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Fish oil drug helps shrink plaque in heart arteries

Updated December 1, 2020

Research we're watching

A drug made from a highly purified form of EPA (an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish) appears to help reduce plaque in the heart's arteries, according to a study published online Aug. 29, 2020, by the European Heart Journal. The findings may explain why the drug, icosapent ethyl (Vascepa), lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke by 26% in people at high risk for those serious problems.

The study included 80 people with fatty plaque in the arteries of the heart (coronary artery disease). Most of them had diabetes and were taking a statin. Their trigly­cerides were elevated, ranging from 135 to 499 milligrams per deciliter. Half were randomly assigned to take 4 grams of icosapent ethyl daily; the other half received a placebo.

Low-carb and high-fat diet helps obese older adults

Updated December 1, 2020

In the journals

Scientists continue to explore the right balance of carbohydrates and fat in people's diets. But for overweight or obese older adults, a recent study found that a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet might offer special health benefits. The results were published online Aug. 12, 2020, by Nutrition and Metabolism.

Researchers asked 40 obese adults, ages 60 to 75, to follow an eight-week diet in which 10% of calories came from carbs, 25% from protein, and 65% from fat. Carb sources included leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables, some fruit, and high-fiber grains. Protein intake consisted of eggs, fish, pork, and poultry. Fat-containing foods included olive oil, coconut oil, nut oils, nut butter, cheese, coconut milk, and avocados.

What is a silent stroke?

Updated November 1, 2020

Ask the doctor

Q. My aunt, who is in her late 70s, recently had a brain scan after a minor fall. She seems fine now, but the doctor said the scan showed evidence of an unrelated silent stroke. What does that mean?

A. A silent stroke refers to a stroke that doesn't cause any noticeable symptoms. Most strokes are caused by a clot that blocks a blood vessel in the brain. The blockage prevents blood and oxygen from reaching that area, causing nearby brain cells to die. Depending on the location of the clot, this can cause symptoms such as weakness in an arm or leg (which could cause a fall) or trouble speaking or seeing. But sometimes, the area of damage is quite small and occurs in a part of the brain that doesn't control any vital functions, so the stroke remains undetected.

When walking leads to leg pain

Updated November 1, 2020

It might be peripheral artery disease, an underrecognized and potentially dangerous condition.

If you notice a painful cramping sensation in your calf when you walk, you might blame a cranky knee joint or write it off as a sign of aging. But this symptom may signal a more serious condition, known as peripheral artery disease, or PAD.

PAD occurs when fatty deposits clog the arteries outside of the heart (most commonly in the legs) and reduce blood supply in that part of the body. The hallmark symptom is leg pain that occurs with exercise, called intermittent claudication (from the Latin word claudicatio, meaning "to limp").

Air pollution: An invisible threat to your heart

Updated November 1, 2020

Microscopic particles in the air we breathe can contribute to cardiovascular disease.

We've all spent much of 2020 worried about inhaling invisible virus particles. But the air we breathe contains other unseen particles that also may threaten our health. Air pollution spewed from coal-fired power plants, industrial factories, and motor vehicles contains microscopic particulate matter that can burrow deep inside our lungs.

These particles are less than 2.5 microns in diameter — so tiny that 30 of them sitting side by side are about the same diameter as a strand of human hair. Known as PM2.5, they pass through your lungs into your bloodstream, causing inflammation and another cell-damaging process known as oxidative stress.

5 things to know about your morning cup of joe

Updated November 1, 2020

Coffee may bring health benefits, but not all cups are created equal.

You probably don't think much about your cup of coffee, aside from the fact that it helps you get moving in the morning. But there's a lot to know about this common brew. A recent review article published July 23, 2020, in The New England Journal of Medicine looked at how coffee can affect health, and it outlined some interesting findings.

1. Coffee won't harm your heart, and it may even help it. Research has found that not only is coffee not bad for your heart, it might actually be beneficial. "If women are consuming a moderate amount of coffee — up to five 8-ounce cups a day — they do not have to be concerned that it will increase their risk of heart disease or stroke," says Rob van Dam, the review's first author and an adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "There may even be some benefits, particularly for reducing risk of type 2 diabetes, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke."

Feel woozy? Do this first

Updated November 1, 2020

Your body is signaling distress. Take it seriously and follow these instructions.

Quick, what do you do if a bout of wooziness strikes? Since the symptom can be a sign of either something minor or a more serious problem, you need a plan of action.

What is wooziness?

Wooziness is a tricky word. People use it to describe many symptoms, such as feeling mentally unclear or confused; a little weak; lightheaded, like you might faint; unstable, like the world is bobbing around; or even mildly nauseated. And doctors say wooziness can be all of those things. "But wooziness is not the world spinning around you. That's vertigo," says Dr. Natalia Rost, a Harvard Medical School professor and chief of Stroke Services at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Taking statins later in life still offers heart benefits

Updated October 1, 2020

In the journals

Age may not be a factor when it comes to who can benefit from statins. A study published online July 7, 2020, by JAMA found that people who started taking the cholesterol-lowering medication in their mid-70s or later had fewer heart-related problems and lived longer than non-users.

Researchers looked at 326,981 mostly male veterans, ages 75 and older, who were free of cardiovascular disease and did not take statins. Over the next 10 years, more than 57,000 began statin therapy.

Leg stretching may improve blood flow and prevent strokes

Updated October 1, 2020

In the journals

Not only can regular leg stretching help reduce cramps and muscle strains, it also may be another way to protect against heart disease and stroke. A study published online July 1, 2020, by The Journal of Physiology found that performing simple leg stretches can help improve blood flow throughout the body.

Researchers split 39 healthy people into two groups. One group didn't do any stretching. The other group performed four types of leg stretches five times a week for 12 weeks. The stretches focused on the hip, knee, and ankle. Each stretch was done for 45 seconds with a 15-second recovery. Afterward, the researchers found that the arteries in the lower legs of the stretching group had better blood flow and less stiffness. The stretching group also had lower blood pressure at the end of the study compared with their initial readings.

Hot baths and saunas: Beneficial for your heart?

Updated October 1, 2020

People who take frequent saunas or hot baths may lower their risk of heart problems. But be cautious if you have low blood pressure.

Soaking in a bathtub or basking in a sauna can be a pleasant way to relax. Done on a regular basis, both habits may also help prevent heart attacks and strokes, according to several studies.

"The high temperatures in a warm tub or sauna cause your blood vessels to dilate, which lowers blood pressure," says Dr. Adolph Hutter, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The volume of blood your heart pumps will also rise, especially in a hot tub. That's a result of the pressure of the water on the body, which increases the heart's workload, he explains.

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