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Harvard Revamps MyPlate To Create A Guide To Healthy Eating

Back in June, federal authorities unveiled MyPlate, an icon designed to help Americans follow healthy eating patterns. It’s a nice, colorful image that was a welcome successor to the misguided MyPyramid. But it doesn’t offer much in the way of useful information.

A group of my colleagues at Harvard Health Publications worked with nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health to create a better version. We call it the Healthy Eating Plate. “We gave MyPlate a makeover to provide consumers with an easy to use but specific guide to healthy eating based on the best science available,” says Dr. Anthony Komaroff, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Editor in Chief of Harvard Health Publications.

The Healthy Eating Plate uses visual elements of MyPlate as a starting point, because the government’s icon is already becoming a recognized teaching tool. But the resemblance ends there: Read more »

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

Thyroid Cancer: A Hazard From Radioactive Iodine Emitted By Japan’s Failing Nuclear Power Plants

One of the most abundant substances in the cloud of radioactive steam released by a failing nuclear power plant is iodine-131 — a radioactive form of the element iodine that is found throughout nature. Iodine-131 poses a special health risk because of its cancer-causing effect on the thyroid gland.

The small, butterfly-shaped thyroid sits just below the voice box. From this perch, it controls how fast every cell in the body changes food into energy. The gland’s main product, thyroid hormone, governs the function of the digestive tract, brain, heart, nerves, muscles, bones, skin, and more.

Iodine is a key ingredient that goes into making thyroid hormone. We get this element from ocean-caught or ocean-farmed fish and shellfish, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and fruits and vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil.

The human body is surprisingly good at absorbing iodine and storing it in the thyroid gland. That’s a problem when iodine-131 is released into the atmosphere. The thyroid stores it as readily as natural, non-radioactive iodine. As iodine-131 builds up in the thyroid gland, it emits bursts of radiation that can damage DNA and other genetic material. Such damage can remove the normal limits to cell growth and division. Unchecked growth of thyroid tissue is thyroid cancer.

Iodine-131 gets into the body several ways. A person can breathe in radioactive steam released by a nuclear power plant. Fallout — radioactive particles that fall out of the atmosphere and settle onto plants, soil, and water — further adds to the burden when a person eats iodine-131 enriched fruits and vegetables or drinks water containing the isotope. Milk is another vehicle — cows that eat grass sprinkled with iodine-131 make milk that contains it. Read more »

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

Shingles Recurrence: Can The Vaccine Help?

This month’s Harvard Health Letter has an article about getting shingles a second or even a third time. (Click here to read the full article.) The bottom line is that recurrence is a) certainly possible and b) if some recent research is correct, much more common than previously thought and about as likely as getting shingles in the first place if you’re age 60 or older.

I talked to Barbara Yawn, M.D., director of research at the Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., for the article and mentioned results that she and her colleagues first presented at a conference several years ago.

Yawn reported a more complete version of those results in last month’s issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (a favorite journal of mine). Full text of the study isn’t available unless you have a subscription to the journal, but here’s a summary (in medical publishing, such summaries are called abstracts.)

Melinda Beck, a health columnist for the Wall Street Journal,  had a column about shingles last week and this how she neatly summed up Yawn’s research:

For the new study on shingles recurrence, researchers at the Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, Minn., examined medical records of nearly 1,700 patients who had a documented case of shingles between 1996 and 2001. They found that more than 5% of them were treated for a second episode within an average of eight years—about the same rate as would typically experience a first case.

And here is a link to the Journal Watch item of the study and a short comment by the Journal Watch editor. Journal Watch is a monthly newsletter published by the Massachusetts Medical Society that summarizes and comments on recently published research.

In the Mayo Clinic Proceedings paper, Yawn and her colleagues report that 95 of the 1,669 people with an “index” case of shingles got shingles again over the course of a follow-up period that averaged 7.3 years, which works out to about 5.6 percent of the shingles sufferers. Six people had two recurrences and two had three! The timing of recurrence varied from 96 days to 10 years after the initial episode. In 45 percent of those who got shingles again, the site of the recurrence was in a different region of the body than the site of the first case. They also noted that the single biggest risk factor for having a second case of shingles was having pain that lasted 30 days or longer during the first case. Read more »

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

Teens Who Smoke Pot: At Risk For Mental Illness Later?

Teenagers and young adults who use marijuana may be messing with their heads in ways they don’t intend.

Evidence is mounting that regular marijuana use increases the chance that a teenager will develop psychosis, a pattern of unusual thoughts or perceptions, such as believing the television is transmitting secret messages. It also increases the risk of developing schizophrenia, a disabling brain disorder that not only causes psychosis, but also problems concentrating and loss of emotional expression.

In one recent study that followed nearly 2,000 teenagers as they became young adults, young people who smoked marijuana at least five times were twice as likely to have developed psychosis over the next 10 years as those who didn’t smoke pot.

Another new paper concluded that early marijuana use could actually hasten the onset of psychosis by three years. Those most at risk are youths who already have a mother, father, or sibling with schizophrenia or some other psychotic disorder.

Young people with a parent or sibling affected by psychosis have a roughly one in 10 chance of developing the condition themselves — even if they never smoke pot. Regular marijuana use, however, doubles their risk — to a one in five chance of becoming psychotic.

In comparison, youths in families unaffected by psychosis have a seven in 1,000 chance of developing it. If they smoke pot regularly, the risk doubles to 14 in 1,000. Read more »

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

What “The King’s Speech” Teaches Us About Stuttering

The film “The King’s Speech” won the Academy Award for Best Picture [on Sunday night.] The movie has come in for some criticism for its depiction of the political machinations surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII  and Britain’s appeasement of Hitler. The British-born writer Christopher Hitchens, unsparing and deliciously eloquent as always, puts the politics of  George VI in a far less favorable light than the movie does.      

But ”The King’s Speech” has won almost universal praise for its portrayal of the reluctant monarch’s stuttering, a speech pattern that includes involuntary repetition of sounds and syllables and “speech blocks” that cause prolonged pauses. Many young  children who stutter grow out of the problem, but perhaps as many as one in every 100 adults are affected by the condition, 80 percent of whom are men. Stuttering clusters in families, so researchers have been searching for inherited genes that might cause the condition. Last year, in The New England Journal of Medicine, NIH researchers reported some success with results showing an association between three mutated genes and stuttering, although those mutations are probably responsible for a very small minority of cases. 

It’s been said that ”The King’s Speech” will do for stuttering what “Rain Man” did for autism: Plant a sympathetic view of a disability in the public consciousness. One danger of such a quick infusion of awareness, however, is that it can harden into a fixed, if largely favorable, stereotype. We are finding out — or are being reminded — about all the famous people who have stuttered (many of them writers). First-person accounts are popping up all over the place because of the film. The best I’ve come across is by Philip French, a British film critic, who describes vividly what it was like to listen to the radio broadcasts of the real King George VI, wondering if he would make it to the end “like a drunken waiter crossing a polished floor bearing a tray laden with wine glasses.” Read more »

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

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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