Posted on Leave a comment

How to stay strong and coordinated as you age

7fc0f0a4-dbfe-4f98-ac7e-0116a49e3993

So many physical abilities decline with normal aging, including strength, swiftness, and stamina. In addition to these muscle-related declines, there are also changes that occur in coordinating the movements of the body. Together, these changes mean that as you age, you may not be able to perform activities such as running to catch a bus, walking around the garden, carrying groceries into the house, keeping your balance on a slippery surface, or playing catch with your grandchildren as well as you used to. But do these activities have to deteriorate? Let’s look at why these declines happen — and what you can do to actually improve your strength and coordination.

Changes in strength

Changes in strength, swiftness, and stamina with age are all associated with decreasing muscle mass. Although there is not much decline in your muscles between ages 20 and 40, after age 40 there can be a decline of 1% to 2% per year in lean body mass and 1.5% to 5% per year in strength.

The loss of muscle mass is related to both a reduced number of muscle fibers and a reduction in fiber size. If the fibers become too small, they die. Fast-twitch muscle fibers shrink and die more rapidly than others, leading to a loss of muscle speed. In addition, the capacity for muscles to undergo repair also diminishes with age. One cause of these changes is decline in muscle-building hormones and growth factors including testosterone, estrogen, dehydroepiandrosterone (better known as DHEA), growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor.

Changes in coordination

Changes in coordination are less related to muscles and more related to the brain and nervous system. Multiple brain centers need to be, well, coordinated to allow you to do everything from hitting a golf ball to keeping a coffee cup steady as you walk across a room. This means that the wiring of the brain, the so-called white matter that connects the different brain regions, is crucial.

Unfortunately, most people in our society over age 60 who eat a western diet and don’t get enough exercise have some tiny "ministrokes" (also called microvascular or small vessel disease) in their white matter. Although the strokes are so small that they are not noticeable when they occur, they can disrupt the connections between important brain coordination centers such as the frontal lobe (which directs movements) and the cerebellum (which provides on-the-fly corrections to those movements as needed).

In addition, losing dopamine-producing cells is common as you get older, which can slow down your movements and reduce your coordination, so even if you don’t develop Parkinson’s disease, many people develop some of the abnormalities in movement seen in Parkinson's.

Lastly, changes in vision — the "eye" side of hand-eye coordination — are also important. Eye diseases are much more common in older adults, including cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. In addition, mild difficulty seeing can be the first sign of cognitive disorders of aging, including Lewy body disease and Alzheimer’s.

How to improve your strength and coordination

It turns out that one of the most important causes of reduced strength and coordination with aging is simply reduced levels of physical activity. There is a myth in our society that it is fine to do progressively less exercise the older you get. The truth is just the opposite! As you age, it becomes more important to exercise regularly — perhaps even increasing the amount of time you spend exercising to compensate for bodily changes in hormones and other factors that you cannot control. The good news is that participating in exercises to improve strength and coordination can help people of any age. (Note, however, that you may need to be more careful with your exercise activities as you age to prevent injuries. If you’re not sure what the best types of exercises are for you, ask your doctor or a physical therapist.)

Here are some things you can do to improve your strength and coordination, whether you are 18 or 88 years old:

  • Participate in aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, biking, swimming, or aerobic classes at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week.
  • Participate in exercise that helps with strength, balance, and flexibility at least two hours per week, such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and isometric weightlifting.
  • Practice sports that you want to improve at, such as golf, tennis, and basketball.
  • Take advantage of lessons from teachers and advice from coaches and trainers to improve your exercise skills.
  • Work with your doctor to treat diseases that can interfere with your ability to exercise, including orthopedic injuries, cataracts and other eye problems, and Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.
  • Fuel your brain and muscles with a Mediterranean menu of foods including fish, olive oil, avocados, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and poultry. Eat other foods sparingly.
  • Sleep well — you can actually improve your skills overnight while you are sleeping.

Posted on Leave a comment

Anti-inflammatory food superstars for every season

473da591-1ddc-4b45-b0d2-0f29dcb59ef0

Berries and watermelon in the summer, kale and beets in the winter. The recipe for anti-inflammatory foods to enjoy can change with the seasons.

Your heart, your brain, and even your joints can benefit from a steady diet of these nutritious foods, and scientists think that their effects on inflammation may be one reason why.

Inflammation: How it helps and harms the body

Inflammation is part of your body’s healing mechanism — the reason why your knee swelled and turned red when you injured it. But this inflammatory repair process can sometimes go awry, lasting too long and harming instead of helping. When inflammation is caused by an ongoing problem, it can contribute to health problems. Over time, inflammation stemming from chronic stress, obesity, or an autoimmune disorder may potentially trigger conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, or cancer. It may also harm the brain. Researchers have found a link between higher levels of inflammation inside the brain and an elevated risk for cognitive decline and impairment. Regularly adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet may help to switch off this process.

Three diets that emphasize anti-inflammatory patterns

Research hasn’t looked specifically at the anti-inflammatory benefits of eating foods that are in season. “But it’s generally accepted that eating what’s in season is likely to be fresher and obviously there are other benefits, including those for the environment,” says Natalie McCormick, a research fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Eating foods that are in season may also help your grocery bill.

When it comes to anti-inflammatory foods, the goal should be to incorporate as many as you can into your overall diet. “Our emphasis now is on eating patterns, because it seems that interactions between foods and their combinations have a greater effect than individual foods,” says McCormick.

Three diets in particular, she says, contain the right mix of elements: The Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the Alternative Healthy Eating Index. These diets are similar in that they put the emphasis on foods that are also known to be anti-inflammatory, such as colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats such as olive oil and nut butters. But just as importantly, these diets also eliminate foods — such as highly processed snacks, red meat, and sugary drinks — that can increase levels of inflammatory markers inside the body, including a substance called C-reactive protein.

