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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.

Telemedicine: A good fit for cardiovascular care?

Updated October 1, 2020

For monitoring conditions that contribute to heart attack and stroke, virtual doctor visits are much more convenient than in-person appointments. Where is this trend headed?

Virtual doctor visits — when you talk to a physician on a video call instead of during an in-person office exam — have been available in certain places for years. But they never really caught on until the pandemic hit earlier this year. Almost overnight, virtual care became an indispensable tool for managing coronavirus infections and other health conditions during the crisis.

In 2019, virtual visits accounted for fewer than 1% of the appointments at Mass General Brigham, a large health care system founded by Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). "But during the peak of the coronavirus surge in Boston, 80% of all visits were done virtually," says Dr. Lee Schwamm, director of the Center for TeleHealth at MGH and vice president of virtual care at Mass General Brigham.

FDA approves broader use of clot-prevention drug

Updated September 1, 2020

Research we're watching

Ticagrelor (Brilinta), a drug that helps prevent blood clots, was approved in 2011 for treating people who had experienced a heart attack or acute coronary syndrome (a sudden loss of blood flow to the heart). Now, the drug can be prescribed to a broader group of people. In June 2020, the FDA expanded ticagrelor's approval to reduce the likelihood of first heart attack or stroke among high-risk people with coronary artery disease.

The expansion is based on results from a multiyear study of more than 19,000 people with coronary artery disease and diabetes at high risk for a heart attack. Participants who took aspirin plus ticagrelor were less likely to experience a heart attack, stroke, or death from heart disease compared with those who took aspirin alone.

Chronic pain linked to higher risk of heart attack and stroke

Updated September 1, 2020

Research we're watching

People with chronic pain may be more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those without chronic pain, according to a study published online May 7, 2020, by the journal Pain Medicine.

From 2001 to 2005, researchers identified 17,614 Taiwanese people who had used pain relievers for at least three months. The most common causes of pain were spinal disorders, arthritis, and headaches; the pain relievers included both over-the-counter drugs and prescription opioids. For the comparison group, researchers used 35,228 people without chronic pain who were matched by age and sex to those in the first group.

Harvard study links inflammatory diet to Crohn’s disease

Updated September 1, 2020

News briefs

Eating a diet high in foods tied to inflammation — such as processed meat, sweets, and refined grains — is associated with many health problems, including an increased risk for colon cancer, heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. A Harvard study published online May 7, 2020, by Gastroenterology found another potential risk: Crohn's disease, a condition characterized by areas of inflammation throughout the large and small intestines. Researchers evaluated 30 years' worth of self-reported diet information from more than 208,000 men and women. Diets were scored based on foods that promote inflammation. Compared with people who had the lowest inflammatory diet scores, people with the highest scores had a 51% higher risk for developing Crohn's disease. The risk for Crohn's doubled among people who went from a low- to a high-inflammatory diet during the study. The study is observational and doesn't prove that an inflammatory diet causes Crohn's disease. But with so many other risks associated with foods that promote inflammation, it's important to eat as many foods that fight inflammation as possible. In other words, focus on whole, unprocessed foods with no added sugar — such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils), fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, a little bit of low-fat dairy, and olive oil.

Image: © dla4/Getty Images

Does alcohol help protect the brain?

Updated September 1, 2020

News briefs

Here's a finding worth toasting if you're partial to a tipple: a study published online June 29, 2020, by JAMA Network Open linked low-to-moderate alcohol drinking in middle age with better cognitive (thinking) skills in older age. Researchers analyzed the health data of about 20,000 adults (average age 61) who took part in cognitive screenings every few years during a nine-year period and reported how much alcohol they drank each week. Men who had fewer than 15 drinks per week, and women who had fewer than eight drinks per week, were considered moderate drinkers. And they're the ones who appeared to have better word recall and vocabulary over time, and slower rates of cognitive decline, compared with people who never drank. The study is observational and doesn't prove that drinking alcohol protects the brain. In fact, the subject is debated: some studies have suggested that moderate alcohol drinking is associated with better cardiovascular health compared with heavy alcohol intake, but other studies have found that drinking any amount of alcohol increases the risk for high blood pressure and stroke. The takeaway: if you're going to raise a glass, do so only in moderation.

Image: © Ridofranz/Getty Images

New advice about a common heart variation: Patent foramen ovale (PFO)

Updated September 1, 2020

Researchers are beginning to better understand if, when, and how to address this condition, which is linked to a newly recognized type of stroke.

In the womb, all fetuses have a foramen ovale (Latin for "oval hole") between the heart's right and left upper chambers (atria). This opening allows blood to take a shortcut within the heart rather than following a longer path through the lungs, which cannot work until they are exposed to air. After birth, when a newborn baby takes his or her first breath, the foramen ovale begins to close. Most of the time, it seals completely within a few months.

But in about a quarter of people, that doesn't happen. This anatomical variation is called a patent foramen ovale (patent means open) or PFO. Most people never know they have it, because a PFO doesn't cause any signs or symptoms. For the most part, the condition is harmless.

Midlife isn’t too late for stroke prevention

Updated August 1, 2020

Lifestyle improvements, such as quitting smoking and exercising more, can reduce your risk of a stroke.

A stroke may seem like a sudden, uncontrollable event — a lightning strike out of the blue. But in reality, stroke risk often builds over time, and many strokes are preventable. A study published in the May 2020 issue of Stroke found not only that lifestyle changes can help you head off a potential stroke, but also that you can still reduce your risk even if you don't make these changes until later in life.

"What is novel about our study is that we found that even in middle-aged women, changing lifestyle has a large effect on preventing stroke," says Dr. Goodarz Danaei, senior author of the study and the Bernard Lown Associate Professor of Cardiovascular Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Even in the sixth decade of life, lifestyle changes can still prevent up to a quarter of all strokes." The average age in women for a first stroke is 75.

The questions about fish oil supplements

Updated July 1, 2020

Can they really improve cardiovascular health?

Probably no nutritional supplement has earned as much attention — and has created as much confusion — as fish oil. Some research says taking a daily fish oil supplement can reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes, while other studies say the evidence remains thin.

Then there are the multiple types of fish oil supplements you can buy at drugstores and online. Are they safe? And are they a better option than just eating fish?

Make up your mind

Updated July 1, 2020

Do you struggle with decisions? These strategies can help you make good choices more efficiently.

We make countless choices every day. Most are the mundane variety: what to eat, what to wear, what movie to watch. But often our decisions (or lack thereof) have a significant impact on our well-being.

Poor decision making is often a consequence of natural cognitive decline. This can cloud people's judgment about what is the right course of action or make it harder to weigh multiple options. The result is that people make questionable choices, or they feel overwhelmed and don't make any decision, which is sometimes even worse.

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