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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.


Safely dispose unwanted, expired drugs this Saturday

Published September 28, 2012

Do you have unused or expired medications that you don’t know what to do with? Here’s a smart, safe, environmentally friendly solution: take part tomorrow (Saturday, September 29, 2012) in the fifth National Prescription Drug Take-Back Event, coordinated by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm you can hand over old prescription and over-the-counter drugs at one of more than 5,000 sites across the country. During last spring’s take-back, the participating police stations, hospitals, and other sites collected more than 552,161 pounds of drugs. If you miss this fall’s take-back program, and need to clean out your medicine cabinet now, the FDA recommends taking it out of its original container, mixing it with used coffee grounds, kitty litter, or dirt, putting this unappetizing blend in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid or in a sealable plastic bag, and placing the container or bag into your regular garbage.

Restless legs linked to broken hearts

Published September 26, 2012

The sleep-robbing condition known as restless legs syndrome (RLS) raises the risk of heart disease in older women about as much as smoking and obesity, according to a new Harvard-based study published online in the journal Circulation. The key sign of RLS is an irresistible urge to move the legs, often accompanied by an uncomfortable “creepy-crawly” sensation. It affects about 2% of adults and is twice as common in women as in men. Symptoms typically flare as people settle into bed, but may also arise when simply resting in a chair or sitting at a desk. Most people with RLS also experience periodic jerking leg motions during sleep. Uncovering this link could help people with RLS pay better attention to their cardiovascular health and potentially ward off a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular condition.

Suicide often not preceded by warnings

Published September 24, 2012

A close friend of one of my colleagues committed suicide last week. It happened as so many suicides do—out of the blue. A few days earlier, my colleague had spent the day hanging out with her friend, who was relaxed, upbeat, and normal. Sadly, that’s not uncommon. Many people who commit suicide don’t have an identifiable mental health problem, or give any hints that they are thinking about taking their lives. Every suicide, like every person, is different. Many are sparked by intense feelings of anger, despair, hopelessness, or panic. Suicide almost always raises anguished questions among family members and friends left behind: What did I miss? What could I have done? In my friend’s case, the answers are nothing and nothing. When individuals suddenly take their own lives with no warning, all we can do is look to each other for support. It may be natural to ask, “What did I miss?” But we should remind ourselves what experts say: This kind of death defies prediction.

Drug hazard information fades when prescription meds switch to OTC

Published September 19, 2012

It’s natural to assume that all OTC drugs are safe for just about everyone. But that’s a mistake. A recent report in JAMA by Harvard-affiliated physicians found that when a prescription drug moves to OTC status, balanced advertising tends to fly out the window. Of the four drugs randomly selected for the study—omeprazole (Prilosec, Nexium), orlistat (Alli), loratadine (Claritin), and cetirizine (Zyrtec), only Alli mentioned any potential harmful effects at all. One reason for this is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees the advertising of prescription drugs, insists that every side effect and interaction found in clinical trials of the medication be included in every ad. But OTC advertising is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, which requires only that ads meet a “reasonable consumer” standard of truthfulness. Does this mean drugs should not be sold OTC? Of course not. But you can avoid potential pitfalls by asking a pharmacist whether the drug is okay for you to take.

Study backs mammograms for women 50 to 69

Published September 17, 2012

For years researchers have been trying to weigh the benefits of finding early breast cancers against the risks related to false positives (the spots that turn out to be harmless). This work has sparked some bitter public debates and confusion for women over flip-flopping recommendations. The latest salvo comes from a review of the results of mammograms among more than 12 million women in 18 European countries. The results support the idea that routine mammograms can prevent deaths from breast cancer without causing undue harm. The findings support the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s recommendation that women between the ages of 50 and 74 have a mammogram every other year. Women at higher risk of developing breast cancer may need mammograms earlier than age 50, or more often than every other year.