Mixing and matching different foods from these diets can help you tailor an anti-inflammatory approach that fits your personal tastes, as can choosing the freshest in-season offerings. Whole grains, legumes, and heart-healthy oils can be year-round staples, but mix and match your fruits and vegetables for more variety. Below are some great options by season.

Winter anti-inflammatory superstars

In the cold winter months, think green. Many green leafy vegetables star during this season, including kale, collard greens, and swiss chard. Root vegetables like beets are another great and hardy winter option. Reach for sweet potatoes and turnips. Other options to try are kiwi fruit, brussels sprouts, lemons, oranges, and pineapple.

Spring anti-inflammatory superstars

When the spring months arrive, look for asparagus, apricots, avocados, rhubarb, carrots, mushrooms, and celery, as well as fresh herbs.

Summer anti-inflammatory superstars

Summer is prime time for many types of produce, and you’ll have lots of choices. Berries are a great anti-inflammatory option. Try different varieties of blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Go local with marionberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, and cloud berries, which grow in different parts of the US. Also reach for cherries, eggplant, zucchini, watermelon, green beans, honeydew melon, okra, peaches, and plums.

Fall anti-inflammatory superstars

Nothing says fall like a crisp, crunchy apple. But there are a host of other anti-inflammatory foods to try as well, such as cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, winter squash, parsnips, peas, ginger, and all types of lettuce.

Whenever possible, when you choose an anti-inflammatory food try to substitute it for a less healthy option. For example, trade a muffin for a fresh-berry fruit salad, or a plate of French fries for a baked sweet potato. Making small trades in your diet can add up to big health benefits over time.

Posted on Leave a comment

Thinking about holiday gatherings? Harvard Health experts weigh in

27944223-cd14-4be7-908b-5538ea62c4e5

Get expert advice on gathering safely from Harvard Health Publishing. Spoiler alert: vaccination is key to helping keep everyone healthy. Below, our faculty contributors share their own plans and advice for safely enjoying the holidays this year while answering three important questions.

b03eba05-b189-493b-b3fa-f2e8413927c1

Roger Shapiro, MD

Associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston

What are your plans this year for gathering — or not gathering — with family or friends during Thanksgiving and other winter holidays, and why?

Unlike 2020, my family will be gathering for Thanksgiving in 2021. Everyone in the family is vaccinated, and most are now boosted as well. We are all comfortable with the protection that being vaccinated brings, and there is agreement that if a COVID-19 exposure were to occur, it is unlikely to cause severe illness.

What advice can you offer people planning to gather in person to reduce the chance of getting or spreading the virus that causes COVID-19?

Everyone who can get vaccinated should be vaccinated, and those who qualify for a booster should get one. Children 5 to 11 may not have their second shot by Thanksgiving but can certainly be fully vaccinated by Christmas. If there are unvaccinated members of your family, your situation is no different than in 2020: gathering is unsafe for the unvaccinated because the first exposure to this virus can be lethal without protection from a vaccine. Additionally, people who are unvaccinated are more likely to be infected before traveling, so they are more likely to bring the virus to the table, possibly causing illness (even if mild) among those who are vaccinated. For families that are all vaccinated and wishing to further reduce the possibility of transmission, taking a rapid antigen test prior to gathering can add a layer of protection.

For people planning to travel to gatherings, what would you advise?

If you are all vaccinated, enjoy the return to a normal holiday season. Vaccines are your main source of protection. If you want to add additional protection, you can consider using rapid antigen tests just before gathering to confirm that everyone is negative. If there are immunocompromised members of your family who may not be fully protected by a vaccine, you should discuss the risks case-by-case with your doctor.

8ff5e2df-b8cf-4bfa-a05d-ae92811f3097

Suzanne Salamon, MD

Chief of clinical programs in gerontology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston

What are your plans this year for gathering — or not gathering — with family or friends during Thanksgiving and other winter holidays, and why?

Let me start by saying my 99-year-old mother lives with us, and even though she’s had her third shot of the COVID vaccine, I’m very concerned about immune status. I also have a two-year-old granddaughter who cannot yet get the vaccine. So, everyone’s immune status is not equal. Certainly older people, even those who’ve had their third shot, may not have the same immune status as a 35-year-old.

We have really curtailed the size of our Thanksgiving dinner to under 10 people, since the CDC recommends smaller groups. Nobody wants to see people sitting at home alone during the holidays, but we have to make it as safe as possible for those who are there.

What advice can you offer people planning to gather in person to reduce the chance of getting or spreading the virus that causes COVID-19?

COVID cases are on the rise now in many places, even though a month ago the numbers were trending down. Unfortunately, we need to be more vigilant once again.

Many people are afraid to insult family and friends by asking them about vaccine status before they come. Tell people that you really want to see them, but some family or friends may be immune-suppressed or at higher risk if they get COVID-19, and you’re trying to make the gathering safe for everyone. That’s why I’d ask people to let you know their COVID vaccine status. Even after the two-vaccine series, research is showing diminished antibodies after six months, which may put people at higher risk for getting and/or spreading the virus. I would ask people who are not vaccinated not to come.

When people gather, ventilation is really important in reducing the concentration of any virus that might be present. Have the gathering outside or on a screened porch, if at all possible. We hosted Thanksgiving last year in our garage. We left the garage doors open and set up small tables and little space heaters for warmth. People could be social yet stay separated, and ventilation was great. You can decorate small tables with colorful plastic tablecloths and candles, even put down a rug. If you’re inside, windows and doors can be kept open, which will help move the air around. Have some small space heaters and sweaters available.

