Medical News You Need to Read This Week
From state-of-the-art treatments to the latest discoveries, these medical news stories can have a positive impact on your life.
Acetaminophen might be dulling your emotions
A series of recent studies suggests that taking 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen, the popular go-to for everyday aches and pains, might blunt some of our emotional responses, including empathy, joy and hurt feelings. Researchers suggest this may happen because acetaminophen reduces activation in brain areas that are thought to be involved in not only pain but also emotional awareness. Until it leaves your system, the drug can also affect risk perception, which could impact your health and welfare. Take that into account when you’re driving a car, for instance, or making decisions related to COVID-19 social safety.
Probiotic claims overblown
There are thousands of species of bacteria in your intestines—known as the “gut microbiome.” Many are beneficial for your digestive health: among other things, the gut microbiome metabolizes the nutrients in food and protects the intestines against infections.
Medical scientists still have a lot to learn about which strains and combinations of these bacteria do what, but that doesn’t stop companies from claiming probiotics—foods and supplements containing living bacteria—will improve such ailments as inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. (In most countries, these products aren’t sold as drugs, so their makers can assert untested claims.)
The American Gastroenterological Association reviewed relevant studies and concluded that certain probiotics may be useful for preventing an intestinal disease called necrotizing enterocolitis when given to premature babies, for reducing the risk of catching a C. difficile infection when people are on antibiotics, and for managing pouchitis, a complication of ulcerative colitis surgery. Beyond that, there wasn’t enough evidence to recommend probiotics for treating other digestive conditions, unless recommended by your doctor.
A more surefire way to foster the health of your gut microbiome is by eating a high-fibre diet, including plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
A sweet home remedy for coughs
It’s that time of the year when the flu and the common cold are in full force—often bringing nasty coughs. According to an Oxford University review, the solution is in your kitchen cupboard: a jar of honey. A spoonful can bring more symptom relief than the usual treatments, such as antibiotics (which are often prescribed even though they’re ineffective for viruses) and cough syrup. The common sweetener works its magic by coating and soothing the irritated mucous membranes in the throat. Just don’t give it to infants under 12 months, because it may contain microbes that are harmful to them, but not to adults and older kids.
Find out 15 more highly effective folk medicine remedies from around the world.
Breaking chronic pain’s vicious cycle
People living with lasting pain often avoid regular exercise. While understandable, that habit can be counterproductive, as physical inactivity can make pain worse. A Penn State study of people with osteoarthritis found they were more sedentary and avoided activities they were capable of doing on days when they thought about their pain with a more exaggerated sense of helplessness or hopelessness. A psychologist can coach you in avoiding this pitfall, along with other techniques for continuing to thrive with chronic pain. For instance, learning to recognize discouraging thoughts as just thoughts, rather than assuming they’re true, can positively influence your habits.
Here are the telltale signs you need to move more.
Face shields aren’t a mask substitute
Although plastic face shields may be more comfortable than surgical or cloth masks, they’re less effective at protecting you and others. Florida engineers recently put face shields to the test by mimicking the small droplets that are thought to spread COVID-19. After a simulated cough or sneeze, a face shield blocked the droplets’ initial forward motion, but they were able to escape through the bottom and sides—and out into the room. Face shields could be a useful addition to masks, since they offer some protection for your eyes, but they shouldn’t generally be used on their own.
Read about the Canadian company that’s making masks specifically designed for men with beards.
Doctors don’t always recognize symptoms on darker skin
The health care a person receives can be compromised by their skin tone—in part because doctors don’t see many photos in their medical school textbooks of dermatological symptoms on non-white individuals. This reality makes it trickier for people of colour to get a timely and accurate diagnosis for diseases ranging from anemia to melanoma. British medical student Malone Mukwende came up with a partial solution: he compiled a photographic handbook for patients and doctors, available at blackandbrownskin.co.uk.
Here are the skin changes you should never ignore.
Home is where the heart risk is
Life partners share a lot of things—and that includes their level of cardiovascular health, according to a JAMA Network Open study. Among the 5,364 couples that took part, the correlation was most often the case because they both had the same risk factors, whether it was high cholesterol, smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, high blood pressure or poor eating habits. On the flip side, though, researchers found that partners can also have a positive effect on each other: participants were 2.3 times more likely to quit smoking if their other half did and 6.4 times more likely to follow the other’s lead in improving their diet.
