Monthly Archives: November 2014

Preventing Heart Disease

Heart health is an important topic for people to understand. Unfortunately , many people don’t have a clear understanding of the most important things they need to know to keep themselves safe. Three fourths of people underestimate their risk of dying from the most common killer of both men and women in the United States. Worse, many people hold erroneous beliefs about so-called preventative measures that actually have no effect.

For example, fish oil is often touted as preventing heart disease, even though that is not one of the meany health benefits. Many people also have an oversimplified impression of the role family history holds in heat disease risk, believing there is a simple genetic disposition when the reality is far more complex.

Despite these misunderstandings, heart disease, while still the number one killer, has been declining over the last half century in the developed world, while on the rise in poorer countries over the same time period. In part, this increase is a result of the success that has been had in lowering infant mortality and fatal childhood diseases in those countries; as more people are living to adulthood, more people are living long enough to get heart disease, which is far more common in people over 60. However, the lifestyle factors that lead to heart disease start in childhood, and people everywhere could benefit from better education in avoiding it.

Avoiding heart disease often means lifestyle changes, but nothing that is onerous for most people. Quitting smoking is one of the healthiest things a person can do, and an ex-smoker’s risk of heart disease returns to normal in less than a year. Women on hormonal birth control need to be particularly wary of smoking. Getting regular exercise—half an hour, or even ten minutes, four or five days a week can provide enormous benefits. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and avoiding red meat and other sources of saturated fat, is another change that will improve heart health.

It is especially important for people with known risk factors for heart disease, such as being over age 60, a family history of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stress, or high blood pressure.

Athlete’s Foot

The fungus Trychophyton lives on wet surfaces. But it thrives on human skin, particularly the feet, where it is responsible for the painful itching known as athlete’s foot that affects about 15 percent of the population. The name comes from the fact that a common place for transmission is locker rooms—the infected person showers, walks on the locker room floor, and deposits the fungus there, and then another person walks barefoot on the surface and picks it up, becoming infected. Once a person has acquired the fungus, it may be anywhere on the body that is warm and moist.

A type of ringworm, athlete’s foot produces itching between the toes and in other infected areas, as well as a scaly red rash and often ulcers and sores. It can easily spread to the hand if the sufferer scratches or picks at the itchy scales. One common variety of the condition causes dryness and scaling, resembling eczema, that starts on the soles of the feet and goes up the sides towards the ankles; this is known as "moccasin foot" or "plantar athlete’s foot." In addition, some people have an allergic reaction to the fungus that is separate from the effects of the infection.

In addition to walking barefoot in places like locker rooms and saunas, risk factors include tight shoes and damp socks, as well as sharing socks with someone who has been infected. Athlete’s foot fungus can even spread on carpets. It can easy to avoid, experts say, by such preventative measures as wearing sandals or shower shoes in places with damp surfaces; washing the feet regularly, drying them thoroughly, and keeping them dry; and rotating footwear and changing it regularly.

As is often the case with fungal infections such as ringworm, athlete’s foot can be difficult to treat, and is likely to require professional medical care. Keeping the feet clean and dry is a key factor, but an infected person’s towels should not be used more than once without being thoroughly washed until after the infection has cleared. Topical as well as oral anti-fungal medications are often prescribed to eliminate the Trychophyton fungus.

Flu On The Internet

Winter is flu season, and there is a new strain about. Seasonal flu is a problem for everyone, but it’s especially dangerous for young children and people over age 65, who are most at risk. Other people who need to be particularly on guard against influenza are people living in crowded conditions, as well as health care workers, teachers, and anyone else who is in contact with people who have or are at risk for flu. In addition, people with weakened immune systems, due to medications or other illnesses, and the chronically ill are vulnerable, as are pregnant women.

One of the simplest ways to avoid flu germs this season is hand-washing. Washing after coming in from outside, handling dirty dishes and other leaving, using public transportation, and as soon as politeness will allow after shaking hands with people—as well as after spending significant amounts of time with young children—can go a long way towards preventing the spread of influenza virus. That means twenty seconds, with soap, under the hottest water tolerable. Keeping surfaces, particularly surfaces where work is done or food is prepared or eaten, is also important.