Ask everyone to bring a mask, or keep a box of masks available. Wear masks while you’re all chit-chatting until you sit down to dinner. In the bathroom, have a roll of paper towels or paper guest towels rather than a cloth towel, and leave the fan on for ventilation.

For people planning to travel to gatherings, what would you advise?

Planes are thought to be very safe. In the air terminal, sit apart from people. Keep your mask on during the flight.

Traveling by car is pretty safe. If you get out to go to the bathroom or get coffee, wear a mask and wash your hands. Traveling by bus or train is tricky, because even though there is a mask requirement, people will take off their masks. Be sure to wear your own mask. I personally double-mask. Two surgical masks block out a lot and can be a bit more comfortable than the N95 masks we wear in the hospital. A plastic face shield over the mask may be a good idea for added protection.

840953a3-e007-4b11-9963-648a20407cf6

John J. Ross, MD

Hospitalist with specialty in infectious diseases, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston

What are your plans this year for gathering — or not gathering — with family or friends during Thanksgiving and other winter holidays, and why?

We are having an unmasked, multigenerational, fully-vaccinated, traditional Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws, just like the Before Times.

What advice can you offer people planning to gather in person to reduce the chance of getting or spreading the virus that causes COVID-19?

Everyone in attendance should have a primary COVID vaccination. Getting vaccinated against COVID reduces the risk of hospitalization or death due to COVID by more than 90%. It also reduces your risk of death from any cause. People who are eligible for booster shots should get them. That includes anyone over 65, and people over 18 with underlying medical conditions, high occupational risk, or those who live in high-risk settings such as group homes, shelters, and long-term care facilities.

Certain vaccinated people are more likely to get breakthrough COVID. This includes people of advanced age, and those with serious medical conditions or weak immune systems. These people should be extremely cautious around those who are not vaccinated or partly vaccinated. I would recommend that they mask around unvaccinated people, physically distance, and use extra ventilation (opening windows, or ideally moving the whole shebang outdoors). Rapid antigen tests may also be helpful in the setting.

For people planning to travel to gatherings, what would you advise?

For those who have long distances to travel, I would recommend flying if possible. Airplanes have excellent ventilation, and masks are mandatory. While masks are also required on trains, they are not as well ventilated as planes, and train travel has been associated with significant COVID risks.

76366d56-ed59-4ecf-96cc-83f1f3cc65d5

Amy Sherman, MD

Division of infectious diseases, associate physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston

What are your plans this year for gathering — or not gathering — with family or friends during Thanksgiving and other winter holidays, and why?

This Thanksgiving, my fiancé and I are driving to New Jersey and New York (with our dog!) to visit our families. We will have dinner with 14 others from my close family — larger than last year’s Thanksgiving, but smaller than pre-COVID years. Everyone has been vaccinated, and most have received a third dose. We will then visit with my fiancé’s 94-year-old-grandma, choosing to see her independently instead of bringing her to a large gathering.

Although no measures can absolutely make an indoor gathering 100% safe, we will apply layers of protective measures to reduce risk, with vaccinations as the base layer. Additionally, everyone will get tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 before gathering, limit exposure risks in the week before Thanksgiving, avoid public transportation, and drive instead of flying. When we’re together, we’ll spend time outdoors as much as possible. Maybe this year will bring new traditions — an outdoor bonfire instead of nighttime movie marathons, or Friday morning jogs instead of Jazzercise with my aunt!

What advice can you offer people planning to gather in person to reduce the chance of getting or spreading the virus that causes COVID-19?

We are in a much better place this year compared to last year. Connecting with family and friends is important for our mental health and well-being. However, we still need to be cautious, especially when gatherings include people who are older, immunocompromised, or at risk of severe COVID-19. We also have seen recent outbreaks in school-age kids who are not yet vaccinated. I would encourage your family and friends to get vaccinated if they haven’t already. For those family members at higher risk, consider smaller and more intimate gatherings, or do hybrid in-person/Zoom meetings. And layer up with the other risk reducing strategies I suggested!

For people planning to travel to gatherings, what would you advise?

Avoid public transportation if possible. If this is not possible, wear a mask on the bus, train, or airplane, even if you’ve been vaccinated. Vaccinations decrease the severity of disease, but you still could become infected and transmit the virus to others.

Read more advice on gathering for winter holidays this year, such as who can and should get a COVID-19 vaccine booster, whether to take a rapid test or PCR test before spending time with family or friends, how to navigate tricky relationships, and healthy eating through the holiday season.

Posted on Leave a comment

Harvard Health Ad Watch: An upbeat ad for a psoriasis treatment

Psoriasis is a chronic disease in which skin cells rapidly divide, causing the skin to develop rough, red, scaly patches. Plaque psoriasis is the most common form: affected skin has sharply defined, inflamed patches (plaques) with silvery or white scales, often near an elbow or on the shins and trunk.

The cause of psoriasis isn’t known, but there are a number of treatment options. Possibly you’ve seen a glossy, happy ad for one of these treatments, a drug called Skyrizi. It’s been in heavy rotation and in 2020, hit number four on a top 10 list for ad spending by a drug company.

Splashing in blue water

A woman in a bathing suit sprints down a dock and jumps into the water with several friends. There’s lots of smiling and splashing. A voiceover says “I have moderate to severe plaque psoriasis. Now, there’s Skyrizi. Three out of four people achieved 90% clearer skin at four months after just two doses.”

Then, the voiceover moves to warning mode: “Skyrizi may increase your risk of infections and lower your ability to fight them. Before treatment your doctor should check you for infections and tuberculosis. Tell your doctor if you have an infection or symptoms such as fever, sweats, chills, muscle aches, or cough, or if you plan to or recently received a vaccine.”

