Friday, March 30, 2007
Opening day is (almost) here!
For many Americans, spring break means going to the beach. For me it means a more sedentary activity, watching Major League Baseball up close and personal. The minor league ballparks where the games are played are much smaller than their big league counterparts. To me it makes seeing the play of stars like Albert Pujols, of the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals and 2006 National League MVP Ryan Howard so much more fun. During one game, Mets pitcher Tom Glavine was maybe 10 feet in front of me warming up as his team was playing the Florida Marlins.
Pujols and Howard looked good, as did one of my other favorites Chase Utley. But I have to admit, in addition to watching baseball, I also look forward to the Philly Cheesesteaks at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater and "Dodger dogs" at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, accompanied by a cold one from America's oldest brewery.
As we sat down to watch the Philadelphia Phillies take on the Houston Astros, I secretly hoped to win the "best seat in the house" contest... sitting in a lounge chair behind home plate plus all you can eat access to the ballpark's menu. I didn't win.
We saw 8 games in 7 days. Usually by the 7th inning of these games, I'd be hankering for a second hot dog or cheese steak... and maybe another beer or a Coke. Somewhere during game 3 or 4, I also noticed that as the games wind down, some players start running sprints behind the outfield. I looked at the food in my hand and only saw the empty calories I was consuming, while the athletes were burning calories off. Suddenly I was hit with the realizations that in addition to having a lot of fun, a lot of calories were adding up. I didn't have any new year's resolutions per se, but I was eating more healthfully and managed to lose a few pounds in the first couple of months in 2007. However, those efforts were being erased by the abundance of temptations I was succumbing to.
So baseball's regular season launches on Sunday, and most games will be watched at home, where the temptations are different but still there - in my fridge and pantry. Will the Cardinals retain their World Series title or will the Yankees or Red Sox win it all in the Fall? And will I return to and maintain a healthy diet, maybe even exercise?
Did you set any new year's resolutions for fitness that you sticking to? What tips do you have for sticking to a healthy plan from now until the playoffs?
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Advertising to kids hurts your wallet... and their health?
When my daughter was about 5, we went through, what I called the Simba phase: Simba purse, Simba wallet, Simba sneakers. Everything that child owned had the cute, little, yellow lion from the "Lion King" emblazoned on it. I was Simba sick.
After that it was Belle shorts, a Jasmine umbrella, a Pocahontas backpack. It got to be too much. The characters were on cereal boxes, candy bars, even hot dogs! I was thrilled when she finally traded in Aladdin for Alan, the boy down the street.
Parents are no match for cartoon characters. How to deny your little precious person a singing teapot, or a talking fish? And if that chanting china or stuttering sturgeon eats Popsicles, sorry, you've got to buy those too.
And that's the power of TV food ads for kids. They are just that - targeted at kids. The marketing experts in Manhattan know exactly what kids want. The problem is that many ads on TV depict food products that aren't very healthy - mostly candy, snacks, chips and sweet drinks such as soda. And with childhood obesity skyrocketing, medical experts say that flashing these ads in front of our children on a Saturday morning and after school puts the wrong messages in young, impressionable minds.
This week, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit, private organization that focuses on major U.S. health care issues, unveiled a survey of close to 9,000 food ads for kids. It's the largest study every conducted on food advertising for children. The results are staggering. During children's programming, one out of every two ads is for food. Of those ads, 34 percent were for candy and snacks, 28 percent for cereal and 10 percent for fast food. Not one advertised fruits or vegetables. And only 15 percent of the ads showed children involved in some type of physical activity. And those public service announcements that push exercise and good nutrition? The average child sees one of them every two to three days! (See full story)
Health experts say that's wrong and that kids' advertising needs to be more balanced. If youngsters are going to be bombarded with poor food choices, they should also get information on what makes a healthy lifestyle.
This is not the first study on children's advertising and food. In December 2005, the Institute of Medicine found that advertising has a direct impact on kids' diets and health and can contribute to childhood obesity. The IOM recommended that if the industry didn’t give its advertising a healthier focus, Congress should enact legislation to regulate TV food ads for kids.
That idea has gotten the attention of food companies. PepsiCo, which own Pepsi, Frito-Lay & Tropicana, says it's changing its ads and pushing only healthier products, such as baked chips, and depicting more physical activities in commercials. Michael McGinnis of the IOM says that's a good first step and that the industry may be getting the hint.
Also those talking fish and singing pots? You see them less often. Major corporations including Disney have decided to limit the use of their characters in ads for foods deemed unhealthy.
So how do we parents limit these ads' influence on our kids? Well, you can turn off the TV, but even an active child deserves a little R&R on a weekend morning. I think we need to take some responsibility. Make sure our kids are active by getting them off the couch. And watch what they eat and check out what they are viewing on TV. If they cry for the candy with the funny sponge man on it, just say no. Or limit what they can have. Try to avoid the Simba phase and take charge of your child's health.
What do you think?
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
"Pop" your vitamins?
A 50-gallon fish tank, for example can hold a coral reef and a dozen fish - big ones.
Soda makers themselves are big fish: The industry generates $68 billion a year, but within the last few years sales have slacked off as Americans are bombarded with healthier choices.
Enter vitamin soda.
Yep - soda, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having "minimal nutritional value"... juiced up with vitamins and minerals.
The Coca-Cola company is launching Diet Coke Plus. It provides 15 percent of your daily value for niacin, B6 and B12, according to the label.
PepsiCo, too is launching a drink called Tava, which the company says meets 10 percent of your daily needs for vitamins B & E.
While the drink-makers are careful not to make health claims, critics insist the companies want you to think they're good for you.
"You can make a product look healthier by simply pouring in maybe a penny's worth of vitamins and minerals," says David Schardt, senior nutritionist for CSPI, a nonprofit organization focused on food safety. "Drinking your vitamins in a soft drink is equivalent to taking a little speck of a multivitamin pill."
