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More Potassium, Fewer Strokes

There are few medical conditions that people fear more than a stroke. We know that blood pressure control and lowering cholesterol levels reduces stroke risk. Now, thanks to a huge analysis from Italy published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, we know that higher dietary consumption of potassium is associated with lower rates of stroke and could also reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and total cardiovascular disease, too. What is even more remarkable is that the results apply to all parts of society and not just to specific “at-risk” subgroups.

Most doctors aren’t even aware of how important it is to eat potassium-rich foods. And what are these foods that have potassium? Surprise: It’s fruits and vegetables like bananas, tomatoes, oranges, apricots, most legumes, spinach, winter squash, avocado, kiwi, and cantaloupe. Actually, almost all fruits and veggies have moderate to high potassium content.

The researchers looked a number of well-done studies that included 247, 510 participants over age 30 and found that those patients with the higher potassium intake reduced their stroke risk by 21 percent. The Italian doctors say the protective effect of potassium against stroke is in part due to its blood pressure lowering effects and also due to other properties of the potassium mineral, such as the inhibition of free radical formation.

I’ve written before about the DASH diet, which also found that reduction of sodium and addition of fruits and vegetables to the diet is an effective way to control blood pressure. The DASH diet is high in potassium.

Think about it: Did you have five servings of fruits and vegetables today? Numerous studies have shown their life-prolonging benefits. This new study just adds to what we already know. I challenge all readers to keep a diet count and make sure you are eating five fruit and vegetable servings a day — every day — to help reduce your risk of stroke, cancer, and heart attack.

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

Preventing Falls And “Post-Fall Syndrome” In Seniors: A Call For Anticipatory Care

We hear about stories like this all time: An elderly person falls and breaks something — a hip, a wrist, or an arm. Soon what once was a healthy, independent senior begins an inexorable downhill slide. Such is the case of my 89-year-old mother who recently fell and broke her wrist.

Turns out that 30 percent of people age 65 and older fall each year. Predictably, seniors with the following risk factors are more prone to falls:

  • Using sedatives
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Problems walking
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Eye problems
  • Balance issues

Similarly, when a person does fall, a cascading series of predictable clinical events occurs. It even has a name: “Post-fall syndrome.” This syndrome is characterized by things like fear of falling again, increased immobility, loss of muscle and control, lack of sleep, nutritional deficits, and so on. Seniors susceptible to falls also have higher rates of hospitalization and institutionalization.

What strikes me about falls among the elderly is that they are seemingly predictable events. And once a fall does occur, the consequences seem pretty predictable as well — enter post-fall syndrome. So if falls and their consequences are so predictable, why aren’t primary care physicians more proactive in terms of:

  • Preventing falls?
  • Treating post-fall syndrome?

In the case of my mother, her primary care physician and orthopedist were both very diligent at treating her episodic needs (i.e. her pain and broken bones). But little attention, if any, was given to assessing her long-term needs, such as nutrition, inability to do anything with her left hand (she’s left-handed), sensitivity to new medications (she never took drugs because they make her loopy), gait analysis, and depression counseling. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Mind The Gap*

New Study Links HPV To Head And Neck Cancers In Men

A new study finds that half of men in America are infected with the HPV virus. Dr. Jon LaPook reports on the growing concern that the virus in men could be responsible for an increase in head and neck cancers.

HPV Affects Half Of U.S. Men

A study out [yesterday] in The Lancet by Moffitt Cancer Center researcher Anna Giuliano, Ph.D., and her colleagues finds that 50 percent of men ages 18 to 70 in Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S. have genital infection with human papillomavirus (HPV).  HPV is the virus that causes cervical cancer in women. It also causes warts and cancer of the genitals and anus in both men and women. Over the past several years, researchers have realized that the virus can also cause cancer of the head and neck.

Aimee R. Kreimer, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute, estimates that about 65 percent of the approximately 8,000 cancers of the tonsils and base of the tongue (oropharynx) seen in the U.S. in 2010 were from HPV infection; eighty percent of these are in men. The rates for HPV-associated cancers like these are increasing; for sites like the mouth and larynx that are associated with tobacco and alcohol use, the rates are decreasing (though still too high since too many people still smoke and abuse alcohol).

An infection rate of 50 percent for a virus that can cause cancer sounds scary. But knowing a few more facts about HPV helps put the risk in perspective. About 90 percent of men and women infected with HPV virus get rid of it on their own within about two years. There are many different strains of HPV — some that cause cancer and some that don’t. Only about 6 percent of men have genital infection with HPV 16 — the strain linked to more than 90 percent of cancers of the head and neck. And only about 0.6 percent of men have HPV 16 in specimens taken from their mouths; what percentage of those men go on to develop head and neck cancer is unknown. Read more »

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*

Adult Vaccines: Most Doctors Don’t Stock All Of Them

Less than one in three primary care practices offer all 10 recommended adult vaccines, citing a variety of financial and logistical reasons.

Researchers sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sampled 993 family physicians and 997 general internists. Of the respondents, 27 percent (31 percent of family practitioners and 20 percent of internists) stocked all 10. Results appear in the Feb. 17 issue of the journal Vaccine.

The 10 vaccines were hepatitis A; hepatitis B; human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV); combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4); pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPSV23); tetanus diphtheria (Td); combined tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap); varicella; and zoster.

Of the responding practices, two percent plan to stop vaccine purchases, 12 percent plan to increase them and the rest had no plans to change their vaccination stocking habits. But physicians who identified themselves as their respective practices’ decision makers for stocking vaccines were more likely to decrease the number of different vaccines stocked for adults (11 percent vs. three percent; P=.0001).

The National Vaccine Advisory Committee, a group that advises the various federal agencies involved in vaccines and immunizations, arrived at even bleaker figures in 2009, reported the April 2009 issue of ACP Internist. For example, 62 percent of decision makers in practices said they had delayed purchase of a vaccine at some time in the prior three years due to financial concerns. And in the prior year, 16 percent of practice decision makers had seriously considered stopping vaccinations for privately-insured patients due to the cost and reimbursement issues. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

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

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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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