As these warnings are delivered, we’re treated to uplifting pop music — “nothing is everything,” a woman sings — while attractive young people flail about in the water.

“Ask your doctor about Skyrizi,” a voice instructs. Did I mention a plane is skywriting the drug’s logo? I guess it’s putting the “sky” in Skyrizi.

What is Skyrizi?

Skyrizi (risankizumab) is an injectable medication that counteracts interleukin-23, a chemical messenger closely involved in the development of psoriasis. The standard dosing is two injections to start, followed a month later by two injections once a month, and then two injections once every three months.

Did you catch that “injectable” part? This is not a pill. If you missed that point while watching the commercial, it’s not your fault. The word “injection” appears once, written in faint letters at the very end of the commercial.

By the way, the FDA has only approved this drug for moderate to severe — not mild — plaque psoriasis. The studies earning approval enrolled people with psoriasis on at least 10% of their skin and two separate measures of severity.

What the ad gets right

  • The ad states that 75% of people with moderate to severe psoriasis experienced 90% clearance of their rash within four months after only two doses of Skyrizi. This reflects the findings of research studies (such as this one) that led to the drug’s approval.
  • The recommendations regarding screening for infections (including tuberculosis) and telling your doctor if you’ve gotten a recent vaccine are appropriate and should be standard practice. By lowering the ability to fight infection, this drug can make current infections worse. It may reduce the benefit of certain vaccines, or increase the risk of infection when a person gets a certain type of vaccine called a live-attenuated vaccine.

And the theme song? People with visible psoriasis often cover up their skin due to embarrassment or stigma. The rash isn’t a contagious infection or a reflection of poor health, but other people may react as if it is. So, an effective treatment could potentially allow some to forego covering up and show more skin: it means “everything” to someone suffering with psoriasis to cover “nothing.” Thus, a theme song is born.

What else do you need to know?

A few things about this ad may be confusing or incomplete, including:

  • Currently, each dose of Skyrizi is actually two injections. So, a more accurate way to summarize its effectiveness would be to say that improvement occurred within four months after four injections (rather than “just two doses”).
  • Like most newer injectable medications, this one is quite expensive: a year's supply could cost nearly $70,000. The drug maker offers a patient assistance program for people with low income or limited health insurance, but not everyone qualifies. Health insurance plans generally require justification from your doctor for medications like Skyrizi, and your insurer may decide not to cover it. Even if covered, this prior approval process can delay starting the medication, which may still be expensive due to copays and/or deductibles.
  • There is no mention of the many other options to treat psoriasis, some of which are far less costly. These include medications that do not have to be injected (such as oral methotrexate or apremilast), and UV light therapy (phototherapy). And there are other injectable medications. So, ask your doctor about the best options for you.

The bottom line

Some people appreciate the information provided by medication ads. Others favor a ban on such advertising, as is the case in most other countries. And recently, two advocacy groups asked the FDA not to allow drug ads to play music when the risks of drug side effects are presented, arguing that it distracts consumers from focusing on this important information.

Since these ads probably are not going away anytime soon, keep in mind that they may spin information in a positive light and leave out other important information altogether. So, be skeptical and ask questions. Get your medication information from your doctor or another unbiased, authoritative source, not a company selling a product.

Regardless of how you feel about medical advertising, it’s hard to hate the Skyrizi theme song. Feel free to sing along.

Posted on Leave a comment

Thinking of trying Dry January? Steps for success

Let’s file this under unsurprising news: many American adults report drinking more since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to a survey on alcohol use in the time of COVID-19. If you’re among them, you might want to start 2022 on a healthy note by joining the millions who abstain from alcohol during Dry January. Your heart, liver, memory, and more could be the better for it.

What did this survey find?

The researchers asked 832 individuals across the US about their alcohol intake over a typical 30-day period. Participants reported drinking alcohol on 12.2 days and consuming almost 27 alcoholic drinks during that time. More than one-third reported engaging in binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in about two hours).

Moreover, nearly two-thirds of the participants said their drinking had increased compared to their consumption rates before COVID. Their reasons? Higher stress, more alcohol availability, and boredom.

But we can’t blame COVID entirely for the recent rise in alcohol consumption. Even before the pandemic, alcohol use among older adults had been trending upward.

Why try Dry January?

If you recognize your own behavior in this survey and wish to cut down on your alcohol intake, or simply want to begin the new year with a clean slate, join in the Dry January challenge by choosing not to drink beer, wine, or spirits for one month. Dry January began in 2012 as a public health initiative from Alcohol Change UK, a British charity. Now millions take part in this health challenge every year.

While drinking a moderate amount of alcohol is associated with health benefits for some people in observational studies, heavier drinking and long-term drinking can increase physical and mental problems, especially among older adults. Heart and liver damage, a higher cancer risk, a weakened immune system, memory issues, and mood disorders are common issues.

Yet, cutting out alcohol for even a month can make a noticeable difference in your health. Regular drinkers who abstained from alcohol for 30 days slept better, had more energy, and lost weight, according to a study in BMJ Open. They also lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduced cancer-related proteins in their blood.

Tips for a successful Dry January

A month may seem like a long time, but most people can be successful. Still, you may need assistance to stay dry in January. Here are some tips:

  • Find a substitute non-alcoholic drink. For social situations, or when you crave a cocktail after a long day, reach for alcohol-free beverages like sparkling water, soda, or virgin beverages (non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic drinks.)

    Non-alcoholic beer or wine also is an option, but some brands still contain up to 0.5% alcohol by volume, so check the label. "Sugar is often added to these beverages to improve the taste, so try to choose ones that are low in sugar," says Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in the division of alcohol, drugs, and addiction.