Another way to cut down the spread of flu is with vaccination. Th flu vaccine is safe for most adults and children older than six months—though anyone with an egg allergy or a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome should not get vaccinated—and is available at most pharmacies, and chains often provide it at a discount. Many larger workplaces have vaccination drives to encourage employees to be protected. That’s because sick leave and lost productivity due to flu costs businesses millions of dollars every year.

Researchers have gotten new insight into the way influenza and other infectious diseases spread thanks to new technology. Even without requiring the use of anyone’s private information, social media and the internet generally provide an excellent laboratory to explore group behavior among humans. This winter, scientists are debuting the use of Wikipedia browsing data to predict the spread of flu in the United States. Their results are based on a three-year study that looked at page views for Wikipedia articles about diseases and the spread of those diseases in various countries.

Magnetic Treatment For Heartburn

More and more people are experiencing acid reflux, according to public health experts. Over the past ten years, the number of people who report experiencing the condition has risen by almost 50 percent. Acid reflux is one of the most common internet health searches. This increase appears to affect men and women of all ages, though most sufferers are women in their 60s and the strongest effect was seen in middle-aged people. Reflux occurs when the stomach acids travel up the esophagus due to a fault in the valve that normally prevents this. It can cause discomfort—heartburn—and over time can lead to esophageal cancer.

One possible reason suggested for the rise in acid reflux is the increase in obesity in recent years. Obesity is a significant risk factor for acid reflux because of the strain it puts on the valve keeping stomach acid in place. The pressure on the stomach can make it more difficult for the valve to stay closed. Asthma, diabetes and smoking can also cause the risk of reflux to be higher. Some medications have a side effect of worsening reflux as well; these include anticholinergics prescribed for irritable bowel syndrome, certain hypertension and heart disease medications, opioid painkillers such as codeine and hydrocodone and acetaminophen, the hormone progesterone, and benzodiazepine sedatives.

Even non-opiate pain relievers can lead to heartburn, though without necessarily triggering reflux, such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Other medications associated with heartburn include bisphosphonates for osteoporosis, antibiotics, and iron and potassium supplements. These medications irritate the lining of the stomach, causing the heartburn sensation. In addition, antibiotics, in addition to the harmful microbes they are intended to target, often work equally well on the gut microflora that help in digestion, leading to digestive problems such as heartburn.

Antacids, which, as the name suggests, neutralize the acid in the stomach, can provide spot relief for heartburn. However, this acid is necessary for digestion, and so overuse of these medications can be harmful. Medications called proton pump inhibitors combine reducing the amount of acid in the stomach with healing the esophagus. A new surgical approach involves placing a ring of magnetic beads around the esophagus to help keep the acid in place. This allows the esophagus to heal from acid damage and prevents further damage without interfering with digestion.


Thursday will be Thanksgiving in the United States. It’s time for celebrating with family, but for many people, it’s also a time for stress. In some cases, the stress is something that can be dealt with. It may for example, be the result of comparing one’s own gathering with a hypothetical, Norman Rockwell ideal family, even though the ideal family is vanishingly rare outside of paintings. Another source is dread of a fight at the dinner table. People don’t suddenly change on Thanksgiving, so expectation management—being aware that people will be pretty much the way they always are—will go a long way towards keeping calm.

On a more basic level, avoiding holiday stress means minimizing holiday stressors. One of the biggest things people worry about is forgetting something, and one way to avoid that is to make lists of everything. Even things that would seem so obvious that there’s no possible way to forget them should go on the list. That means the list is made when there’s time to sit down and think about it, and then when things are rushed, it is necessary only to follow it.

Thanksgiving is also a time of eating. The typical Thanksgiving meal is five or six times the size of a normal meal. Indeed, this, more than the tryptophan in the turkey, is responsible for the sleepiness many people feel after Thanksgiving dinner—the body is devoting much of its energy to processing all that food, and many people have alcohol as well. Of course, the occasional blow-out isn’t bad—while no one should eat a holiday dinner every night, a few times a year on special occasions is unlikely to do any lasting harm.

Some Thanksgiving foods can even be beneficial. Cranberry sauce, for example, contains a substance that can destroy the plaque responsible for tooth decay, as does red wine. Cranberries are also a good source of antioxidants, which can protect the body from some types of cancer. Turkey has selenium and other necessary nutrients, and if based in broth or wine, it’s low in saturated fat. In addition, the vegetables provide important nutrients even when incorporated into dressing or other rich holiday side dishes. Even gravy provides some health benefits.

