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Archive for HEALTH

Best Health Advice of 2010 via [more]


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by Norine Dworkin-McDaniel

Tidings of comfort and well-being from the latest medical research.

This year delivered some thrilling breakthroughs: the discovery of a new ovarian-cancer marker, the development of a more sensitive test for determining people’s risk of acquiring serious diseases and confirmation that there’s a safer way to relieve hot flashes with hormones. But in 2010, scientists also looked at certain unremarkable but essential daily tasks, such as flossing and serving dinner, and found new approaches that may help you prevent Alzheimer’s disease, depression and skin cancer and perhaps make dropping a few pounds a bit easier, too. Big or small, each of these 12 standout pieces of advice is a holiday gift—because it will help you stay healthy in the years to come.


Sick of hot flashes?

Stick on a patch: If you’re gritting your teeth through hot flashes because you’re afraid that hormone therapy will cause blood clots or stroke, new research suggests that you don’t have to assume risk to get relief. Unlike estrogen and estrogen-progesterone pills (which can raise the risk of stroke by as much as 35 percent), hormone skin patches that have 50 micrograms or less of estrogen (with or without additional progesterone) do not increase the chances for stroke, a study in the British Medical Journal found. These transdermal patches are believed to be safer than pills because the estrogen goes through the skin and directly into the bloodstream. Oral ­estrogen, on the other hand, is filtered through the liver, where it produces enzymes associated with clotting and inflammation. “We think that bypassing the liver avoids generating the mechanisms associated with increased cardiovascular risk,” explains study author Samy Suissa, PhD, professor of epidemiology at McGill University.

The BMJ study did reveal a danger: Patches with more than 50 micrograms of estrogen raise stroke risk by 89 percent. “But most women will find relief with 50 micrograms,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine. (No one knows if patches reduce the small correlation between HT and breast cancer.)


Want a better sex life?

Ditch your hormone-based contraception:Take a look at your birth control if you’re wondering where your libido (and perhaps your orgasm) has gone. Hormone-based contraceptives—the Pill, the patch, the ring—work by reducing ovarian function. That’s great for preventing pregnancy. But it also means less testosterone, which is key for desire, because most testosterone is made in the ovaries. In addition, hormone-based contraceptives cause your liver to produce much more sex hormone-­binding globulin, a magnetlike protein that binds free-floating sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone). The result of this reduction in free-floating hormones: impaired sex drive, arousal and orgasm. In a recent study of more than 1,000 female German medical students, those using hormone-based contraceptives scored significantly lower on an index of female sexual function than those who used nonhormone contraceptives or nothing at all. There’s no question that hormone-based contraceptives affect older women’s sexual function, too, notes Irwin Goldstein, MD, director of sexual medicine at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Sexual Medicine, in which the study was published. “For someone in that age group, the ideal contraceptive is mechanical, not hormonal,” Goldstein says. That means condoms or an IUD.


Got hypertension?

Try a diuretic first: If you’ve been told you have hypertension (meaning that your blood pressure is 140/90 mm Hg or higher) and you’ve tried and failed to coax the rate down with diet and exercise, the typical next step is medication. Even though your doctor has nine types to choose from, the latest research says your best bet may be the oldest medicine: diuretics, used to control hypertension since the 1970s. Diuretics, which flush excess water and sodium out of the body, not only lower blood pressure as successfully as newer meds, such as calcium channel blockers and ACE inhibitors, but also are better at preventing stroke and heart failure, according to data from the Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial (aka ALLHAT). Plus, they’re cheaper: Generic diuretics cost about $20 a year, compared with upwards of $150 a year for newer, brand-name drugs. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute already recommends diuretics as first-line treatment, but Paul Whelton, MD, chair of ­ALLHAT, points out that physicians don’t always follow that advice. “Doctors tend to think if an agent is new and perhaps a little more expensive, it must be better,” he says. “But the sensible one to start with is a diuretic.”


Can’t sleep?

Drink tart cherry juice: In a two-week pilot study at the University of Rochester Medical Center, 15 adults with insomnia who drank two eight-ounce bottles of CherryPharm’s tart cherry juice every day slept about 20 minutes longer than they did when they drank a cherry-flavored placebo beverage. Why? According to one theory, tart cherries (but not sweet cherries) may improve sleep because they contain relatively high amounts of melatonin. “Melatonin is used for shifting the biological clock when it gets out of sync, such as when people suffer from jet lag,” explains study author Wilfred Pigeon, PhD, director of URMC’s sleep research lab. Tart cherry juice isn’t as potent as pharmaceutical sleep medications, but it works about as well as over-the-­counter sleep ­supplements, like tryptophan and valerian. Find it at Traverse Bay Farms (traversebayfarms​​.com), R.W. Knudsen Family (rwknudsen​family​​.com) and supermarkets.