  • Avoid temptations. Keep alcohol out of your house. When you are invited to someone’s home, bring your non-alcoholic drinks with you.
  • Create a support group. Let friends and family know about your intentions and encourage them to keep you accountable. Better yet, enlist someone to do the challenge with you.
  • Use the Try Dry app. This free app helps you track your drinking, set personal goals, and offers motivational information like calories and money saved from not drinking. It’s aimed at cutting back on or cutting out alcohol, depending on your choices.
  • Don’t give up. If you slip up, don't feel guilty. Just begin again the next day.

Check your feelings

Sugarman recommends people also use Dry January to reflect on their drinking habits. It’s common for people to lose their alcohol cravings and realize drinking need not occupy such an ample space in their lives. If this is you, consider continuing for another 30 days, or just embrace your new attitude toward drinking where it’s an occasional indulgence.

If you struggle during the month, or give up after a week or so, you may need extra help cutting back. An excellent resource is the Rethinking Drinking site created by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). For the record, NIAAA recommends limiting alcohol to two daily drinks or less for men and no more than one drink a day for women.

Be aware of problems that might crop up

Dry January can reveal potential alcohol problems, including symptoms of alcohol withdrawal ranging from mild to serious, depending on how much you usually drink. Mild symptoms include anxiety, shaky hands, headache, nausea, vomiting, sweating, and insomnia. Severe symptoms often kick in within two or three days after you stop drinking. They can include hallucinations, delirium, racing heart rate, and fever. "If you suffer alcohol withdrawal symptoms at any time, you should seek immediate medical help," says Sugarman.

Posted on Leave a comment

How can mindfulness practices help with migraine?

Migraine is a common and disabling headache disorder. Painful migraine headaches frequently affect people between the ages of 18 and 44. Many common medication treatments for migraine may cause side effects that are difficult to tolerate, and can lead people to not take their medications as recommended, or to stop taking them altogether. A recent study suggests that up to 20% of patients with migraine have used opioids to treat their pain in the past year. Therefore, there is a great need for better and more tolerable treatments for people who have migraines.

Research has shown that combining behavioral treatments with preventive medication treatments works better for preventing headaches than medications alone. Mindfulness practice has also been associated with improvements in individuals with chronic pain, including migraine. Mindfulness is the mind-body treatment that involves purposely focusing one’s attention on the present momentary awareness and accepting it without judgment.

Stress is a well-known trigger for migraine. Moreover, stressful events have been associated with people experiencing more frequent or chronic migraines versus having them occasionally. Mindfulness can result in stress reduction, reduced emotional response to stress, and improved general happiness. In patients with migraine, pain severity and unpleasant symptoms can be reduced with this treatment.

Mindfulness can potentially strengthen emotional and cognitive control of pain by helping to train someone with migraine to reassess their pain in a nonjudgmental way and modify their evaluation of the pain. In addition, mindfulness practices can help to control depression, anxiety, and pain catastrophizing (an exaggerated negative feeling toward pain experiences), which can play a role in chronic migraine.

The study

In a recent study published in JAMA, a group of researchers investigated whether mindfulness-based stress reduction may provide benefit for people experiencing migraine. The study randomly assigned half of participants with migraine to the mindfulness treatment and the other half to only headache education.

The mindfulness-based stress reduction treatment incorporated eight weeks of two-hour, in-person classes, which included sitting and walking meditation, body scanning (sequential attention to parts of the body), and mindful movement (bodily awareness during gentle stretching using hatha yoga), bringing attention back to the natural rhythm of the breath. In addition, the study participants were encouraged to build their capacity to address physical and mental perceptions of their pain, and they were provided audio files for at-home practice.

The headache education treatment included a standardized protocol of eight weeks of two-hour, in-person classes that contained education about the biological, psychological, and environmental processes associated with migraines, headache triggers, and stress. The patients were also given time for questions, answers, and discussion during each class.

The results

The researchers demonstrated that mindfulness-based stress reduction treatment significantly improved people’s disability, quality of life, self-efficacy, pain catastrophizing, and depression compared to patients who only had headache education. Reductions in monthly migraine days were observed in those with mindfulness-based stress reduction treatment, but were not significantly different from those receiving headache education. The authors of the study explain that the reason they could not demonstrate improvement in the headache frequency could be the use of an active control group such as headache education, which itself may result in improvement of headache frequency.

Most importantly, the study demonstrated that mindfulness-based treatments can reduce the burden of migraine. With mindfulness, the participants of the study may have learned a new way of processing pain that may have a significant effect on their long-term health. The results of this study have major implications for both patients and clinicians, and the research can support a holistic, integrative treatment plan for patients with migraine, with less emphasis on nonmedical treatments.

What you can do

Many healthcare providers, including headache specialists, pain specialists, neurologists, and primary care physicians, have started to incorporate mindfulness-based treatment in their practices, or they have sought mindfulness-based programs or specialists for their patients.

There are also many ways for patients with migraine to practice mindfulness at home. Patients with migraine can integrate some of the following mindfulness-based practices in their daily life, including during a migraine headache:

  • Accept yourself, your present moment.
  • Lie on your back or in a comfortable position with no distractions, and direct your awareness to your body and breathing. Scan your body and observe your feet, legs, hands, arms, and other parts of your body.
  • Try to sit down in a comfortable and quiet place, close your eyes, take a deep breath. Try to do breathing exercises, paying attention to the sensations of your breath while inhaling and exhaling.
  • Sitting or walking meditation done outside in nature may be very relaxing. Focus on the experience of walking, being aware of the sensations of standing and the subtle movements that keep your balance.