You'd need to drink almost 7 cans of Diet Coke Plus... and 10 cans of Pepsi's Tava to get your recommended daily values of those vitamins.
In the vitamin-soda-makers' defense, Cadbury Schweppes, which added vitamin C and calcium to 7UP Plus, tells CNN there's "a lot of demand for soft drinks with added benefits."
Real benefits, say nutritionists such as Elisa Zied, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, come from whole foods and drinks, -- milk, for example -- but if you still feel you need a vitamin fix, water with a supplement is better than a swig of soda.
So while most experts think the health benefits of vitamin sodas fall flat - what do you think?
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Stents don't stack up, study says...
"Listen, I don't want to alarm you, but your mother is in the hospital. She's fine, but she's going to have an angioplasty today."
I remember that phone call as if it were yesterday, but in fact, it was almost two years ago.
This morning, I got another phone call from my dad. He wasn't calling to tell me she was back in the hospital, but instead to ask about a new study on angioplasty. He's a physician, so he stays on top of the journals, but he wanted to see how CNN would report it.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that patients with stable coronary artery disease, when treated only with medication fared just as well as those treated with medication and angioplasty. The theory is, if you can accomplish the same thing without surgery, why not just stick to the medication alone? It would theoretically save money for patients and insurance companies, and also avoid surgical risks. (Read the Full Study)
But I had a different take - I told my dad I was glad mom got a stent. Her coronary artery disease wasn't stable. In fact, she went to the doctor's office expecting to get some pain medication for her shoulder, and she left in an ambulance. The shoulder pain was an early sign of a heart attack.
Maybe the idea of a stent seems better to me because you can physically hold it in your hand - you can actually visualize how it would prop open the artery. The drugs do their work microscopically, and I'm sure they do it well, but I guess I'm just more of a visual person.
What do you think? Would you opt for medication alone, or go for the surgical procedure?
Building bigger breasts after cancer
Breast cancer is in the news a lot these days, most recently with the reports of Elizabeth Edwards' Stage IV metastatic cancer. It sparked some discussion among the women of the CNN Medical News unit here in New York. More and more people we know are learning they have breast cancer, and some of them have had mastectomies, which is surgical removal of the entire breast, with or without some other tissues such as the lymph nodes or the chest muscles.
More than half of women who undergo mastectomies also have breast reconstruction, which means that surgeons rebuild the breast area so that both breasts look balanced. Having breasts that look "normal" again can really improve a woman's self-esteem and promote her sense of recovery after cancer. The procedure, which usually takes place in multiple stages, generally has few complications.
Last year more than 56,000 women in America had breast reconstructions, according to the American Society for Plastic Surgeons. I was surprised (and a little upset) to learn that only in 1998 did federal law start requiring insurance companies to pay for reconstruction as part of standard mastectomy coverage. Before that, I imagine reconstruction was generally considered more a luxury that you had to pay for out of your pocket, as if you were having breast augmentation by choice. Can you believe?!
But now that it is required, some women are actually deciding to increase their cup size during the procedure. "Consider it a fringe benefit for being in such a horrible position as having to lose your breasts," is how breast cancer expert Dr. Marisa Weiss put it. AND, on top of that, because it's possible for some women to take their own stomach tissue and use it to rebuild their breast tissue (that's called a tissue flap reconstruction, an alternative to implants), it's even possible to have a tummy tuck as well.
We don't have stats on how many women get reconstructions for sizes larger than their original chest size, or on how many get the tissue flap procedure. But I'm asking all you women out there - if you had to lose your breasts to cancer, and you had to have them rebuilt, would you take the opportunity to make them bigger as well?
Monday, March 26, 2007
Chasing Dr. Gupta
"Chasing Life" is the title of Dr. Gupta's first book (coming April 9 from Warner Wellness books). It also is the name of the Special Investigations Unit program that will air on CNN next month. The book and the hour-long documentary examine what people do to live healthier, longer. Dr. Gupta will show you what works and what doesn't and provide information on what you can do today to age less.
What could Dr. Gupta do to live a longer, healthier life? As one of the people who chases the man who's been chasing life, I can tell you this: He should probably try to get more sleep -- not easy for someone who doesn't like to be still for very long. But I'm no expert. Dr. Gupta, though, has talked to the experts and they've given him a personal prescription. Watch for it and more in "Chasing Life" at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on Saturday and Sunday, April 14 and 15.
In the meantime, I'd like to know what you do to stay young. What are you doing now that you think will help your body and mind to remain active in your later years?
Second thoughts about pet food
The headline popped up on the TV screen and stopped me cold. "Pet food recall," it read. I was in Florida, running around my hotel room, preparing for a presentation. I didn't catch the whole story and even though the clock was ticking, I hopped online to read more. As I logged on, I thought about Esther, my fuzzy, slightly neurotic, four-legged friend. From bad hairstyles to big life changes, Esther is my one constant. No judging, no nagging, just some occasional barking and lots of unconditional love.
Fortunately, Esther doesn't eat the food that was recalled. Still, I have been following the story. Menu Foods has confirhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifmed the deaths of 16 pets that ate "cuts and gravy" style food that was found to contain rat poison. But Tuesday, a veterinary group reported that more than 400 cases of kidney failure have been reported, and more than 100 of the animals died.
There are few things worse than watching an animal suffer. I am touched by these little victims, with names such as Gumbie and Pebbles. Recently we've seen a number of human food scares, but this one as we say in the news business, "has legs." (Yes, pun intended.) Veterinarians are e-mailing pet owners with lists of symptoms and recall information. People are checking the ingredients in their pets' food. Friends are debating the merits of organic food versus processed.
So we want to know what you think -- has this scare made you reconsider what you feed your pets? Have you switched foods? How far would you go to keep your pet healthy?