Getting your nails done?

Bring sunscreen: Drying your nails under a UV lamp at the salon is like sticking them in a mini tanning bed: Your hands are exposed to the same harmful UVA rays that prematurely age skin and potentially cause skin cancer. The Archives of Dermatology recently reported that two patients who put their hands under nail lights regularly (once a week or less) developed skin cancers on their fingers. UV lamps can also promote brown spots and crinkly skin on your hands. Protect your mitts by applying sunscreen after the manicurist has wiped off the hand cream but before she puts on the polish. Choose a product that has an SPF of at least 30 and contains a physical UV block, like zinc oxide. “Chemical sunscreens can take 30 minutes to get absorbed into the skin and take effect, but physical sun blocks work almost instantly,” explains David Bank, MD, director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, New York. Or simply turn off the UV light and let air alone set your polish; this will add 10 minutes to the drying process. You can also reduce exposure by having the nail technician apply a quick-drying top liquid or nail polish, such as OPI Drip Dry or Sally Hansen Insta-Dri Fast Dry Nail Color.


Pressed for time?

Work harder, not longer: If you really rev up the intensity of your workout, you can significantly cut the time you spend doing it, say researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Called high-intensity interval training (HIT), the practice involves alternating one-minute sprints—­running, walking, biking, swimming—done at about 90 percent of your maximum heart rate with one-minute cool-down intervals. “We’ve been having people go at an eight or nine on a scale where 10 is an all-out effort,” says Martin Gibala, PhD, chair of McMaster’s department of ­kinesiology. This means getting beyond, maybe even way beyond, your comfort zone. But 20 minutes of HIT (in other words, 10 sprint-recovery cycles) can be as effective as an hour of continuous aerobic training for boosting the fat-burning capacity of your muscles, increasing the elasticity of your arteries and improving exercise performance.


Wondering how healthy you are?

Get the new health-risk score: You can already calculate your risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack in the next 10 years with the Framingham Risk Score, which is based on your age, gender, cholesterol and blood pressure and whether you smoke or have diabetes. (The test is widely available on the Internet—for instance, on the site of the American Health Association, health.org.) Now epidemiologists at the Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City have built on the Framingham model, using scores from two common sets of blood tests, the complete blood count and the basic metabolic risk profile, to create a new tool called the Intermountain Risk Score (IMRS), which predicts how healthy you will be for the next five years.

The complete blood count test (measuring, among other things, your white blood cells) provides information about factors such as inflammation and anemia, while the metabolic risk profile measures levels of many key nutrients, such as calcium, creatinine and bicarbonate, giving doctors an idea of how the muscles, lungs and kidneys are functioning. “This provides a much more accurate picture of one’s health than the Framingham score alone, especially for someone who doesn’t smoke and has normal cholesterol and blood pressure but has other things going on that haven’t been accounted for,” explains Benjamin Horne, PhD, MPH, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at the Intermountain Med­i­cal Center, who helped develop the IMRS. Although using the new risk score has not yet become standard practice, your physician can help you determine your own IMRS by ordering the appropriate blood tests and then plugging the numbers into the calculator located at intermountain​health​care.org/IMRS.


Trying to lose weight?

Leave serving platters in the kitchen: Location, location, location: The mantra of real estate agents apparently applies to food as well. In a Cornell University lab study, when serving plates and bowls were kept on a kitchen counter rather than on the table, women ate 10 percent fewer calories. There’s only a split second between experiencing the impulse to eat and then heaping second, even third, helpings on our plates, notes study author Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. “Keeping the platter away from the table interrupts this automatic feeding and provides enough of a pause that you ask yourself, Am I really that hungry? Half the time, people say, No, I’ve had enough.”



Call Mom: Simply talking to someone who makes you feel loved releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, which in turn lowers the stress hormone cortisol, according to research conducted at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “We thought you needed a physical experience to release oxytocin, such as breast feeding or orgasm,” says study author Seth Pollak, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the university’s Child Emotion Lab. But his research indicated that a simple hug or phone call from their moms could soothe a group of jittery girls. The same lessons apply when we’re under stress, Pollak says. “Our primary caregivers are our source of comfort when we’re young, but as we get older, we develop close attachments with partners and friends,” he explains. “After a hard day, the best thing to do is pick up the phone. Just making that contact with someone who makes you feel loved may relax you if you’re very stressed.”