Resources

There many are apps and quality resources for mindfulness and migraine learning and practice. Here are few online resources to explore:

Body scan mindfulness exercise for pain (Harvard Health Publishing)

Mindfulness Meditation for Migraine (American Migraine Foundation)

Mindfulness series for Migraine & Headache Disorders (Miles for Migraine)

Mindfulness and Migraine (National Headache Foundation)

Posted on Leave a comment

Are poinsettias, mistletoe, or holly plants dangerous?

Last winter, my wife shooed the dog and visiting toddlers away from our poinsettia plants, saying "they’re poisonous, you know."

I did not know. But it turns out that the belief that poinsettias are deadly is widespread. The same could be said for mistletoe and holly. But are their reputations for danger well-deserved? Since these plants are especially popular to brighten up homes or give as gifts during the holidays, I decided to look into it.

The risks of poinsettia

Could a plant so common and so well-liked in the winter holidays also be so dangerous? If it is dangerous, what problems does it cause? Must it be eaten to cause problems, or is it harmful to just be nearby? And if it’s not dangerous, why does the myth live on?

The answers to these questions are not easy to find. In fact, the bad reputation may have started in 1919, when an army officer’s child reportedly died after eating part of a poinsettia plant. It is unclear if the plant was responsible, though: many other reports describe mild symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting, but no deaths.

Decades ago, a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine analyzed nearly 23,000 cases of people eating poinsettia and found

  • no fatalities
  • nearly all cases (96%) required no treatment outside the home
  • most cases (92%) developed no symptoms at all.

According to one estimate, a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 500 poinsettia leaves to approach a dose that could cause trouble. Similarly, pets may develop gastrointestinal symptoms after eating poinsettia, but these plants pose no major threat to animals.

The risks of mistletoe

The story is much the same for mistletoe. It’s not particularly dangerous, but may cause an upset stomach if eaten. In fact, mistletoe has been used for centuries as a remedy for arthritis, high blood pressure, infertility, and headache. The evidence isn’t high-quality for any of these uses, though.

Interest also centers on this plant’s potential as an anticancer treatment. Some extracts of mistletoe contain chemicals shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory and to stimulate human immune cells. For example, a substance called alkaloids has similar properties as certain chemotherapy drugs used in the past to fight leukemia and other forms of cancer. However, a two-part 2019 review found that adding mistletoe extracts to conventional cancer treatments did not improve survival or quality of life.

No one suggests it's a good idea to eat this plant, accidentally or otherwise. But eating one to three berries or one or two leaves is unlikely to cause serious illness, according to the authors of a 1986 review of multiple studies. And no significant symptoms or deaths were described in one report of more than 300 cases of eating mistletoe. However, some sources warn that serious problems or even death may occur if enough is ingested. The specific dose required to cause death is unknown but, fortunately, it appears to be so high that consuming enough to be lethal is extremely rare.

The risks of holly

This plant can be dangerous to people and pets. The berries of holly plants are poisonous. If eaten, they may cause crampy abdominal pain, drowsiness, vomiting, and diarrhea. While no one would recommend eating holly, it is unlikely to cause death. And for at least one type of holly, knowing the Latin name would be enough to discourage ingestion: the yaupon holly is also called Ilex vomitoria.

The bottom line

No one should eat poinsettias, mistletoe, and holly, but if small amounts are consumed, they are unlikely to cause serious illness. It seems to me that the dangers of these plants appear to be vastly overestimated.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing about mistletoe and poinsettias is the choking hazard the berries pose for young kids, although that risk is not unique to plants: any small object poses similar risks. Try to keep holiday plants out of the reach of small children and pets. And keep in mind that berries may fall from these plants and wind up on the floor.

If a child or pet eats leaves or berries from these holiday plants, or any other plants, check in with poison control, your pediatrician, or your veterinarian. But unless a particularly large "dose" is consumed, don’t be surprised if the recommendation is to simply watch and wait.

Still concerned even if you know the risks are low? You can always regift holiday plants you receive to friends with no children or pets, or find other ways to decorate your home for the holidays.

Posted on Leave a comment

Skin in the game: Two common skin problems and solutions for men

895ae13d-3d7c-473c-99b8-6add3931098a

When I was on the junior varsity basketball team in high school, I wasn't surprised when I developed a case of itchy, flaky athlete's foot. After all, I was an "athlete," so I assumed it was a sign of dedication and hard work.

I was shocked when my mother told me the truth: it was due to poor foot hygiene, not my dribbling skills.

Fast-forward almost four decades, and I’m much more diligent about skin care. Still, some skin issues plague me at times, like they do many men. Here is a look at two common problems and solutions.

Dry skin

Symptoms of dry skin include scaly patches (with or without redness), itching, and overall dryness. You can get dry skin year-round — from the heavy heat of summer to the bitter cold of winter. Sun exposure damages skin, leaving it thinner and less likely to hold in moisture over time. Also, aging skin produces less of the natural oils that keep skin lubricated.

Treatment. The first line of defense is a moisturizer that softens and smooths skin with water and lipids (fats). Some moisturizers attract water to the skin and seal it in. Others prevent moisture loss by coating skin with a thick, impermeable layer.

  • Petroleum jelly. This waxy, greasy substance stops water loss without clogging pores. It can be used by itself but is also an ingredient in many moisturizers and ointments. Because petroleum jelly doesn’t contain water, it’s best used while the skin is still damp after bathing to seal in moisture.
  • Mineral oil. Mineral oil has the same effect but without a greasy feeling. It also should be used while skin is damp.
  • Moisturizing lotions and creams. These products contain both water and oils. They’re less greasy and more cosmetically appealing than petroleum jelly or oils. Look for moisturizers with at least one of the following ingredients: glycerin, urea, pyroglutamic acid, sorbitol, lactic acid, lactate salts, or alpha hydroxy acids.