Biking and sex—avoid the vicious cycle

Published September 14, 2012

Bicycling is a terrific way to get from one place to another. It’s also an excellent form of exercise. Some men and women avoid bicycling, though, because they worry that it may damage their reproductive organs and harm their sexual function. This mainly happens to people who cycle a lot. And it isn’t inevitable. One problem is the design of many bicycle seats, which put pressure on the perineum, a region of the body that runs from the anus to the sex organs. It contains the nerves and arteries that supply the penis in men and the clitoris and labia in women. You don’t have to give up biking to preserve your sexual function. Take a few simple precautions, like picking a wider seat, and shifting your position and taking breaks during long rides. These precautions will ensure that your passion for exercise doesn’t interfere with your passion in the bedroom.

Common painkillers boost risk of repeat heart attack

Published September 13, 2012

Most people don’t think twice about taking Motrin, Advil, Aleve, or similar over-the-counter painkillers. A new study suggests that heart attack survivors should use these drugs, known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), as little as possible. A team of Danish researchers found that among heart attack survivors, those who used an NSAID were about 60% more likely to have died during each year of the five-year study than those who didn’t use an NSAID. Of all the NSAIDs, diclofenac (Cataflam, Voltaren, generic) was linked to the largest increases in death or heart attack rates, while naproxen (Naprosyn, Aleve, generic) appeared to carry the lowest risk. The lower risk with naproxen confirms what has been seen in older studies. If you have heart disease and need pain relief, try acetaminophen first. If you need an NSAID, naproxen is probably the best choice for your heart. But whatever you and your doctor decide is best for you, use the lowest dose possible for the shortest period of time.

Non-alcoholic red wine may lower blood pressure

Published September 12, 2012

Scientific studies, the media, and even some doctors tout the heart health benefits of red wine. But if controlling blood pressure is important to you, consider this the next time you raise your glass: A new study published online in Circulation Research suggests that non-alcoholic red wine may be better at lowering blood pressure than regular red wine. Powerful antioxidants in red wine called polyphenols may be more effective when there’s no alcohol to interfere with them. Spanish researchers compared the effects of regular wine, non-alcoholic red wine, and gin on blood pressure. Non-alcoholic red wine lowered blood pressure and boosted levels of nitric oxide, which helps relax blood vessels. What the study doesn’t tell us is how non-alcoholic red wine stacks up against regular red wine for preventing heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems.

The angry adolescent — a phase or depression?

Published September 10, 2012

A friend once asked me about his son, who was about to turn 20. As a teenager, the boy had a quick temper. But now, on the brink of adulthood, the young man seemed to be getting worse. When a teen gets angrier as time goes by, it is a cause for concern. A 19-year-old is no longer a child, but neither is he or she a fully-fledged adult. This in-between state can extend well into the twenties. Some human development researchers have begun to call it “emerging adulthood.” No matter this stage is called, it presents a tricky time for parents and their children. Emerging adults must decide how much help they want or are willing to accept from their parents or anyone else. At the same time, parents must decide how much help it is reasonable to give.

Brain disease deaths high in pro football players

Published September 7, 2012

How’s this for a mind-bender: Lou Gehrig may not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Instead, the disease that ended his life may have been chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This brain disease is caused by repeated concussions—Gehrig sustained at least four during his baseball career—or other head injuries. It can cause symptoms very similar to those of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. More evidence of a connection between CTE and ALS comes from a new study of almost 3,500 retired professional football players, all of whom had played for at least five years in the National Football League. Among the 334 who died during the course of the study, the risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS was nearly four times higher than expected. Players who manned a “speed” position (such as quarterbacks or receivers) had a risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS that was more than three times higher than those playing “non-speed” positions (such as linemen).

Organic food no more nutritious than conventionally grown food

Published September 5, 2012

People buy organic food for three main reasons: they believe they are safer, kinder to the environment, or healthier. The health claims for organic foods have been the most tenuous. In a report released this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at Stanford University evaluated nearly 250 studies comparing the nutrients in organic vs. traditional foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs), and discovered very little difference in nutritional content. Organic produce did have 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods, though pesticide levels in both organic and non-organic foods were within allowable safety limits. If you’re buying organic solely for better nutrition, based on this review there’s no evidence you’re gaining any real advantages. But if you’re concerned about pesticides and you can afford organics, it might be worth it to buy them.