Teenage Pregnancy

Every day, more than 1,100 children are born to women under age 20. Those children face a higher lifetime risk of poverty, are likely to bee less educated, and tend to experience worse life outcomes than their peers born to adult women. Happily, thanks to educational and societal efforts, teenagers are becoming better informed about the risks of pregnancy and parenting and how to avoid that fate. However, although teenage pregnancy is on the decrease in recent years, it is still common enough to be an important issue.

A number of the issues with teenage motherhood are demographic—teenage mothers, for example, are less likely to have a become pregnant in a stable long-term relationship, and that itself could lead to medical and psychological issues. Teenage motherhood is also correlated with poverty and low educational attainment, with many pregnant teenagers having dropped out of school before becoming pregnant. However, there are also medical risks that are higher in younger mothers or first-time pregnancies. That’s why, globally, pregnancy and childbirth is the second leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19. Teenagers are less likely than adult women to have access to prenatal care, have poorer nutrition than their adult counterparts, and are more prone to certain pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of beliefs about sex an pregnancy that surveys have found are common among teenagers but that have no basis in reality. Many people, for instance, believe that the fist time a woman has sex, she can’t get pregnant. Other beliefs relate to position—woman on top, standing up—or location, such as in water, as ways to prevent pregnancy. None of these are effective.

The rumor mill also circulates contraception methods, such as jumping up and down, bathing, or going to the bathroom right after sex, or even douching after, that are ineffective. These beliefs, in combination with health curricula in some schools that may give the impression that hormonal and barrier methods do not work, can result in pregnancies that could have been avoided.

Diabetes And Fitness

Good news for people who lead active lives: it’s one of the best and most effective ways to avoid type 2 diabetes. Unlike type 1, type 2 diabetes isn’t congenital; instead, it happens during a person’s life. Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include inactivity and eating too many sugary foods, and in people who get diabetes, these factors can also affect the severity. Exercise, in particular, is considered the most effective treatment for diabetes. Patients who are taking medication are urged to add exercise as well to boost its effectiveness. Studies show that people who exercise get three times the benefit from diabetes medication as more sedentary people.

Diet can also make a difference. A diet high in legumes, vegetables such as peas, beans, and lentils, for example, reduces levels of a protein known as glycated hemoglobin. High glycated hemoglobin levels are associated with type 2 diabetes—indeed, doctors regard an excess of glycated hemoglobin as a diagnostic indicator of diabetes. As with exercise, legumes provide a benefit to diabetics as well. Eating legumes has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease in people with diabetes—fiber provides similar benefits to a lesser degree.

In addition to diet and exercise, other things that prevent diabetes are melatonin and oddly, whole-body vibration. Brief, daily whole-body vibration of people with conditions typically regarded as precursors to type 2 diabetes may help keep glucose levels under control. Vibration was tested on laboratory animals , and found to work on juveniles, but was not as effective in full grown specimen. Nonetheless, researchers hold out hope that applications can be found that will be beneficial to human beings.

Melatonin is a sleep hormone produced by the brain, and melatonin supplements are often used as a sleep aid. A study has found that people with lower concentrations of melatonin in the blood are more prone to developing type 2 diabetes. The study found that people with insufficient melatonin have more than twice the diabetes risk. The mechanism is not entirely clear. However, melatonin can help prevent or reduce weight gain, and being overweight has been associated with risk of diabetes.

The Great American Smokeout

The biggest single thing a smoker can do to improve their health is to quit. In fact, in any given year, more than half of all smokers make at least one attempt to quit, and it is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions. Many people take this step about a month earlier—the Great American Smokeout on the third Thursday of November. Today, tens of thousands of Americans are smoking their last cigarette. Since 1977, millions of Americans have taken the challenge to not light up for 24 hours, and many of them never did again.

In fact, 24 hours is enough to start to see some improvement. Health benefits actually begin within 20 minutes, and after 12 hours without a cigarette, most of the immediate physical effects have dissipated. The 24-hour period of the challenge roughly coincides with the time it takes to reach the peak of mental distress as well—24 hours after a person’s last cigarette, the anxiety is at or past it’s highest level, and it will only improve from that point on.