Prevention. Try a few changes to help prevent dry skin:

  • Add moisture to the air with a humidifier or a pan of water set atop the radiator.
  • In the shower or bath, use lukewarm water (hot water can dry the skin by stripping it of natural oils).
  • Choose nondrying soaps with no abrasives or irritants. Super-fatted soaps or cleansing bars are less drying than regular, liquid, or antibacterial soaps.
  • To retain the water your skin absorbs while showering or bathing, apply jelly, oil, or moisturizer immediately afterward.

Athlete’s foot

Athlete’s foot is caused by dermatophytes, a group of fungi on the surface of the skin. Tell-tale signs include intense itching; cracked, blistered, or peeling areas of skin, especially between the toes; and redness and scaling on the soles. Dermatophytes thrive in warm, moist environments like pools, showers, and locker rooms where people walk with bare feet. The warm, moist environment of sweaty socks and shoes encourages them to grow.

Treatment. First, try an over-the-counter antifungal ointment, cream, or powder, such as clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF, Mycelex, generic), terbinafine (Lamisil AT, Silka,), or miconazole (Lotrimin AF spray, Micatin). It can take weeks for an infection to improve, and recurrences are common. If symptoms don't improve after several weeks, consult a doctor, who may prescribe antifungal pills.

Prevention. Keeping feet clean and dry is the best way to ward off athlete’s foot. Also, do the following:

  • Wash your feet well every day, and wear a clean pair of socks after your bath or shower.
  • Take time to dry your feet thoroughly (including each toe and especially the web space between the toes) after you bathe, shower, or swim.
  • Wear flip-flops or sandals around public pools and in gym locker rooms and showers.
  • Wear moisture-wicking socks that absorb sweat.
  • Don’t wear the same shoes two days in a row. Give shoes a 24-hour break between wearings to air out and dry.

Posted on Leave a comment

5 numbers linked to ideal heart health

How well are you protecting yourself against heart disease, the nation’s leading cause of death? A check of five important numbers can give you a good idea.

“For my patients, I typically look at their blood pressure, blood sugar, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides values, and their waist circumference,” says Harvard Heart Letter editor-in-chief Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, who directs interventional cardiovascular programs at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Those values provide a picture of a person’s overall health and, more specifically, what factors they may need to address to lower their chance of a heart attack or stroke, he says.

Below are the ideal values for each measurement, along with why they’re important and targeted advice for improving them. Universal suggestions for improving all five measurements appear at the very end.

How do your heart health numbers stack up?

While the ideal values are good goals for most people, your doctor may recommend different targets based on your age or other health conditions.

Blood pressure

Less than 120/80 mm Hg

Blood pressure readings tell you the force of blood pushing against your arteries when your heart contracts (systolic blood pressure, the first number) and relaxes (diastolic blood pressure, the second number). Your blood pressure reflects how hard your heart is working (when you’re resting or exercising, for example) and the condition of your blood vessels. Narrowed, inflexible arteries cause blood pressure to rise.

Why it matters to heart health: High blood pressure accelerates damage to blood vessels, encouraging a buildup of fatty plaque (atherosclerosis). This sets the stage for a heart attack. High blood pressure forces the heart’s main pumping chamber to enlarge, which can lead to heart failure. Finally, high blood pressure raises the risk of strokes due to a blocked or burst blood vessel in the brain.

What helps: A diet rich in potassium (found in many vegetables, fruits, and beans) and low in sodium (found in excess in many processed and restaurant foods); minimizing alcohol.

LDL cholesterol

Less than 100 mg/dL

A cholesterol test (or lipid profile) shows many numbers. Doctors are usually most concerned about low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, particles that makes up about two-thirds of the cholesterol in the blood.

Why it matters to heart health: Excess LDL particles lodge inside artery walls. Once there, they are engulfed by white blood cells, forming fat-laden foam cells that make up atherosclerosis.

What helps: Limiting saturated fat (found in meat, dairy, and eggs) and replacing those lost calories with unsaturated fat (found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils).

Triglycerides

Less than 150 mg/dL

Perhaps less well-known than cholesterol, triglycerides are the most common form of fat in the bloodstream. Derived from food, these molecules provide energy for your body. But excess calories, alcohol, and sugar the body can’t use are turned into triglycerides and stored in fat cells.

Why it matters to heart health: Like high LDL cholesterol, elevated triglyceride values have been linked to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

What helps: Limiting foods that are high in unhealthy fats, sugar, or both; eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish); avoiding alcohol.

Blood sugar

Less than 100 mg/dL

High blood sugar defines the diagnosis of diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is most common. It occurs when the body develops insulin resistance (insulin enables cells to take in sugar) and does not produce enough insulin to overcome the resistance.

Why it matters to heart health: High blood sugar levels damage blood vessel walls and cause sugar (glucose) to attach to LDL. This makes LDL more likely to oxidize — another factor that promotes atherosclerosis. Excess sugar in the blood also makes cell fragments called platelets stickier so they’re more likely to form clots, which can trigger a heart attack or stroke.

What helps: Avoiding sugary beverages and foods high in sugar; eating whole, unprocessed grains instead of foods made with refined grains (white flour, white rice).

Waist circumference

Whichever number is lower:

Less than half your height in inches

OR

Women: Less than 35 inches

Men: Less than 40 inches

Measure your waist around your bare abdomen just above your navel (belly button). A big belly — what doctors call abdominal or visceral obesity — usually means fat surrounding internal organs.

Why it matters to heart health: Visceral fat secretes hormones and other factors that encourage inflammation, which triggers the release of white blood cells involved in atherosclerosis.