Investing in fitness now pays health dividends later

Published August 31, 2012

What would you pay to keep from getting sick as you get older? How about a daily walk or other exercise? A new study suggests that’s exactly the right investment. In the study, people who were the most fit at midlife lived longer and spent less time being sick than middle-aged folks who weren’t fit. There are many benefits to staying physically active and exercising daily. One important effect of exercise that doesn’t get enough attention is that it improves fitness. Fitness is a measure of how well your heart, blood vessels, blood, and lungs work together to supply muscles with oxygen during sustained exercise. How do you improve your fitness? Increase the amount and the intensity of exercise over time. Don’t rush it. Improving fitness starts within weeks but will continue for months.

Global cancer research database reveals what you can do to lower your risk

Published August 30, 2012

Based on data presented this week at the Union for International Cancer Control meeting in Montreal, a startling 40% of cancers may stem from modifiable causes, such as diet, exercise, tobacco and alcohol exposure, and appropriate screening. Although adapting a healthy lifestyle isn’t an ironclad guarantee against cancer, it can help lower a person’s individual risk.

Rock Health startups offer a look at the future of medicine

Published August 27, 2012

This summer, Harvard Health Publishing hosted a group of mobile health startup companies, all part of the first Rock Health Boston class. I had the pleasure of attending their end-of-program demonstrations. It was 1) fun and 2) inspiring to see the future of medicine as told by young, savvy, energetic teams. All seven startups have similar goals—using the Web or apps to provide faster, better access to health care and to identify health issues before they become huge problems. Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd of potential investors, reviewers, and friends at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, the companies made polished pitches that had come a long way from those they offered upon their arrival at Harvard Health Publishing in June. The seven companies include (in alphabetic order): Home Team Therapy, NeuMitra, NeuroTrack, NoviMedicine, Podimetrics, Reify Health, and RxApps.

Threat level high for West Nile infection

Published August 24, 2012

The United States is in the midst of the largest outbreak of West Nile virus since that virus was first discovered here in 1999. So far this year, more than 1,100 cases of human West Nile infection have been reported, about half of them in Texas, and at least 40 people have died from the virus. More cases are expected, since West Nile virus infections generally peak in late August and September. The virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes pick it up by feeding on birds carrying the virus. Very rarely, West Nile virus infection occurs due to transfusion of infected blood. It can’t spread from human to human by casual contact. None of the antiviral drugs currently available kill West Nile virus. And no vaccine is available. Prevention is best: stay inside when mosquitoes are most likely to bite, and use insect repellant when outside.

Try tai chi to improve balance, avoid falls

Published August 23, 2012

Compared to the pumping intensity of spin or Zumba, a tai chi class looks like it’s being performed in slow motion. But this exercise program is far more dynamic than it looks. As an aerobic workout, tai chi is roughly the equivalent of a brisk walk. And as a resistance training routine, some studies have found it similar to more vigorous forms of weight training. It is especially useful for improving balance and preventing falls—a major concern for older adults. Tai chi helps improve balance because it targets all the physical components needed to stay upright—leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, and reflexes—all of which tend to decline with age. It also offers an emotional boost to balance by removing the fear of falling that can make some people afraid to exercise.

Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack a lesson for women

Published August 22, 2012

You’ve probably heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” After reading about Rosie O’Donnell’s heart attack, I’d like to coin a new one: “It takes a celebrity to sound the alarm about important health issues.” The 50-year-old actress, comedienne, and talk show host suffered a surprise (aren’t they all) heart attack last week. Word got out when she wrote about it on her blog. O’Donnell brushed off some chest pain and arm pain as muscle aches related to some heavy lifting, ditto later feelings of nausea and clammy skin. When she went to the hospital the next day, a key artery in her heart was 99% blocked. At age 50, O’Donnell may have thought she was too young for those problems to signal a heart attack. She also wasn’t familiar with a heart attack’s sometimes sneaky signs and symptoms. O’Donnell urges “know the symptoms ladies/listen to the voice inside/the one we all so easily ignore/CALL 911/save urself.”