Friday, March 23, 2007
Footing the bill for gastric bypass
It seems Anne was always an active person. As a hot-shot consultant, she liked to travel both for work and pleasure. But as the years went by, she began to have a lot of pain in her joints and was eventually found to have an autoimmune disease. She stopped exercising, went on medication and began to gain weight, lots of it. She became so heavy that she had to use a motorized scooter to get around. She couldn't take walks with her husband. She wasn't enjoying her life. She was desperate. Her doctor finally suggested she think about bariatric surgery to rid herself of the weight. She had the procedure and within months became mobile and her illness went into remission.
Anne Durand is not alone. According to the American Society of Bariatric Surgery, more than 177,000 patients had gastric bypass or stomach banding procedures last year. Intended to help people who are considered severely obese or suffer from complications because of their weight, the surgeries can be expensive as well as dangerous. And those are two things insurance companies don't like to hear. Susan Pisano, a spokesperson for America's Health Insurance Plans says insurers want patients to understand that bariatric surgery is not a quick fix and that there are other alternatives.
Now, some insurance groups are insisting on more then just a doctor's opinion and a patent's desire before they'll agree to pay for these procedures. Beginning this month, Tufts Health Plan in Massachusetts is requiring some obese patients to enter a yearlong diet and counseling program before undergoing bariatric surgery. Tufts' hope is to have patients lose their weight naturally, without surgery. But some doctors feel the policy just postpones the inevitable. According to NIH research, only about 5 percent of patients, once they are morbidly obese, are able to lose weight by willpower alone. And other surgeons believe it's none of the insurance companies' business to tell people what surgeries they can or cannot have.
But Tufts Health Plan is not alone; many insurance companies say it is their business to oversee their clients' health. They insist that many patients who seek these surgeries can lose weight without going under the knife. They also stress that these procedures are risky and it's a safer tactic to wait out the surgery for a year, than to jump into an operation that many patients don't understand.
Had Anne Durand waited a year to have her surgery, chances are she would have not been able to walk. She cringes when she thinks about it. But insurers say that she's an exception and that many of those who have bariatric surgery could look to better nutrition and exercise as a solution to their obesity.
What do you think?
For more on bariatric surgery, watch House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta Saturday and Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Can TV make you a better doctor?
I sleep well when I go to bed on Sunday nights. I close my eyes knowing I will be in the operating room on Monday morning. The O.R. at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, is where I feel at home, content and focused. I know the patients need me to bring my "A-game." I know the residents in neurosurgery need me to teach, demonstrate, explain and encourage. I am confident that I will deliver on both.
My day begins with orange juice and a scrambled egg - vitamin C and protein - no caffeine. Never any caffeine on Mondays. It is early, very early and during my 10-minute commute to the hospital, there is no one else on the road. It is surgeon time. From the car, I call my chief resident. This month it is Lou Tumialan. He's already at the hospital and gives me the latest updates on the patient who will be our first case.
At the hospital, it may appear that Lou and I are joined at the hip, in a never-ending, quiet, unemotional conversation. We run through scenarios, we discuss options and possible outcomes for the patient. We hope for the best and we are prepared for just about anything. We emerge from the doctor's locker room energized, unshaven, and dressed in our uniforms of green. A small wooden box containing our magnifying glasses is tucked like a football in our right hands. We scrub in together, both up to our elbows in the harsh yellow iodine soap and we become quieter, more inwardly focused. It's almost as if I can actually feel every cell in my body working to bring years of information, education and experience to the starting blocks of my mind. I am ready for the race. I feel fully prepared to start the case.
Today, I get to return function to a broken and damaged body. On the very best days, I get to save a life. A resident doesn't have that same sense of confidence and calm. I tell my residents it's fine to have butterflies, just make sure they're flying in formation. There may be surprises, there is certainly a sense of urgency, but chaos is not an option. It is never an option.
Maybe I feel so comfortable at this particular hospital because, like me, it has a history of combining health care and journalism. Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in the 1800s, worried that Atlanta's poor couldn't get good medical care. His dream of providing quality basic health care for Atlanta's less fortunate came true when Grady hospital opened in 1892. Although he chose journalism as a career, he felt drawn to health care. I, on the other hand, chose medicine as my career, but felt drawn by the power of journalism. Now, six years into a life with dueling careers, I have a clear appreciation for both. Each job makes me better at the other.
Today, because of what I've learned from being a journalist, I will not only try to educate Lou on a particularly complicated maneuver to correct a spinal injury, but I also will explain what can be gained from getting to know the patient's story. Accuracy, the cornerstone of good journalism, is also critical to the neurosurgeon, as Lou will learn during today's intense six-hour procedure.
As more than a dozen medical professionals move around a music-filled operating room, negotiating sharp instruments, multimillion dollar machines and lifesaving, yet dangerous, chemicals, the residents will also hear my lesson on clear communication. These lessons are as important for a doctor as they are for a journalist. It's my hope that my experiences as a journalist will allow me to more fully prepare and equip our next generation of doctors.
So far, so good.
To learn more about Dr. Sanjay Gupta's work at Grady Memorial Hospital, watch "Grady's Anatomy" on CNN this weekend. It airs Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Creating a "culture of prevention"
On CNN's American Morning today I talked about the latest news regarding heart disease. It's pretty sobering. Already heart disease is the biggest killer of men and women in most developed nations in the world. Unless we do more, the situation may become much, much worse.