Feeling down?

Try omega-3 supplements: If you really don’t want to take an antidepressant, you may now have a good alternative, according to research from the University of Montreal. Over an eight-week period, the authors treated people who were experiencing a major depressive episode with concentrated omega-3 supplements (1,050 milligrams of EPA and 150 milligrams of DHA) and found that the subset of patients without an anxiety disorder (but not those with one) improved; these patients scored about three points ­better on depression-symptom scales than participants given a placebo. Though three points may not sound like much, “that’s about the same improvement you’d get from an antidepressant medication for this kind of condition compared to a placebo,” notes study author François Lespérance, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal. Omega-3 supplements are thought to work by reducing inflammation and improving communication among key neuro­transmitters in the brain. Omega-3 supplements don’t yet qualify as a first-step treatment, but, Lespérance says, “if someone is mildly or moderately ­depressed and it’s been going on for some time, omega-3 supplements could be part of a treatment strategy that might also include psychotherapy and exercise.”


Using botox?

Spend less by spacing out your injections: In a study at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, women received shots between their brows every four months for 20 months, then stopped for six months. At that point, half the women showed no evidence of forehead wrinkling at all, and 87 percent said they were satisfied with the condition of their skin. “If regular Botox injections keep the muscle still for one and a half to two years, this appears to give the skin a chance to repair itself and become smooth,” explains study author Roger A. Dailey, MD, chief of oculofacial plastic surgery at OHSU. “Once injections bring about a level of wrinkle reduction you like, you can start spreading Botox shots out from every three to four or five or, in some cases, six months.”


Becoming forgetful?

Brush, floss and see your dentist: A healthy mouth can mean a healthy brain as you grow older, according to a recent study showing that people with gum disease are nine times as likely to score low on cognition tests at age 70 as those without the condition.

“Gum disease is a chronic local bacterial infection that affects about 30 percent of Americans over 30,” says study author Angela Kamer, DDS, PhD, associate professor of periodontology and implant dentistry at New York University’s College of Dentistry. When gum disease is severe or extensive, the pro-inflammatory molecules the body produces locally to fend off the infection can get into the bloodstream and from there reach the brain. The molecules may damage neurons in the brain, contributing to cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer’s. Since gum disease has also been linked to cardiovascular disease, “my advice is to brush your teeth twice a day, floss at least daily and visit your dentist as often as she recommends,” Kamer says.

Next: 3 Tests That Could Save Your Life

3 Tests That Could Save Your Life

3 Tests That Could Save Your Life

Early detection of serious diseases can be crucial to successful treatment—or even survival. Here are two tests to ask your doctor about today, plus one more that’s on the horizon.

Available now

For Diabetes The NMR LipoProfile is a simple blood test that measures the size and number of cholesterol-carrying particles in the bloodstream. It can predict the development of type 2 diabetes in women as early as 13 years before they get a glucose reading high enough to put them in the diabetic column, Harvard University researchers say. Women with the greatest concentration of small LDL and HDL particles, a study found, were two to four times as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as those with the least, possibly because the tiny particles are more densely packed with cholesterol and triglycerides. For more information, go to lipoprofile.com.

For Ovarian Cancer A genetic test called PreOvar uses a blood or saliva sample to identify an abnormal inherited KRAS gene, which may contribute to ovarian cancer independent of the BRCA mutations known to be linked to this disease. BRCA-negative women with a family history of breast and ovarian cancer who have the KRAS mutation are six times as likely to develop ovarian cancer as the general female population. Learn more at miradx.com.

In development

For Colon Cancer Exact Sciences, a Madison, Wisconsin, diagnostics company, has teamed with the Mayo Clinic to develop an effective noninvasive way to screen for colon cancer. Early studies show that the DNA stool test, which identifies abnormal cells that have been shed from the colon, will be able to detect more than 85 percent of ­colon-cancer cells and at least 50 percent of precancerous polyps and may have to be administered only once every three years—a much better track record than annual stool blood tests, which do not detect cancer cells, and miss most precancerous polyps. If you receive positive results from the DNA test, which may be available by 2013, a colonoscopy would be your next step.

Next: Health News You Need to Know