Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

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*

Pulmonary Embolism: If It Can Strike Serena Williams, It Can Ace Anyone

News that tennis star Serena Williams was treated for a blood clot in her lungs is shining the spotlight on a frightfully overlooked condition that can affect anyone — even a trained athlete who stays fit for a living.

Williams had a pulmonary embolism. That’s doctor speak for a blood clot that originally formed in the legs or elsewhere in the body but that eventually broke away, traveled through the bloodstream, and got stuck in a major artery feeding the lungs. (To read more about pulmonary embolism, check out this article from the Harvard Heart Letter.) Pulmonary embolism is serious trouble because it can prevent the lungs from oxygenating blood — about one in 12 people who have one die from it.

“No one is immune from pulmonary embolism, not even super athletes,” says Dr. Samuel Z. Goldhaber, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the country’s leading experts in this clotting disorder.

Pulmonary embolism tends to happen among people who have recently had surgery, been injured, or been confined to bed rest for some time. It can also strike after long-haul flights.

Signs of a PE

How do you know if you’re experiencing a pulmonary embolism? The most common symptoms include shortness of breath when you aren’t exerting yourself, along with chest pain and coughing up blood. If you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. Other worrisome signs include:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Clammy or bluish skin
  • Light-headedness
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

The tennis star’s pulmonary embolism could have been the result of the perfect storm. After having a cast removed from a foot she cut at Wimbledon, Williams flew from New York to Los Angeles. It was in LA, after an appearance at the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, that she underwent emergency treatment at Cedars Sinai Hospital for a blood clot in her lungs.

A call to action by the U.S. Surgeon General says that pulmonary embolism and a related condition — deep-vein thrombosis — affect an estimated 350,000 to 600,000 Americans each year. Together, they account for somewhere between 100,000 and 180,000 deaths each year.

To learn more about pulmonary embolism, check out this information from the North American Thrombosis Forum.

- P.J. Skerrett, Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

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

Does Cell Phone Use Stimulate Brain Activity?

We all know that using a cell phone can stimulate the brain to work a bit harder. “Mr. Skerrett? This is Dr. LeWine’s office. Do you have a minute to talk about your test results?” or “Dad, a bunch of kids are going to Casey’s house after the dance. Can I go?” But a new study published in JAMA is making me wonder what the energy emitted by the phone itself — not just the information it delivers — is doing to my brain.

Here’s the study in a nutshell. Dr. Nora Volkow and her colleagues recruited 47 volunteers to have their brain activity measured twice by a PET scanner. Both times the volunteer had a cell phone strapped to each ear. During one measurement, both phones were turned off. During the other, one phone was turned on but muted so the volunteer didn’t know it was on; the other was left off. Each session lasted about an hour. The scans showed a small increase in the brain’s use of glucose (blood sugar) when the phone was on, but only in parts of the brain close to the antenna.

It was an elegant study. The researchers took pains to anticipate sources of error. They used a control (both phones off) against which to compare the effect of a “live” cell phone. They used cell phones on each ear, one on and one off, to see if the effect was localized. They muted the phone that was on to eliminate the possibility that any brain activation was due to listening to the sound of a voice coming through the phone’s speaker. So the result is probably a real one, not an artifact or measurement error.

What does this brain activation mean? No one really knows. As Dr. Volkow told NPR, “I cannot say if it is bad that they [cell phones] are increasing glucose metabolism, or if it could be good.” Read more »

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

Think Zinc For A Cold? Not Me

Media channels are a-twitter with the news that zinc can beat the common cold. CBS News, the LA Times, the Huffington Post, and hundreds of others are treating a quiet research report as big news that will have a life-changing effect. After reading the report and doing a little digging into the dark side of zinc, I’m not rushing out to stock up on zinc lozenges or syrup.

The latest hubbub about zinc was sparked by a report from the Cochrane Collaboration. This global network of scientists, patients, and others evaluates the evidence on hundreds of different treatments. In the latest review, on zinc for the common cold, researchers Meenu Singh and Rashmi R. Das pooled the results of 13 studies that tested zinc for treating colds. By their analysis, taking zinc within 24 hours of first noticing the signs of a cold could shorten the cold by one day. They also found that taking zinc made colds a bit less severe.

Sounds good so far. But instead of saying, “Hey, take zinc if you have a cold,” the researchers concluded like this:

“People taking zinc lozenges (not syrup or tablet form) are more likely to experience adverse events, including bad taste and nausea. As there are no studies in participants in whom common cold symptoms might be troublesome (for example, those with underlying chronic illness, immunodeficiency, asthma, etc.), the use of zinc currently cannot be recommended for them. Given the variability in the populations studied (no studies from low- or middle-income countries), dose, formulation and duration of zinc used in the included studies, more research is needed to address these variabilities and determine the optimal duration of treatment as well as the dosage and formulations of zinc that will produce clinical benefits without increasing adverse effects [bold is mine], before making a general recommendation for zinc in treatment of the common cold.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Read more »

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

The Forecast For Heart Disease: Gloomy With A Chance Of “Boomers”

As a youngster, I loved being part of the baby boom — it meant there were dozens of kids on my block who were ready to play hide-and-seek or join mysterious clubs. Now that I’m of an AARP age, there’s one club I don’t want to join: The one whose members have bypass scars, pacemakers, or other trappings of cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association’s (AHA) gloomy new forecast on cardiovascular disease tells me it won’t be easy to avoid.

The AHA foresees sizeable increases in all forms of cardiovascular disease (see table) between now and 2030, the year all of the boomers are age 65 and older. Those increases will translate into an additional 27 million people with high blood pressure, eight million with coronary heart disease, four million with stroke, and three million with heart failure. That will push the number of adult Americans with some form of heart disease to 110 million.

AHA cardiovascular disease forecast

(Percentages refer to the percentage of Americans aged 18 years and older.)

If the AHA’s projections are accurate, the cost of treating cardiovascular disease would balloon from $272 billion today to $818 billion in 2030. Add in the cost of lost productivity, and it jumps to more than $1 trillion. Yikes!

Although obesity and inactivity are part of the problem, much of the increase comes from the graying of the baby boom. We can’t stop boomers from aging, but we can fight cardiovascular disease, a condition the AHA calls “largely preventable.” 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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

See all book reviews »