A study published in one of the big medical journals is titled, "The International Pandemic of Chronic Cardiovascular Disease," and that really says it all. Researchers examined data of almost 70,000 people from 44 countries who had some confirmed evidence of heart disease or a combination of risk factors such as smoking, hypertension and excess weight. Most alarming was that one out of every seven had a catastrophic event within just one year. They either had a heart attack, a stroke or they died. (Full Story)
Certainly, we are better than ever at treating heart disease, but we are still not a society that practices a culture of prevention. We can unclog blood vessels with angioplasty, even bypass them with open-heart surgery. We can use medications to stop plaque from forming and sometimes reverse its growth. The problem is that too many people are waiting too long. Too many people never get a chance to prevent the diseases that eventually rob them of their lives and their well being.
One of my great passions is to try and create this "culture of prevention." It makes sense medically, morally and financially. People will live healthier and more functional lives without spending countless days in intensive care units and assisted-living facilities. Still, we are in constant firefighter mode, rushing to the scenes of disasters, instead of preventing the fires in the first place. I would love to hear your thoughts on how to work toward a culture of prevention.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
To prescribe or not to prescribe?
To prescribe antibiotics, or not to prescribe antibiotics? That is a question thousands of doctors ask themselves every day. It's a common scenario: A patient comes into the office complaining of what is almost certainly a viral infection. The doctor knows the infection will probably clear up on its own in a few days, but the patient asks, "What about a Z-Pak or another antibiotic?" The patient tells the doctor it always works and a previous doctor prescribed it all the time. Many doctors cave. I have sometimes caved.
The truth is the infection probably would have improved without antibiotics. Usually by the time, someone sees his or her doctor, the viral infection is already starting to go away. Right around the time the antibiotics dose of five to seven days is complete, presto: The patients feel better. Of course, they attribute that to a $70 antibiotic, instead of plain old natural history.
There are many things one can do to deal with viral sinusitis, besides antibiotics. A good decongestant, such as Sudafed, will be very helpful, as would a saline flush through the nose. It's not the most pleasant, but people who use it swear it works well. Still, researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha found that antibiotics are prescribed 82 percent of the time for patients with acute sinus infections. (Full Story)
That is too often. As a result, extremely antibiotic resistant bacteria, such as the flesh-eating bacteria, are developing. So, why are doctors so willing to dole out a prescription?
I have found that patients like to walk out of the office with something in hand, so they feel like they accomplished something on their visit. If you don't give them an antibiotic, they feel like you have not treated them.
How should doctors deal with patients who demand antibiotics? What are your suggestions on how to handle this?
Monday, March 19, 2007
Daily supplement for war?
Four years ago today, we watched the U.S.-led coalition forces invade Iraq. To be honest, I can't remember where I was. The events of that date aren't etched in my mind as are those of September 11, 2001, or even the day Saddam's statue fell. What I do remember clearly are the reports from U.S. officials citing evidence that Iraq was planning to use chemical weapons against U.S. forces, Iraqi citizens and consequently the embedded journalists on the front.
At the beginning of this war, health and medical reporters were focused on the unknown terror of biological and chemical weapons. We prepared ourselves for attacks of botulism, smallpox, anthrax. We studied the difference between nerve agents such as sarin and blistering agents such as mustard gas. Four years ago, if you had asked me the size of a danger zone in a nuclear or biochemical attack with the wind blowing 20 miles to the west and sunny conditions, I could spit out the calculation as if it were a multiplication table.
Today, the conditions are much different for medical journalists. When it comes to the war in Iraq, our headlines focus on how the military has dealt with caring for its own for the past few years. I've interviewed young soldiers returning home who say they just aren't the same emotionally or physically. From combat medic training, to post-traumatic stress disorder to amputations to what's been called the signature injury of this war - traumatic brain injury, I've had the privilege of interviewing young servicemen and servicewomen both before and after their deployment.
In a broader sense, war has always been a time for incredible medical advances. By necessity, doctors are forced to innovate in the battlefield. They need to be more nimble and get the injured to care faster and more effectively. In many cases, trauma medicine feels the greatest impact of the war.
But just recently, a new Department of Defense-funded study focused on quercetin, a powerful anti-oxidant commonly found in apples, onions and black tea. The researchers found that quercetin could possibly help soldiers on the battlefield. The major findings found that after extreme exercise mimicking physical conditions in the field, quercetin could help fight off the common cold and could help improve mental vigilance. The study looked at 1,000 mg compared with the 25-50 mg eaten daily in the average American diet. The findings are promising, and more studies will be done before it will be recommended as a supplement to soldiers or civilians.
The study was funded under the Peak Soldier Performance Program. It's just one arm of the DOD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The goal of many of its projects is to help soldiers fight better, stronger and longer.
Four years later, what do you think about the medical advances learned during the Iraq war? What do you think of government research dollars targeting improved soldier performance? In medical terms, what do you think is unique to this war?
Friday, March 16, 2007
Binge drinking derails Denise... and others
One of my favorite movies is "Animal House." I've probably seen it a hundred times, but I can still waste a Saturday afternoon laughing at Bluto, Otter and the other brothers of Delta House. Looking back, the drunken escapades in that film seem so tame, almost innocent - especially in these days of "Girls Gone Wild" and the frat boy scene in "Borat."
I've been thinking about college culture since reading a new report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The study focused on binge drinking and drug use. The results are fascinating: Nearly half of all students binge drink or abuse drugs, and nearly one in four college students meet the medical criteria for substance abuse and dependence. Now to put that in perspective, that's two and a half times the rate in the general population who meet the same criteria.
Over the past few days, I've been talking about the study with people I know and most of them are not surprised by the findings. In fact, some of them spoke fondly about their own exploits. As one friend said, "Isn't college where you should make mistakes?" He has a point, but as I read the study and talked to experts, it seems these days many students are taking it to extremes. Saturday night bar crawls have become all-week booze fests (with a class here or there). And the drinks are cheap and plentiful - penny beer has almost become a college institution. But along with the partying come the problems. Reported sexual assaults and alcohol related deaths are on the rise. Talk about a buzz kill.