What helps: Consuming fewer calories, especially those from highly processed foods full of sugar, salt, and unhealthy types of fat.

Universal advice to improve all five measures of heart health

If one or more of your numbers is above ideal levels, you’re far from alone. Most Americans are overweight or obese and have bigger-than-healthy bellies. Excess weight and waist circumference affect blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar. Eating a healthy, plant-based diet can help. Regular exercise also helps: aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking most days. Other lifestyle habits that can lower your heart disease risk include getting seven to eight hours of sleep nightly and managing your stress level.

Posted on Leave a comment

Navigating a chronic illness during the holidays

As a doctor, I am constantly advising my patients to prioritize their own mental and physical health. Get adequate sleep. Eat healthy. Learn how to say no so you don’t collapse from exhaustion. Love and care for yourself like you do others.

I talk the talk but don’t always walk the walk — even though I know, both intellectually and physically, that self-care is critical to my well-being. When I am run down, my MS symptoms cry out for attention: left leg weakness and numbness, subtle vertigo, a distinct buzzing in my brain like a relentless mosquito that won’t go away no matter how many times I twitch and shake my head. I have become frighteningly good at ignoring these symptoms, boxing them up and pushing them away. Often, I can muscle through; other times it just hurts.

Recently, a friend challenged me to think about my relationship with my illness, to describe MS as a character in my story. This was a useful exercise. I conjured up an image of a stern teacher. She is frighteningly blunt and lets me know, loud and clear, when I disappoint her. She can be mean and scary, and I don’t really like her. But I must admit she is usually right. Still, I often defiantly dismiss her, even when part of me knows this is not in my best interest.

This holiday season, I wanted to do better. I needed to do better. So, as Thanksgiving approached, as I prepared to host 16 family members, many for multiple days, I paused to ask myself, What does MS have to teach me about self-care? I don’t like having this disease, but I do. I can’t change my reality, so I might as well benefit from the lessons MS is forcing on me. I believe they are relevant to all of us, whether we live with chronic illness or not, so I’ll share them here.

The first steps: Listen and observe

When my MS symptoms flare, it’s a message that I am tired, overextended, and stressed. I need to rest. I don’t always listen right away, but eventually I am forced to, and when I listen, I feel better. All of us can benefit from slowing down and tuning in to our physical selves. What sensations are you experiencing in your body, and what does this tell you about your underlying feelings and state of mind? Yes, we should heed our thoughts, but tuning in to our bodies takes us deeper, to feelings that might be hidden, secrets we might not want to acknowledge, a physical truth. If you don’t have a chronic illness, the messages might be more subtle — a vague tightness in your chest, a quick catch in your breath, a barely noticeable tremor in your hands — but they exist, and they signal stress.

The science is clear: the body’s stress response — though potentially lifesaving in a true emergency, when “fight or flight” is essential to survival — can be toxic in our everyday lives. Stress triggers our sympathetic nervous system to kick into overdrive in response to a perceived threat, releasing hormones such as cortisol and inflammatory molecules that, when produced in excess, fuel disease. Conversely, we know that pausing to take notice and interrupting this negative cycle of stress is beneficial. It can be as simple as breathing deeply and counting to 10. Our bodies know what’s up and let us know when we need to take care of ourselves. We must pay attention.

You are not responsible for everyone and everything

The holidays, essentially from mid-November through the end of the year, are a stress test we create for ourselves. The land mines are everywhere: more food, more drinking, more family dynamics, more unfamiliar (or overly familiar) surroundings. Personally, with my overinflated sense of responsibility, I experience a kind of dizzying performance anxiety every holiday season. I believe it is my job to make sure everyone present has a positive experience. For better or worse, I am someone who notices and feels the personal and interpersonal dynamics in a room. I sense and absorb even the most subtle discomfort, frustration, anger, shame, and insecurity, alongside the more upbeat emotions. Importantly, I also I feel the need to step in and make things better, to prop everyone up. It’s exhausting. But MS reminds me of how absurd, and even egotistical, this is. In truth, I can’t possibly care for everyone. Neither can you.

It helps to check our automatic thoughts. More than once on Thanksgiving Day, as the busy kitchen buzzed with activity and conversation, I intentionally stepped back and watched, reminding myself that I didn’t have to hold the whole thing up. Even though I inevitably slipped back into hyper-responsibility mode, these moments of self-awareness impacted my behavior and the dynamic in the room.

It’s okay to say what you need

To take full responsibility for my own well-being, I need to speak honestly and act with integrity. This means asking for what I need, clearly and without apology. Historically, I have been terrible at this in my personal life, burying my own needs in the name of taking care of everyone else’s, even rejecting clear offers of help. “I’m good, I’ve got it,” I might say, while simultaneously feeling bitter and resentful for having to do it all myself. This lack of clarity isn’t fair to anyone. MS reminds me that I need to do better.

This year, when my guests asked me what they could bring, I took them at their word and made specific requests instead of assuring everyone that I had it covered. When my mother started banging around in the kitchen at 7 a.m. with her endearing but chaotic energy, asking for this and that pot and kitchen utensil so she could start cooking, I told her I needed to sit down and have a cup of coffee first. She would need to wait or find things herself. She was okay with that. Family dynamics can be entrenched and hard to change, but clear communication can set new ways of being into motion, one baby step at a time.

I still have a lot to learn, but I am making stuttering progress, learning to listen to my body and honor my needs while also caring for those I love, or at least trying. Undeniably, I experienced some post-Thanksgiving fatigue, exacerbated by my daughter’s early-morning hockey game the next day, requiring a 4:30 a.m. departure. I felt it in my body — the familiar leg weakness, vertigo, and brain cobwebs — and, completely uncharacteristically, I took a nap.