New ads offer help, resources for caregivers

Published August 20, 2012

Taking care of yourself and your nuclear family is not always easy. Add the need to take care of an aging and ailing parent or family member and the stress can become overwhelming. According to some estimates, more than 40 million adults in the United States care for older or sick adult relatives or friends on a regular basis. AARP has estimated that these family and friends provide up to $450 billion worth of care. The responsibility often falls on family members, because long-term care outside the home can be very expensive and most Americans can’t afford private long-term care insurance that might cover these costs. Regular health insurance, or Medicare, does not pay for the kind of regular daily care many adults need later in life. A new ad campaign sponsored by AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) and the nonprofit Ad Council wants caregivers to know that they are not alone and that help is available. The goal of the ads is to raise awareness of the effects that family caregiving can have and to help people find the resources they need to reduce the stress.

Migraines: Stop them before they start

Published August 17, 2012

Migraines can be debilitating events. As Harvard Health editor Christine Junge wrote in this space last year about her battle with migraine, “On the days when I couldn’t get out of bed, it felt like someone was tightening screws into the sides of my head and pounding a hammer above my left eye.” Most migraine sufferers long to prevent these painful episodes. About one-third of migraineurs could benefit from taking a preventive pill. But only a minority of them actually take advantage of this option. New treatment guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society profile the best preventive medications, and an herbal preparation, for migraine. Preventive medications include antiseizure drugs, beta blockers, antidepressants, and triptans. The guidelines also indicate that an herbal remedy made from butterbur, a plant in the daisy family, can help prevent migraine. The downside of these preventive pills is that they must be taken every day, and may cause unwanted side effects.

New test may speed detection of heart attacks

Published August 15, 2012

A heart attack (more formally known as myocardial infarction) isn’t always an instantly recognizable event. Severe chest pain often has nothing to do with the heart or blood vessels. Some heart attacks are so small they pass almost unnoticed, written off as indigestion or the flu. Others are major catastrophes, causing death or long-lasting disability. A new blood test may help speed the diagnosis. This is important, because the sooner a heart attack is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin. The sooner treatment begins, the more heart muscle can be saved. The new test can detect very small amounts of troponin in the blood. This protein is one of the chemical signatures of dying heart cells. This new test could let doctors identify small heart attacks that would otherwise go undiagnosed, or identify heart attacks earlier—and begin treatment earlier.

Use glycemic index to help control blood sugar

Published August 13, 2012

Picture an old-fashioned roller coaster with plenty of ups and downs. That’s what your blood sugar and insulin levels look like over the course of a day. The highs that follow meals and snacks drop to lows later on. Learning to eat in a way that makes your blood sugar levels look more like a kiddie coaster with gentle ups and downs than a strap-’em-in, hang-on-tight ride with steep climbs and breathtaking drops can make a difference to your health. How can you do this? A tool called the glycemic index (GI) can help. It rates carbohydrate-containing foods by how much they boost blood sugar (blood glucose). Using the glycemic index to choose a healthier diet is easier than you might think. Focus on foods with a low glycemic index (55 or less), and try to limit those with a high glycemic index (70 or higher).

The Cheesecake Factory: a model for health care?

Published August 9, 2012

In a new essay entitled “Big Med,” physician-author Atul Gawande muses in The New Yorker if The Cheesecake Factory and other successful chain restaurants could serve as a model for improving health care. He wondered how a large restaurant could deliver “a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality,” while hospitals and other parts of the U.S. health care system can’t. The experience prompted Dr. Gawande to meet with managers, cooks, and other workers at a Boston-area Cheesecake Factory to see how it delivers good food and a good dining experience time after time. He then goes on to compare the restaurant’s procedures with what goes on in hospitals.

Diabetes can strike—hard—even when weight is normal

Published August 8, 2012

We tend to think of type 2 diabetes as a disease that afflicts people who are overweight. But it can also appear in people with perfectly healthy weights—and be more deadly in them. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that normal-weight people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes have double the risk of dying from heart disease and other causes than overweight people with diabetes. Such apparent “protection” by excess weight has been called the obesity paradox. It’s been seen with other conditions, like heart failure and end-stage kidney disease. That doesn’t mean gaining weight is a healthy strategy. Instead, it probably means that something else besides weight—like the amount of fat around the waist—may be contributing to the onset and severity of type 2 diabetes. These new findings underscore the importance of strength training for everyone, no matter what their weight.

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