Yesterday, I spoke with Denise, a young woman who took full advantage of the college party scene. (Watch Video)
She ended up quitting school and getting canned from her job because of her drinking. She's been sober now for almost four years and credits a 12-step program for getting her life back together. Denise is back in school and will graduate in May with honors. We asked her what she thinks it would take to curb this dangerous trend of binge drinking and drug abuse. She says there have to be consequences. That's what the CASA report also suggests. (See Study)
I want to know what you think. Do students drink more than they did when you were in school or do you think this report blows it out of proportion? Also, do you think schools should do more to crack down?
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Running down memory lane
Last weekend, I did a very odd thing. I got in my car, left my family at home and drove to the first TV station where I ever worked. That may not sound so adventurous, but I live outside Washington, D.C., and my first job in broadcasting was in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Don't reach for a map - I can save you the trouble. It's about 200 miles away, a three-hour drive, without stops. Why would I take a glorious afternoon to drive to a place I haven't been in 30 years? Can't tell you. I just had a strong urge to see the place again. Maybe I was being melancholy, but the images of the town had become so vivid in my head, I just had to hit the road. So I took off, with the Four Tops blasting on my stereo. No Gwen Stefani for me, thank you. I was coasting down memory lane.
Once there, I drove by the station, my old apartment, the places I hung out with friends. The town has changed a lot, but the old church, the bank, the city pool, the railroad tracks I crossed to get home, were still there. The visit was like comfort food for my brain. It felt good to see my old haunts. To finish up the day, I stopped at a gas station, picked up a pepperoni roll and sped on home. My memory mission was complete.
So, was this just an episode in my mid-life crisis or something more? Could be both, but scientists believe it might be due to the exercise I've incorporated into my life recently. Since November, I've been hitting the gym more often. I feel better, both physically and mentally. Now researchers believe that exercise can actually boost brain power in such a way, it can build new cells in a region of the brain linked with memory and memory loss.
The study was actually twofold. While looking at the effects of exercise on the brains of mice, scientists noted that the more the animals exercised, the more brain cells they regenerated, especially in the region called the dentate gyrus, which involves memory. After using high-tech imaging to document the changes in the brains of the mice, researchers used the same MRI process to look at the brains of people before and after exercise. They found the same blood-flow patterns, which suggest that people can also grow new brain cells when they exercise. Although the study, which was headed by doctors at Columbia University Medical Center, was small, they think it's another bit of proof that exercise is good for your brain.
In all truthfulness, I have no idea whether my new gym routine sparked my memory of the hills of West Virginia. I hadn't thought about the place in a long, long time. But since I began my spinning class and working out more often, those "Almost Heaven" moments had become so real to me, I had to touch them again. Let's hope it continues, because the second TV station I worked for was in Miami.
What has exercise done for your brain? I'd like to hear about it.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
My very adult addiction
When my husband first told me he was going to buy a Wii video game console, I humored him, but I couldn't help thinking I was indulging his juvenile inclinations. I had stopped playing video games when my Atari console went obsolete in middle school. But early one icy morning last month, he waited in line for four hours in front of the Nintendo store in hopes of snagging one of the hard-to-find sets, and came home triumphant, his arms wrapped around his fancy new Wii.
Good for you, I said.
Fast forward to two Saturdays later, when I woke up with a sore arm. The night before had been a Wii marathon. Friends had come over to play, and the living room heated up as we duked it out in boxing matches and bowling rounds. After they left, I continued to practice the tennis game against the computer, serving and backhanding, until I had reached "pro" status. I paid the price all that Saturday, barely able to move my arm, but satisfied at my performance. I was addicted.
That's why I wasn't surprised to learn that some people have started to use the Wii as a weight-loss tool. A Los Angeles Times article cites one man whose only exercise was to play his Wii for 30 minutes a day, and he lost nine pounds over six weeks. Online Wii fitness communities have started to sprout up too. Another article talks about the potential benefit for physically challenged or elderly people to have some physical activity while in the comfort of their living rooms.
It's not the first video game that's been hailed for its fitness benefits. We did a story a while back about John Polchowski, a teenager who played Dance Dance Revolution every day for one or two hours and shed 70 pounds in a year. A Mayo Clinic researcher did a study showing kids who play active video games such as DDR and the Sony EyeToy expend roughly double the energy of kids playing sedentary video games.
And then there are the brain fitness games, like the Nintendo Brain Age, which is supposed to challenge your mind with various activities including quick math calculations. Your score reflects how "old" your brain is. Proponents have touted its ability to keep minds sharp and even to potentially stave off Alzheimer's disease.
Video games have clearly evolved. So should we accept that they are a part of our lives and can even be good for our kids, or should we always push children away from the TV set and make them do other stuff? Is there a reasonable compromise?
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Mental wounds of war
Sometimes the most serious wounds of war are the ones that can't be seen, only felt. My father served three Army combat tours in Vietnam. My brother, a Marine, has served in Iraq two times. I am acutely aware of how war can change a person. Those changes are happening right now.
Researchers at the San Francisco Veteran's Administration Hospital have found that 25 percent of America's Veterans coming home from war in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from some kind of mental health disorder. (Watch CNN's Jamie McIntyre's story) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the most widespread problem, diagnosed in 13 percent of returning veterans, followed by anxiety, depression and substance abuse. PTSD can be extremely debilitating and may not surface until months or years after a war zone tour ends.
The average age of soldiers in Vietnam was 19 years old. The conflict in Iraq is also a war for the young, and according to the study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, veterans between 18 and 24 years old are at greatest risk for mental health disorders. Younger, lower-ranked service members are more likely to be on the frontlines and receive more combat exposure than their older counterparts.
Researchers say their findings signal a need for improvements in the prevention of military service-related mental health disorders. The Veterans Administration has come a long way in treating the mental wounds of war since the Vietnam era. My father received no help with mental issues after Vietnam, and he carried his war experience with him to his grave.