Here are 50 heart health tips cardiologists want you to know.
Rethinking the risks of breast-cancer surgery
Breast cancer can often be stopped through surgery—mastectomies and lumpectomies—but doctors don’t always offer it to women over 70, worrying that it may do them more harm than good. However, new research suggests that for most older women, surgery is life-lengthening—and more tolerated than some have assumed. In fact, only the least fit and most frail patients didn’t fare better with these procedures.
Of course, some women may still be willing to risk a shorter life if it means avoiding these invasive treatments. To help with the decision, the researchers created a tool that doctors and patients can use together to estimate survival with and without surgery. It’s available at agegap.shef.ac.uk.
Meet the Ontario doctor who’s helping breast cancer patients prepare for treatment.
How to cook arsenic out of rice
Arsenic is naturally found in soil and water, and unfortunately, rice is good at absorbing this toxic element as it grows. While rice doesn’t contain enough arsenic for most adults to worry about, young children’s small bodies can be poisoned more easily. Although no rice-related harms have been documented, for families that eat a lot of the grain and want to play it safe, British scientists found that the best way to prepare it for kids is to boil water first, add the rice for five minutes, dump the water, replace half of it, then cook at low to medium heat until the rice is done. This method discards over half of the arsenic while keeping a lot of the vitamins and minerals.
Find out 10 healthy eating tips that are good for the planet, too.
In CPR, breaking bones is the lesser evil
You wouldn’t know it from watching TV portrayals of people performing CPR, but nearly a third of recipients end up with broken ribs. Still, for the person performing it, it’s a risk worth taking, according to the European Resuscitation Council, which recommends a depth of five centimetres (two inches) for chest compressions on an adult. A recent Spanish study supports this advice: it found that adults with CPR-related fractures had a much better chance of surviving cardiac arrest without brain damage than those who had no fractures. Bones heal, so don’t be shy about pushing deep enough with your compressions.
When’s the last time you had first aid training? Brush up on the essential steps of CPR.
Nighttime blood pressure: Why it matters
For most people, their blood pressure dips slightly when the body relaxes at night. But for others, it spikes—a condition called “nocturnal hypertension.” For a Japanese study, people with daytime hypertension or other cardiovascular risk factors (diabetes or high cholesterol, for example) wore ambulatory blood-pressure monitors for at least 24 hours. The devices revealed that 12 per cent of the participants experienced nocturnal hypertension. These subjects had an even higher risk of developing heart disease than the others, especially heart failure.
If you’re getting treated for blood pressure but only ever check it during the day, uncontrolled nighttime issues could be flying under the radar. Ask your doctor if ambulatory monitoring is available.
Choose an exercise app that suits your personality
If sticking with an exercise habit is a challenge for you, there’s an app for that. In a University of Pennsylvania trial, smartphone games helped subjects become more active.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three versions of a game that recorded how many steps they took each week. The first version placed them in direct competition with others. In the second version, they worked as a group to gain points. In the third, players earned points on their own but were asked to designate a friend or family member to be their supporter. This person received an email each week reporting on the player’s performance in order to help cheer them on.
On average, all three groups racked up more steps than usual. That said, certain versions of the game worked better for people with different personality traits. For instance, players who were more outgoing and more motivated to persevere with their goals tended to accumulate more steps in the competitive mode. In contrast, introverts tended to respond well to the game whether it was competitive, collaborative or supportive. A third group, who were generally more prone to taking risks with their health and safety (by not wearing a seatbelt, for example), were not helped by the game at all.
In short, exercise gamification works for a lot of people but not for everyone. Also, if you decide to give it a try, keep your personality in mind when choosing from among the many available apps.
Check out 15 of the best workouts for people who hate exercise.
The pros and cons of PPIs
One of the world’s most commonly used drugs, proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) bring relief from acid reflux, peptic ulcers and indigestion. However, scientists have linked long-term use to an increased risk of kidney disease, gut infections, stomach cancer and, recently, diabetes. If you have no choice but to rely on PPIs for two years or more, ask your doctor about getting your blood sugar checked regularly.
Looking for a kitchen cabinet cure as an alternative? Try these home remedies for indigestion.
Exploring is a mood booster, even close to home
COVID-19 has curbed the joy that can come from travel, but it doesn’t have to end it. A Nature Neuroscience study showed that simply exploring near where you live brings novel experiences that could lift your mood.
