drug can give you a “hangover” of daytime drowsiness the next morning that could raise the risk of accidents or falls. Because people respond to medications in their own ways, it’s safest to start taking a sleep drug on a weekend, and start with a dose lower than the maximum recommended starting dose. If you feel drowsy the next day, the dose can be reduced; if it didn’t work, the dose can be increased.
The trick to recognizing a good whole grain: Use carb-to-fiber ratio of 10-to-1
“Whole grain” has become a healthy eating buzzphrase, and food companies aren’t shy about using it to entice us to buy products. Browse the bread, cereal, or chip aisle of your favorite grocery store and you’ll see what I mean. Last year, nearly 3,400 new whole-grain products were launched, compared with just 264 in 2001. And a poll by the International Food Information Council showed that 75% of those surveyed said they were trying to eat more whole grains, while 67% said the presence of whole grains was important when buying packaged foods. But some of the products we buy may not deliver all the healthful whole-grain goodness we’re expecting. Identifying a healthful whole-grain food can be tricky. A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health says the best way is to choose foods that have at least one gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrate. Fiber and carbs are both listed on the nutrition label.
Why “sleeping in” on weekends isn’t good for teens
After getting too little sleep Monday through Friday, many teens try to catch up on weekends, sometimes straggling out of bed after noon. While they may feel like they are doing their bodies a favor, they actually aren’t. Sleeping late on Saturday and Sunday may fill a teen’s sleep deficit, but it creates a bigger problem. It allows his or her inner clock to further drift away from the external clock, worsening the shift begun by delaying bedtime on school nights. The result: the circadian sleep is thrown out of whack, which makes it much more difficult to get up at the usual wake time. In effect, by sleeping late on Saturday and Sunday, your teen is suffering from the equivalent of a five-hour jet lag when it’s time to get up on Monday morning. The alarm clock may be saying 6:00 am, but his or her inner clock is reading 1:00 am. This will make it much harder for your teen to concentrate and take in anything at school.
As flu cases spike, it isn’t too late to get the vaccine
It’s shaping up to be a banner year for the flu. The City of Boston just declared a public health emergency, with 700 cases of the flu reported so far this season, compared to just 70 cases last year. Four Boston residents, all elderly, have died. A similar spike in flu is happening all around the country. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year’s flu season is shaping up to be a bad one. By the end of December, the flu was widespread in 41 states. The CDC says that more than 2,000 people have been hospitalized so far; scores of adults have died, as well as 18 children. One way to keep from getting the flu is to get the flu vaccine. (Almost everyone age 6 months and older should be vaccinated.) If you haven’t already done this, it isn’t too late. For more information about the flu, visit Harvard Health Publication’s Flu Resource Center at www.health.harvard.edu/flu
Vitamin 12 deficiency can be sneaky and harmful
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
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