If you are a veteran and have questions about getting benefits for mental health issues, check out the Federal Benefits for Veterans and Dependents booklet at http://www1.va.gov/opa/feature/.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Spring forward, falling back: Bad for your health?
When I was a kid, daylight-saving time was a glorious time of the year. It meant two things: warmer weather and more hours of schoolyard antics for me and my ball-playing buddies. I used to look forward to it. It used to make me as happy as a vacation day from school.
Now as an adult, daylight-saving time means one thing: one less hour of precious sleep. As I groggily dragged myself out of bed, I just had to wonder: Can one less hour in bed affect my health?
First, I had to find out a bit more about daylight-saving time itself. After all, it seems like a misnomer. You can't really save daylight. We can change, wind or even break the clocks as much as we want, but I'll still get about 12 hours of sunlight in New York today. One of the main purposes for DST is energy conservation. The idea is that daylight should coincide with peak activity times. So, we spring forward so that we don't sleep through that early morning daylight. Also, it gives us more natural light in the evenings. With the clocks moving forward, we use less energy, through acts such as lighting our houses later at night.
How and when did DST all begin? Well, with politicians, of course. Germany was the first nation to enact it in 1915. These days approximately 70 countries worldwide observe DST. Almost all of the United States practices DST except for parts of Arizona and Indiana. In 1918, the U.S. Congress passed the first DST law, but repealed it a year later. In 1966, the Congress enacted the Uniform Time Act which established a uniform DST throughout most of the country. This year, with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 going into effect, DST started three weeks early.
Does all this temporal law-making affect our health? The answer is a definitive maybe. On the bright side, it could mean good news for your oral health. The additional amount of daylight could stimulate your body’s vitamin D production and strengthen your teeth and bones according a study in the Journal of Periodontology. A small 2006 Finnish study found that people who regularly sleep less than eight hours or who are more active at night have a much harder time adjusting to the DST change.
There has also been a good deal of research looking into DST and traffic accidents. The reviews are mixed. In the long-term, DST has been shown to save lives through reduced automobile crashes. The researchers say accidents decrease because more people are traveling during daylight hours and fewer are driving during the accident-prone nighttime. But in the short-term, a Canadian researcher found that springing forward is associated with a slight increase in the number of accidental car deaths. Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia found a 6.5 percent to 8 percent rise on the Monday immediately following the time change. That's compared with no increases associated with the falling backward shift.
What do you think about daylight-saving time? Do you think it has any impact on our health? Is the practice useful to you? Do you think energy conservation is a direct result? Are there any harmful effects?
Friday, March 09, 2007
How do you "chase life?"
Ask almost anyone how he or she would like to live their golden years, and they'll tell you they want to be independent and active. Yet a new report finds more than four in five older Americans living with at least one chronic disease and half living with at least two, potentially cutting into the enjoyment of people's final decades. That's because chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke can cause pain, diminished function and loss of independence.
The report, released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Merck Company Foundation, suggests these figures might get worse in coming years. (Click here for a copy of the report) That's because how you live affects not only longevity, but how healthy you're likely to be in your retirement years.
The most recent statistics available on Americans 55-64 shows they are not as a group living particularly healthy lives. For example, 42 percent reported having high blood pressure; 57 percent weren't physically active; and 12 percent were diabetic. High blood pressure and lack of physical activity are also among the conditions that increase the risk of mental decline.
No one would choose pain, diminished function and a loss of independence in his or her retirement years, but that's potentially the result of decisions people make every day. Do you smoke? Do you exercise? Is your diet healthy?
In an upcoming Special Investigations Unit program, "Chasing Life" (airs 8 p.m. ET April 14-15 on CNN), Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks at ways to live the longest, healthiest life possible. The leading killers - heart disease, cancer and stroke - are often preventable with healthy lifestyle choices. In the course of our research, one of the scientists interviewed said the goal should be to live like a light bulb, burning brightly until the day we go out.
It's a nice image.
Tell us about any lifestyle changes you've made to "chase life."
Including STDs in "The Talk"
It was a hot and sticky spring day in southern Ohio. A group of fifth-grade girls waited anxiously for "the movie." I was one of them. We giggled nervously as a female teacher led us into the gymnasium. Our moms were waiting. We sat down next to them in cold, metal chairs. The lights were turned off. The projector began to whirl. Birds and bees and ovaries and fallopian tubes filled the screen. We were on a journey toward womanhood, while the boys played kickball in the parking lot outside.
Like many Gen Xers, "the movie" was my first foray into the adult world of sex. When I was a kid, my parents and teachers did a good job of explaining "how babies are made," but I don't recall a substantial conversation about sexually transmitted diseases, beyond AIDS.
After the reaction medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and I received to our story about dating with a STD, we decided to take a look at an issue facing many parents: How do you talk to your kids about STDs?
If you don't think this will affect you and your family, consider this: One in four women will get herpes (one in five men will contract it), and at some point in their life - half of sexually active men and women will get the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer or genital warts.
So where do you start? I decided to talk with pediatrician Larissa Hirsch. She's a fellow in children's health media with KidsHealth.org. "Kids are having sex at younger and younger ages," Hirsch says. She says the conversation about sex and STDs should go hand in hand.
The doctor and her colleagues at KidsHealth.org have all kinds of great advice. Here are some of their top suggestions:
Thursday, March 08, 2007
How a medical producer avoids E. coli
As a medical producer, I have to dig beyond the headlines of the contaminated food articles that are the top stories in many newscasts and newspapers.
But as a consumer I face the same issues you do when you're standing in the supermarket trying to make healthy and safe food choices. Although available statistics do not show an overall increase in outbreaks, there have been more in produce than meat in recent years.
