Staying Healthy Archive


Salt shakedown: A boon for lowering blood pressure

New guidelines to reduce added sodium in food are good news for everyone—not just people with high blood pressure.

Image: rezart/iStock

If you’re like most people, chances are you eat far more than the recommended amount of sodium, one of the main components of salt. But cutting back may be a little easier in the future, thanks to the FDA’s recent proposed guidelines to scale down sodium levels in processed and restaurant food.

Health experts consider the move a long-awaited step in the right direction. Strong evidence from more than 100 clinical trials shows that lowering dietary sodium also lowers blood pressure. High blood pressure (hypertension), which affects one in three American adults, is a key culprit in cardiovascular disease.

Do omega-3s protect your thinking skills?

It may be helpful to eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

 Image: Elena_Danileiko/Thinkstock

Maybe you're hoping to protect your thinking skills by eating oily fish like salmon or taking a daily fish oil supplement. After all, the media frequently talk about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, and sales of fish oil supplements are more than $1 billion per year in the United States. But can fish oil keep us thinking clearly? "For people who are healthy, who don't have a decline in memory and thinking skills, the question of prevention has not yet been answered," Dr. Scott McGinnis, an assistant professor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, explains.

About omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats in food that are essential for health. There are three main types:

In a slump? Fix your posture

Posture can worsen with age and cause back, neck, and shoulder pain. Adopting corrective lifestyle habits can help you stand up straighter.

Most people are familiar with the telltale look of aging — the slouching posture that makes men look small and feeble. Age can wear down the discs in your spine, which causes them to compress. "This is one reason why men lose height as they get older," says Dr. David Binder of the Orthopaedic Spine Center at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Still, most changes in posture are a result of bad habits, such as sitting hunched over and not standing correctly. "Over time, these habits can create muscle weakness and imbalances that trigger spasms and place stress on your neck, low back, and shoulders," says Dr. Binder.

Ginkgo biloba: What's the verdict?

Q: A friend recently recommended that I take the herb ginkgo biloba to protect against getting dementia. Is it effective, and is it safe?

A: The first thing you should consider is that the FDA doesn't regulate the manufacture of any herbal remedy, so the purity and potency of the ginkgo biloba you buy hasn't been checked.

Can supplements save your sex life?

They'll tempt you with their marketing promises, but beware the dangers hidden within.

 Image: © FatCamera/Getty Images

It's February — time to think about roses, chocolates, sweethearts, and romance. And if those sentiments bring you to a certain drugstore aisle stocked with pills and potions promising to boost your sex life, you may want to think twice before buying any. "Most are a phenomenal waste of money, in my opinion," says Dr. Michael O'Leary, a urologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Unicorn juice?

With a few exceptions, most supplements for sexual function haven't been studied scientifically. At best, says Dr. O'Leary, they have a placebo effect (a beneficial result from an inactive treatment).

Easy ways to adapt exercises when you have arthritis

Don't miss out on exercise benefits. Use these shortcuts to avoid overloading arthritic joints.

 Image: © kali9/Getty Images

You might think that exercising would be harmful when you have osteoarthritis, a degenerative wearing away of cartilage in the joints. In reality, exercising is one of the most helpful strategies for living with the condition. "Arthritic joints like movement. The pain and stiffness tend to get better once you get going," says Clare Safran-Norton, clinical supervisor of rehabilitation services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

But because you have arthritis, you may need to exercise differently to avoid injury and pain.

Meat-free diet linked to benefits for people with type 2 diabetes

News briefs

 Image: © jenifoto/Getty Images

Avoiding animal products and eating a plant-based diet is a great way to keep type 2 diabetes under control, according to a study published Oct. 30, 2018, in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care. Researchers reviewed 11 studies (most of them randomized controlled trials, the gold standard in research) that included more than 400 mostly middle-aged people with type 2 diabetes. The average length of each study was about six months. People who followed a plant-based diet experienced significant improvements in blood sugar control, emotional health, quality of life, weight loss, and cholesterol levels, compared with people who did not follow plant-based diets. Some people who ate a plant-based diet were even able to reduce or eliminate their medications for diabetes control and high blood pressure. If you'd like to try the diet at home, focus on lots of vegetables, legumes (a must for protein and fiber), fruits, seeds, whole grains, and nuts. But don't stop taking any medications without talking to your doctor first.

New physical activity guidelines: Even a little activity will help health

News briefs

 Image: © RgStudio/Getty Images

An update to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans may motivate you to move a little more. The guidelines, published online Nov. 12, 2018, by JAMA, uphold previous recommendations from 2008 that urged at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking. But the new guidelines break from the old rule that physical activity had to be accumulated in bouts of at least 10 minutes to count toward your weekly total. Now the evidence shows it doesn't matter how long an exercise session lasts; it's the total volume of activity that counts, even if it's in short bursts. That means you can jog to your mailbox, do jumping jacks during TV commercials, or skip to your car in the parking lot; any bursts of activity that get your heart and lungs pumping will count toward the weekly goal, and they will contribute to enhanced health. (Note: It's safer for your heart and better for your muscles if you warm up with a few minutes of marching in place or walking before breaking a sweat.) The evidence about the health benefits of regular physical activity is well established, and includes lowering your risk for developing heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, type 2 diabetes, and many kinds of cancer; lowering your risk of early death from any cause; and improving sleep, weight control, bone health, balance, and physical function.

The hidden dangers of dietary supplements

News briefs

Dietary supplements marketed for sexual function — which are supposed to be free of conventional drugs — may contain hidden pharmaceutical ingredients. A study published online Oct. 12, 2018, by JAMA Network Open analyzed almost 800 supplements. Most were for sexual enhancement, weight loss, or muscle building. About 80% of the supplements contained one pharmaceutical ingredient, 20% contained more than one pharmaceutical ingredient, and some (33 products) contained three or more pharmaceutical ingredients. The most common hidden pharmaceuticals: erectile dysfunction drugs, weight-loss medications, antidepressants, anabolic steroids, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Some of the hidden drugs have never been approved by the FDA; others have been removed from the market. And all, say the authors, have the potential to cause severe harm from accidental misuse, overuse, or interaction with other medications, underlying health conditions, or other drugs within the same dietary supplement. Talk to your doctor first before taking any dietary supplement.

What to do when reading gets harder

Treating underlying conditions and using helpful strategies may be all it takes to get you back on track.

Reading for pleasure is one of life's great gifts. It's an escape to another world or a path to increased knowledge. Plus, reading about a subject that's new to you challenges the brain, which may help create new brain cell connections. But many aspects of health can affect our ability to read in older age.

Physical changes

Chronic disease and age-related changes can have a big effect on your ability to read. Consider these factors:

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