Check out more self-care ideas that can help you through the pandemic.
Don’t fall for shoddy hand sanitizer
If you’ve been shopping for hand sanitizers lately, you’ve likely noticed your options have multiplied. New manufacturers entered the market in response to COVID-19, but not all of them are safe to use. For instance, some contain dangerous substances such as methanol. Government regulators, including Health Canada, have issued alerts about brands to avoid. You should also watch out for products with less than 60 per cent alcohol, which won’t kill many germs. The best germ-killing method remains washing your hands with soap and water; hand sanitizer is merely a substitute for when that’s not an option, like when you’re on the go.
Make sure you avoid these common hand-washing mistakes.
Cannabis could harm the heart
Now that cannabis is more available than ever, claims abound about its medical effects—good and bad. The truth is, because it was classified as an illicit substance for years, medical scientists don’t yet know a whole lot about it. When it comes to your cardiovascular system, the two main active ingredients seem to have opposite effects: CBD lowers blood pressure while THC raises it. But regardless of how much or little THC there is, inhaling marijuana smoke increases carbon monoxide in the blood, according to a recent statement from the American Heart Association. Regular exposure to the substance has been linked to strokes, and more research may reveal additional risks. For now, the AHA doesn’t recommend taking cannabis by smoking or vaping it.
Check out more stroke risk factors you can control.
A subtle but common symptom of COVID-19
If your senses of taste and smell suddenly weaken, there’s a decent chance you have COVID-19, even if you otherwise feel okay. Several studies have now demonstrated a strong association between this symptom and the infection. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve lost the ability to smell and taste for a month,” says Dr. Carol Yan, a rhinologist at University of California San Diego Health and the lead author of one such study. “Because of the new research, they’ve been tested and all been positive,” she says. Yan notes that while having this symptom should now qualify you for testing, anybody who can’t access a test should call their doctor and quarantine themselves. Fortunately, smell and taste usually come back once the infection clears up.
Exercises for banishing lower back pain
With so many people working from home—often at ergonomically unsound, makeshift desks—it might seem like everyone is complaining about lower back pain. But there’s an easy cure: Lithuanian scientists have shown that regularly performing lumbar-stabilization exercises can be an effective way to get rid of the pain—and keep it away. These exercises strengthen the muscles that support the lower spine and facilitate safe spinal movement. They include, for example, the double knees to chest stretch, which is performed while lying on your back. Committing to a 45-minute program twice a week is all it takes.
Check out five yoga poses for back pain relief.
Lack of sleep hurts teens’ mental health
Does a teenager in your family often have dark circles under his or her eyes? The teen years bring an array of new threats to sleep, including the end of parent-set bedtimes and a naturally late sleep-wake cycle that doesn’t jibe with school schedules. While inadequate sleep may not seem like a big deal, it can contribute to mental-health issues. A study from the U.K. found that 15-year-olds who were getting less shut-eye on school nights were significantly more likely to develop depression or anxiety in their teens or early 20s. Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia can help families pinpoint and address the underlying causes, whether they’re related to bad habits just before bedtime—screen time in the late evening, for example—or other factors.
Concerned you might be addicted to social media? Here’s expert advice on how to unplug.
The big payoff of a good stretch
If limited mobility or COVID-19 social-distancing measures have cut back your exercise opportunities, a simple home stretching routine can still boost your heart health. In a recent Italian experiment, participants who performed a series of leg stretches five times a week for 12 weeks saw improvements in their vascular function (their arteries’ ability to dilate and constrict) and in how stiff their arteries were—even beyond the legs. These changes may reduce health risks, since arterial stiffness and vascular function both play a role in diabetes and heart disease.
Even mild hits to the head can affect the brain
Years’ worth of research leaves little doubt that repeated concussions are leading to irreversible brain injuries, and even suicide, among professional athletes who play contact sports such as hockey, rugby and football. But what about the minor, non-concussive head impacts that are common even for amateur players? Scientists at Western University in London, Ont., have found that these also cause visible changes to brain structure and connectivity. The changes, which may hinder the brain’s ability to move information between its areas, accumulated over time, suggesting possible long-term ramifications. Athletes, parents and coaches who want to play it safe should limit all types of head impacts—not just those that cause obvious symptoms.
Learn to spot the telltale symptoms of concussion.