Since I try to eat a lot of salads, last year's E. coli outbreaks have made me wary of the lettuce and spinach that's available - especially since most of what I can buy in local supermarkets comes from the part of California where the recent E. coli outbreaks have been found.
The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many other food experts have lots of advice about what you can do to prevent food-borne illnesses.
Clean, separate, cook, chill... that's the mantra and it makes sense.
Clean: Washing your hands and surfaces and utensils with hot water and soap prevents cross-contamination.
Separate: Don't cut your veggies on the same cutting board as your chicken - if there are bacteria on the bird, they could be transferred to the produce, and unless you're boiling your salad, the bacteria won't be killed.
Cook: Thoroughly cooking your meat, poultry and eggs can save a lot of stomach pain. Using a food thermometer is the best guide. For someone who likes steak tartar, it's a hard pill to swallow. But it takes less than 100 E. coli bacteria to make you sick, so food needs to be cooked to temperatures high enough to kill harmful bacteria.
Chill: Refrigerate food quickly... because in a warm environment, the number of E. coli bacteria doubles every 20 to 30 minutes.
Another good tip one expert passed on: When it comes to making a "safe" salad, take a full head of lettuce and remove the outer leaves. They're a natural, protective barrier and where bacteria are most likely found. Once you remove the outer leaves, wash your hands so you don't transfer bacteria from the outer leaves to the untainted inner ones.
Have you changed your eating and shopping habits as a result of the recent bacteria outbreaks?
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
The human toll from E. coli
This past week, I had a chance to meet a family that was dramatically affected by the E. coli outbreak in spinach. Sure, like you, I heard the numbers. In fact, I reported that 204 people were affected and that three people had died. But those were numbers. There were real stories behind those numbers. So, who were these people? And, what happens to you if you are afflicted with the bad strain of E. coli? (Watch Video)
Well, seven months ago, Tiffany and Russell Erickson found themselves in the middle of the outbreak. Yes, they ate spinach contaminated with the 0157:H7 strain in Salt Lake City, Utah. The bacteria were then passed on to their two children. The parents recovered, but their 4-year-old child, Regan, became really sick.
He first developed nausea, and then strange puffiness. He started to have awful headaches and hypertension. He was developing one of the most devastating consequences of an E. coli contamination, something known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. His kidneys were shutting down and he needed dialysis. Again, all of this from spinach. He will recover and survive, but will most likely have problems for the rest of his life.
What is most difficult to comprehend is that our food is really no safer now than a year ago. The USDA and FDA are responsible for the food safety, but they have no definitive authority to recall food off the shelves - that is only done voluntarily. And, we have no way of knowing for sure that the food supply won't get contaminated again. Most people still don't worry about food safety, fully convinced it won't happen to them. The Erickson, family, though, used to think the same thing.
So, what do you think should be done to try and make our food supply safer?
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Heart attack or panic attack? Both require attention
When I was a medical student, I did a rotation on the psychiatry service at the University of Michigan. Most of the patients I saw were terribly debilitated by mental illness and required hospitalization, sometimes for weeks on end. Often, they had a long history of troubles and were besieged by their illness. Just by looking at these patients, you knew something was wrong.
I also saw a lot of patients who looked and acted perfectly normal. In fact, it was only after 15 to 30 minutes of questions did it become apparent that these patients suffered from crippling anxiety.
Without any specific reason, they'd begin to worry. A lot. Sometimes they would develop shortness of breath and a racing heart, again for no apparent reason. It can lead to substance abuse and depression. You can feel like you are dying. This morning, I profiled a man who fit that diagnosis exactly. Kevin Penwell was an All-American ball player, could run marathons, and had an MBA and the perfect job. One day out of the blue, he began to sweat profusely and started shaking. He told us he thought he was having a heart attack. He wasn't, but it sure felt like one.
Truth is, most people I have spoken to about this take me aside and say "Hey doc, I think that happened to me." Today, while I was doing a live shot on the topic, Miles O'Brien confided that he, too, had most likely suffered from a panic attack in the past. He's doing well today.
How about you? Have you ever suffered from a panic attack? How did you recognize it or treat it?
Monday, March 05, 2007
I benefited from PE - so should your kids...
Somewhere, in the back of my dresser drawer, along with my socks and old T-shirts, is a little white piece of cloth. It's a ribbon I won when I was in sixth grade, for placing third in the 100-yard dash at my school. To most people my age, that little memento would have been in the trash years ago, but I have held on to it for one reason. Until the time I received that ribbon, I had never been very good at sports.
You see, I was a chubby kid. Not obese, not heavy, just chubby and chubby kids just didn't get to play with the "big leaguers," especially when the "big leaguers" were other sixth-graders who were faster, stronger and thinner. I couldn't kick a ball very far, I never crossed the monkey bars without falling and I always became winded when I ran. But every day, I would go out to the playground for PE and try my best to improve, until one day I outran a girl in my class. Then I beat two others, then three more! I was invincible!!! I kept running. I started to gain more confidence, my weight began to drop and I was now a force to be reckoned with. Finally at the end of the year, our school held a Sports Day, sponsored by the President's Council on Physical Fitness. I ended up in the final pack of ten runners.
You know after all these years, I can still smell the air that day, feel the sun on my shoulders as I ran towards that finish line. I didn't win, but I placed and to me that was my greatest victory ever. I was a school-honored athlete. Since that time, I've won many awards, both in sports and in my professional life but that little white ribbon will always be my most prized possession.
Today, many of our schoolchildren will never have the chance to know the "thrill of victory" that I experienced. It's not because they aren't capable; they've just never been given the time or space to go out and play. With cuts to our schools' PE programs and lifestyles that promote indoor activities, many youngsters don't get as many opportunities to run, leap or jump. And that has caused a nation of heavy kids.