Even long-term effects of smoking generally begin to reverse themselves over time. Nicotine usually completely clears the body after 72 hours, and the cravings start to reduce in frequency and duration. After 10 days, most former smokers have no more than two episodes per day. Quitting-related anxiety and irritability go away entirely after less than four weeks. The lungs begin to recover in as little as a month. All in all, while some health effects are permanent, most are completely cleared up within about a decade of quitting.

There are a number of resources available to help people quit smoking. There are options besides quitting cold turkey—substitutes and alternative nicotine delivery systems such as patches can help quitters ease off and help reduce cravings. Prescription medications can also help with cravings by helping to get the brain used to not having nicotine. Other things that can help people quit are substitute activities, to help break the habit of having a cigarette in the hand at certain times.

Support groups can also help—life improvement projects can be easier with accountability. Even writing down the intention to quit smoking privately can be a motivator.

Insomnia And Drugs

America’s sleep debt is growing. More and more people are not getting the sleep they need. One reason is that far too many people look on not sleeping as a badge of honor, indifferent to the costs it exacts. Those costs, however, should not be overlooked. For example, one study found that people with insomnia are almost three times as likely to die in a car accident or from some other injury than people who are getting adequate sleep.

In fact, sleeplessness can cause problems for children and adults alike. Insomniac children have trouble with focus, and can have immune deficits. Teenagers tend to need to sleep later than at any other stage of life and thus are particularly prone to racking up sleep debt. In adults, sleep debt accumulates and can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and obesity.

Many people facing insomnia try to self-medicate with alcohol, but this is not a good solution to the problem Counterintuitively, alcohol can actually make insomnia worse. That’s because it’s not only the amount but the quality of sleep someone gets that’s important, and drinking leads to poor quality sleep. While alcohol can make people fall asleep faster, it isn’t restorative sleep, merely the effects of alcohol on the central nervous system. Moreover, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning sleep tends to be interrupted—and because it can exacerbate the causes of sleep apnea, it can cause another sort of interruption as well.

In fact, drugs and insomnia have a complicated relationship. People recovering from drug addiction often have insomnia in the earliest stages of rehab, but insomnia also makes it more likely that the addiction treatment will prove unsuccessful and they will relapse. A recent study called sleep deprivation "prevalent and persistent" among patients in treatment for drug addiction. According to researchers, people in addiction recovery are five times as likely as the general population to have disturbed sleep patterns, in some cases for years after starting treatment. Moreover, the study shows, people with insomnia re more prone to drug addiction—particularly if the insomnia is brought on by rehab, since these people are already prone to addressing problems with drug use.

Infertility Biochemistry

The "biological clock" is a real thing. Female fertility declines sharply in the years preceding menopause. While women have gotten pregnant into their 50s and beyond, it is a rare occurrence—rare enough, in fact, that the medical definition of infertility requires only six months of trying for women over 35, as opposed to a year for younger women. Research has found that the clock runs out when the uterus’s supply of mature ova is depleted. This triggers, through hormonal processes, the start of menopause, though not directly, which is why the decline of fertility happens earlier.

The maturation process by which ova are prepared for release and possible fertilization is called meiosis, in which cells divide to become the ova, which carry half the genetic information necessary to make a person. Researchers have discovered that a molecule called Greatwall kinase is essential to this process. In laboratory animals, it was found that Greatwall kinase plays a role in this division process, and low levels resulted in abnormal, non-functioning ova cells. The research team behind the study believes that the same molecule plays a similar role in human reproduction.

The immune system also plays a role in fertility. For various reasons, most people are born with immunity to certain pathogens already in place, what is called the innate immune system. This generally provides protection against illnesses that were ubiquitous in the ancestral environment and certain illnesses to which the mother’s immune system developed resistance, as opposed to immunity developed during life by the exposure and vaccination. One of the most important components of this innate immune system, a protein called Interleukin-1, also destroys ova, hastening the decline of a woman’s fertility. While the protein cannot be completely eliminated without severely compromising the immune system, doctors believe tat suppressing it can help boost in-vitro fertilization.

In extreme cases, extreme solutions may be necessary. Uterus transplant surgery has been talked about in recent years, and earlier this year the world saw the first success story for this kind of surgery: a woman in Sweden who became pregnant using in vitro fertilization and a transplanted uterus gave birth, at 32 weeks due to complications, but the baby is developing as expected given those complications. In all seven women have received the surgery; this woman is the first to give birth.