Blood-pressure meds extend life even for frail seniors
Few clinical trials of new medications include elderly people in poor overall health—an unfortunate knowledge gap. An exception was a recent Italian study, which looked at almost 1.3 million seniors—with an average age of 76—who each had at least three prescriptions for high blood pressure. Compared to frail subjects who took their meds less than a quarter of the time, those who took them faithfully were 33 per cent less likely to die within seven years. Healthier patients got an even bigger boost to their longevity from sticking to their prescriptions, but both groups benefited.
Reducing the fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis
Although it’s best-known for joint pain, rheumatoid arthritis also causes persistent weakness and exhaustion in up to 90 per cent of patients. It doesn’t improve much with rest. And, worse, there’s been no effective treatment.
A Belgian study of patients who’d been newly diagnosed with RA indicates, however, that there’s a window of opportunity early on for addressing the problem. RA is one of many diseases in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissue, causing inflammation. In the study, some participants were prescribed methotrexate, a drug that decreases immune-system activity and inflammation. Because of its safety and effectiveness, it’s the gold standard treatment for RA, but it only starts working after several months.
The remaining subjects were prescribed methotrexate, as well, but also initially took prednisone, a faster-acting albeit riskier anti-inflammatory. (Its possible effects include agitation, fluid retention and insomnia.) As the time that methotrexate was expected to kick in drew nearer, these patients gradually cut back on prednisone. The patients who took this combination went on to feel less fatigued over the next two years and didn’t experience more side effects than the other group—all of which is great motivation for RA patients to talk to their doctor about receiving intensive treatment as soon as possible, to help them feel better in the long run.
Protect your joints against pain and inflammation by avoiding these arthritis trigger foods.
Bleach: Not for consumption
During the spread of COVID-19, poison-control centres around the world noticed an increase in calls. By surveying the public, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that this was no coincidence. In a misguided effort to protect themselves, nearly four in 10 respondents had employed household cleaners, bleach or surface disinfectants in potentially dangerous ways, such as using them to clean their fresh produce, mist their bodies or wash their hands. Ingesting these products’ chemicals could poison you—no matter what Donald Trump says—and food-safety authorities recommend rinsing fresh produce with water instead. Meanwhile, stick to cleaning your hands and body with soap, which is proven to kill COVID-19.
COVID-19 and the flu
As flu season approaches and the pandemic persists, we need to be prepared for the convergence of the two viruses. Dr. Benjamin Singer, a Chicago-based pulmonologist, states in a Science Advances editorial that the physical-distancing measures we’ve adopted for COVID-19 could also help the flu from spreading. Nevertheless, the influenza vaccine—already recommended because flu-related pneumonia is always a major cause of death—is especially important this year. If someone gets both infections at once, this could make diagnosing and treating them more complicated, Singer points out. Getting the flu shot also helps to keep preventable illnesses from overwhelming already strained health-care systems.
Antibiotics: 14 days not always required
The decades-long habit of overusing antibiotics has caused some bacterial species to grow resistant to our drugs. And since many doctors continue to routinely prescribe antibiotics for the traditional two weeks, scientists have been looking around for ways to replace this one-size-fits-all approach with a more custom one. For instance, Swiss doctors have shown that seven days tends to be equally effective for a common yet potentially dangerous bloodstream infection called uncomplicated gram-negative bacteremia. “What we were doing 20 years ago is probably not necessary for most infections,” says investigator Dr. Angela Huttner of Geneva University Hospitals, who urges patients to ask their doctors if they are up to date on this topic.
Frailty in old age isn’t inevitable
You don’t have to be elderly to show signs of “frailty,” the medical term for an age-related reduction in health and energy levels that makes some seniors more vulnerable to illness, injury and serious complications. In fact, in a recent Australian study, 45 per cent of participants aged 40 to 49 qualified as “pre-frail” because they already showed attributes such as weak grip strength, slow walking speed or frequent, unexplained exhaustion. If this describes you, there’s plenty you can do now to delay the course, such as improving your nutrition or taking up strength and balance exercises.
How to manage mask-related skin issues
Wearing a protective face mask for long enough to run a few errands is unlikely to cause ill effects, but if you wear one all day for your work, you may have noticed perioral dermatitis (a rash around the mouth) or a flare-up of underlying acne or eczema. Dr. Kerri Purdy, a Halifax-based dermatologist, recommends taking breaks from the mask whenever it’s safe to do so; perhaps you could head outside to a non-crowded area for a few minutes. You can also be more conscientious about cleaning your face every day, use medicated products for your specific skin condition and rinse your mask thoroughly after washing it. Purdy warns: “It can be very irritating if there’s still soap or detergent on the mask when you put it back on.”