Now a coalition of private, public and non-profit groups including the YMCA and the National Recreation and Park Association have formed a partnership called "Play Every Day." Their goal is to make that sure every child in this country has the opportunity to get out and play at least 60 minutes every day. Sixty minutes is important, because doctors have found that keeping active for an hour can ward off heart disease and Type 2 diabetes in children.
Sixty minutes may sound easy, but it's not. That's because a lot of kids today are conditioned to watch TV or play video games during their free time. Their thumbs are the strongest muscles they have. Many parents are leery of letting their kids go to public playgrounds for safety reasons. And in some cases, new schools are being built without playgrounds, because of budget restrictions.
The group, which recently kicked off its campaign, hopes to provide money and ideas to create new programs and legislation that will make it easier for children to get off the couch and go back to the playground. Along with researchers from Stanford University, the coalition has come up with a "Community Play Index" that will measure or gauge which projects promote the most physical activity and whether they're worth funding .That means, for example, more money for school playgrounds, revenue for sidewalks for housing divisions that have only streets to play on, and funding for police presence at unsafe community parks.
The partnership hopes, if its efforts work, that more students will have the opportunity to get out, get going and get fit.
Do you know of programs in your community or schools that can help kids become more active? I'd like to hear about them.
Friday, March 02, 2007
A 'crackberry' intervention
I have a confession. I have an addiction -- to my Blackberry. It started innocently enough, checking and responding to e-mail in between tasks outside work, but soon, the little black machine controlled my life. Friends would be over. It would vibrate, and even though I knew it wasn't anything urgent, I HAD to check it. I couldn't relax. My mind was always at work. It was my crack. Soon, I was "using" while driving. I almost hit an empty school bus. A few months ago, I "bottomed out" at church. My "crackberry" went off during the sermon. My sweetie gave me "the look." Game over. The time had come for an intervention. The conversation was a blur, but I do remember he used the words "respect," "being in the moment" and "sledgehammer."
Recently, I've been thinking about e-mail and mental health. I decide to call time-management expert Peter "the Time Man" Turla (www.timeman.com) for advice. Peter says many people he advises complain that there is a lot of activity in their day and not a lot accomplished. He puts much of the blame on useless e-mail. He says many people use it as an escape. "It's like stomping on ants instead of going after elephants," says Peter. He has a number of great suggestions, which you can find on his Web site. Here are a few.
1) KEEP YOUR BUSINESS E-MAIL AS LEAN AS POSSIBLE -- Create folders for different topics. For example, if you are on a newsletter list, make a file for newsletters. Or if you have a colleague that overdoes it on the e-mail, make a file for messages from him or her. That way, you can look at them on your own time.
2) COLOR CODE INCOMING MAILS --Use specific colors for mails from certain people.
3) ESTABLISH REGULAR TIMES TO CHECK YOUR E-MAIL -- You might check it, for example, first thing when you get into the office and respond to the important ones, then check it every couple of hours for the rest of the day.
4) HAVE E-MAIL FREE FRIDAYS -- This isn't one of Peter's, but it's something we've started to do around our office. On Fridays you can send and respond to e-mails only if it's urgent. Otherwise, you should pick up the phone (what a novel idea!) or set your e-mail to "send" it on Monday. It's made a huge difference in my life.
E-mail isn't going away. But we can "manage" it, not have it "manage" us. I am curious - do you share my frustrations? What do you do? I look forward to reading your response, when I check my e-mail ... on Monday.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
STDs and the single girl (and guy)!
CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and I have been impressed with all the response we've received regarding our story on dating with a sexually transmitted disease (STD). (Full Story)
So many people have commented on Jennifer's bravery and the fact that by telling her story, they no longer feel alone. It is our hope that her honesty will lead to an authentic and substantive conversation about STD's and dating (Watch Video)
We've also received a few emails saying there is much more to discuss. We agree, but unfortunately, there is only so much time on TV.
That's the great thing about the internet. We open the forum to you. .... What is it like to live .. to date ... with a STD?
Stinky vegetable stinks at lowering cholesterol
One of my favorite studies this week found that "garlic stinks" at lowering cholesterol levels. At least that's how the Stanford press release put it. Having grown up near Gilroy, California, the self-proclaimed "Garlic Capital of the World," I have fond memories of the early morning fragrance at harvest time, and I know that garlic is big business. A U.C. Davis publication says that each person in the United States ate an average 2.6 pounds of garlic in 2004, and that U.S. garlic exports exceeded $21 million in the same year.
Garlic's supposed health benefits have been widely touted, including claims that it lowers blood pressure, fights cancer, prevents heart disease and has antifungal properties. Unfortunately, many of the results have been produced only in animals and in Petri dishes.
The Stanford study sought to test in humans whether any of three different forms of garlic would lower LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels at least 10 points in people with moderately high LDL levels. Participants were fed sandwiches and tablets for six months, and they were required to maintain their weight and keep food logs, so that lower cholesterol couldn't be attributed to weight loss. They got the equivalent of one clove of garlic six times per week for six months. Some received placebos. After six months on the regimen, none of the garlic produced significant effects on LDL levels.
Senior study author Christopher Gardner said he was both surprised and disappointed. Had he proved that garlic lowered LDL, he imagined, he'd have been given the key to the city of Gilroy and proclaimed "garlic king" with a vanity license plate. He hasn't ruled out conducting clinical trials to study other medical uses for garlic - perhaps its power on blood pressure, cancer, or heart disease.
For now, Gardner says we shouldn't give up garlic-laced hummus, pesto or Asian stir fry. He notes that garlic can be part of basic healthy eating. It simply doesn't seem to lower your cholesterol.
I'm not giving up garlic, and I am not giving up on Gardner's dream of getting the key to Gilroy.
Have you tried garlic as a health supplement? Did you feel any benefits?
ABOUT THE BLOGGet a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends -- info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
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