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Calcium Supplements: Good For Your Bones But Bad For Your Heart?

Calcium is good for us, right? Milk products are great sources of calcium, and we’re told to emphasize milk products in our diets. Don’t (or can’t) eat enough dairy? Calcium supplements are very popular, especially among women seeking to minimize their risk of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis prevention and treatment guidelines recommend calcium and vitamin D as an important measure in preserving bone density and reducing the risk of fractures. For those who don’t like dairy products, even products like orange juice and Vitamin Water are fortified with calcium. The general perception seemed to be that calcium consumption was a good thing – the more, the better. Until recently.

In a pattern similar to that I described with folic acid, there’s new safety signals from trials with calcium supplements that are raising concerns. Two studies published in the past two years suggest that calcium supplements are associated with a significantly increased risk of heart attacks. Could the risks of calcium supplements outweigh any benefits they offer? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

New Recommendations For Vitamin D

Vitamin D has been talked about as the vitamin — the one that might help fend off everything from cancer to heart disease to autoimmune disorders, if only we were to get enough of it.

“Whoa!” is the message from a committee of experts assembled by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to update recommendations for vitamin D (and for calcium).

The IOM committee’s report, released this morning, says evidence for many of  the health claims for vitamin D is “inconsistent and/or conflicting or did not demonstrate causality.” The exception is the vitamin’s well-documented (and noncontroversial) benefits on bone growth and maintenance.

The IOM panel’s report also says most North Americans (Canadians as well as Americans) have more than enough vitamin D in their blood to achieve the desired effect on bone. The committee said a blood level of 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) is sufficient for most people.

The panel set 600 International Units (IU) as the recommended daily intake for children and for adults ages 19 to 70. People ages 71 and older are supposed to get an additional 200 IU, or 800 IU a day.

That’s a fairly sizable increase over the previous recommendations of 200 IU per day through age 50, 400 IU for people ages 51 to 70, and 600 IU for people ages 71 and older. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Life Line Screening Promotes Unnecessary Medical Tests

A patient brought in a flyer for Life Line Screening, where for $129 an individual can have their carotid (neck) and peripheral (leg) arteries screened for blockage, their abdominal aorta screened for aneurysm (swelling), and be tested for osteoporosis. The advertisement claims that “we can help you avoid a stroke,” and their logo notes “Life Line Screening: The Power of Prevention.”

Are these tests worth your money? Short answer: No.

Although the flyer correctly indicates that 80 percent of stokes can be prevented, the National Stroke Assocation does not recommend ultrasound as a screening test. Preventing stroke includes quitting smoking, knowing your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, drinking alcohol in moderation (if already doing so), exercising regularly, and eating a low-sodium diet. Their is no mention of an ultrasound test. Why? Because there is NO evidence that it helps save lives in individuals who are healthy and have no symptoms (except for the following situations). Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*

McDonald’s Vs. DASH: Two Days, Two Diets

This week I’ve been trying to eat according to the DASH guidelines for lowering blood pressure. It actually hasn’t been too difficult — partly because I’m not following their strictest guidelines, which call for just 1,300 milligrams of sodium and 16 grams of saturated fat a day. I’ve been shooting for 2,300 milligrams of sodium and 22 grams of saturated fat.

In 2003, I tried a somewhat different “diet,” which in some ways was more difficult to follow, even though it only lasted one day. My son Jim (then age 11) and I ate every meal at McDonald’s for an entire day (yes, this was before Super Size Me). We recorded the experience on the Web. I thought it would be interesting to compare my day at McDonald’s to a typical day on DASH. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Daily Monthly*

Vitamins In A Nut Shell

Some patients love their vitamins, spending hundreds to thousands of dollars annually. At times, they will even forgo proven medical therapy. As more Americans go without health insurance coverage while others face higher office visits and copays, increasing numbers of patients are seeking alternative, natural therapies instead of medical care. Are vitamins really the scientific breakthrough and secret that doctors refuse to recommend or are they simply marketing hype? As any medical school student will tell you, the correct answer to any question is: it depends.

For certain groups, pregnant women, patients with macular degeneration, and vegetarians, vitamins and minerals may be recommended as research finds them helpful. Prenatal vitamins have more folic acid which has been found to decrease the risk of neural tube defects in the fetus. Vegetarians may need to supplement their diet with vitamin B12, iron, and vitamin D, which are absent in their food choices. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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