COVID-19 testing: False negatives are frequent
If you get tested for COVID-19, don’t put too much stock in a negative result. An analysis in Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that timing influences the test’s accuracy: you’re nearly certain to test negative on the same day you caught the virus, while on Day 4 of an infection, the chance of a false negative is around 67 per cent. This goes down to roughly 20 per cent on Day 8, then starts climbing back up again. That’s why even someone who’s tested negative should still self-isolate if they have symptoms of COVID-19, or if they know they’ve recently been exposed.
You can fulfill social needs without socializing
Even before physical-distancing policies put up new barriers to socializing, Elaine Paravati Harrigan, a psychologist formerly of the University at Buffalo in New York, was interested in alternative ways of filling our “social fuel tanks.” Activities such as watching a TV drama or reading a novel can satisfy social urges, according to a research paper she co-authored, because they immerse you in the social world of the characters. Another potentially effective strategy is doing something that makes you think of others. “We see this in cases such as eating chicken soup that reminds you of your mom taking care of you as a child,” Harrigan says. “Or it could be listening to a song that reminds you of your significant other.”
It’s also possible to feel connected to others via one-sided bonds with public figures. “This explains why we want to keep up with our favourite actors, or why we show loyalty and support for our favourite musical artists,” Harrigan says.
Most people rely upon a combination of real-life relationships and other strategies. “What seems to be important is that people do what works for them,” Harrigan says. You shouldn’t feel ashamed about your preferences; for example, there’s nothing unhealthy about preferring a book to a night out. “It can all be helpful for finding meaning and enjoyment in life,” Harrigan says.
Your dizziness may be curable
Around three in 10 people aged over 70 get repeatedly dizzy, which raises their risk of falling. The root cause is often benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)—and research conducted at Södra Älvsborg Hospital in Sweden suggests that if lying down or turning over in bed are among the triggers of your dizziness, then it’s very likely that you have it. BPPV is caused by small inner-ear crystals called otoliths leaving the areas where they belong—often without any trigger—and entering other parts of the ear. Thankfully, BPPV is usually easy to remedy: the treatment is a series of movements (e.g. head turns) designed to slide stray otoliths back into their place. A doctor can help you perform them. With any luck, dizziness will no longer threaten your balance after that.
Learn about the medical conditions that could be making you dizzy.
Exercise is crucial in the COVID-19 era
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic puts limits on where we can go, physical activity remains as important as ever—if not more so, according to Exercise and Sports Science Australia. Scientific evidence suggests that getting your body moving supports the immune system; for instance, a 2018 British study found that older amateur cyclists had higher T-cell counts than their sedentary peers. Physical activity can also boost mental health during this difficult time. Exercising at home or outdoors are great options. If you’re considering hitting the gym, you might first want to find out what physical distancing and sanitation protocols are in place. Of course, if you suspect you have COVID-19, you should take a break from exercise and rest—and isolate yourself—until you recover.
Surprise—these household items double as fitness equipment!
Fight age-related muscle loss with protein at each meal
When you eat protein (beans, meat or nuts, for example), you stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the body’s process for building and repairing muscle. This process grows less efficient as you age, which can contribute to a loss of muscle mass, strength and ability—especially if protein intake isn’t spread out over the course of the day. In a British study of dietary habits, most of the participating seniors reached the daily recommended allowance: at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, they tended to consume around three-quarters of it at dinnertime. If your habits are similar, you might be able to maintain more muscle mass by including protein in all meals, thus stimulating MPS more consistently.
Watch out for these signs you’re not eating enough protein.
Scientists in a race to calm cytokine storms
For some sufferers, the immune system overreacts to COVID-19 in a way that severely damages the lungs. This life-threatening complication is known as a “cytokine storm” because it involves an excess of proteins called cytokines. Several methods for treating this reaction are being explored. For instance, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is looking into whether it’s possible to “soak up” extra cytokines by injecting the bloodstream with proteins that bind with them. Other researchers have shown that dexamethasone, a drug usually used to reduce inflammation, increases the survival rate among critically ill COVID-19 patients who are struggling to breathe. This is presumably because it curbs the body’s over-the-top defences.