Thursday, January 8, 2015

Is Your Late-Night Screen Time Keeping You From Sleeping?

Lots of people don't get enough sleep these days, and there's growing evidence that smartphones and other digital devices may be contributing to the problem.

Part of the trouble is what people are reading or viewing. Consuming content that gets us excited (whether it's a thriller novel or a troubling news story, in print or on a screen) can delay sleep by causing us to lay awake thinking about whatever it is we've read or seen.

alarm clock
Are your digital devices keeping you awake? (Photo: Evil saltine, Wikipedia.)

But now scientists have found another reason why it may not be a good idea to be on our laptops, smartphones, or tablets right before bedtime: the light the gadget gives off may be keeping us from dozing off, and from feeling well rested the next day. A recent Harvard study has found that people who read before bed using a tablet or other e-reader gadget "felt less sleepy and took longer to fall asleep than when they read a regular printed book, researchers found," according to WebMD.

What's more, these people had more trouble waking up and gaining full alertness than they did after reading an old-fashioned printed book, even though they slept the same amount.

The reason? The study, published Dec. 22nd in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the light from these devices suppresses melatonin, the natural hormone that helps regulate our sleep and waking cycles. These screens give off a lot of light in the blue wavelength, which previous studies have shown to heighten alertness and suppress melatonin.

It's fine for us to be soaking in these wavelengths in the daytime, when we want to be awake and productive, but this light isn't so good right before we want to sleep. Especially if we're being exposed to it night after night. The researchers suggest that people in the habit of reading before bed reach for a paper book instead of a tablet or other electronic device, or use unlighted ebook readers.

What else can you do to sleep better if you just can't wean yourself off the electronic devices? We'll discuss at that in our next post, and also look at some tech devices that can actually help you sleep.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Endometriosis: New Hope for a Common (But Not Commonly Discussed) Condition

You won't often hear about endometriosis on the nightly news, or even in the health section of newspapers and websites. But this gynecological condition—in which the type of tissue that lines a woman's uterus (the endometrium) grows in other, nearby parts of the body—is much more common than you'd think. And much more debilitating.

(Read about one woman's experience with the disease in "What I Wish Everyone Knew About Endometriosis."

As some recent news reports have pointed out, though, there may be new hope on the horizon for understanding endometriosis.

Blausen 0349 Endometriosis
Illustration of endometriosis. Source: BruceBlaus, Wikimedia Commons.

Endometriosis sufferers can face years or even decades of pelvic pain, inflammation, infertility, and a search for relief. The endometrial tissue can grow in areas like the ovaries, Fallopian tubes, outer surface of the uterus, and pelvic cavity lining. The tissue can form scarring that can cause adhesions between surfaces like the bladder and bowel.

With endometriosis, patients can experience a range of agonizing and potentially embarrassing problems, from pain during sex to extremely painful menstrual cramps, back pain, painful urination or bowel movements, and constipation or diarrhea.
To make the situation even more frustrating, researchers don't understand exactly what the causes of endometriosis are. And patients and even doctors may be reluctant to talk about it.

But as a recent New Yorker article notes, in recent years there's been news of an interesting collaboration that may shed important light on the origins of the disease (the article is well worth reading for its explanation of endometriosis and the issues involved in understanding its causes and treating it).

Linda Griffith, a biological engineer at M.I.T. (who has undergone a number of operations to treat her endometriosis), has teamed up with Keith Isaacson, a gynecologist and surgeon at Newton Wellesley Hospital Center (who has performed some of those procedures on Griffith), and the two are working to find some answers.

A few years ago they were named co-directors of a new institution for studying gynecological disorders, the M.I.T. Center for Gynopathology Research. The Center's website says that it "brings new frontiers of engineering to bear on understanding the basic biology, physiology, and pathophysiology of the female reproductive tract, in collaboration with biologists and clinicians."

(Watch the Linda Griffith video: "New Insight to Endometriosis Through Tissue Engineering and Systems Biology" [Eight minutes]. )

In an M.I.T. video (above) Griffith notes that in all women, bits of the uterine lining spread to the abdominal cavity during their menstrual cycle. So why does this cause problems in approximately 10% of women? This is one of the key questions the Center is examining.

As the New Yorker article notes, several months ago Griffith, Isaacson, and other authors published a paper that "analyzed how a whole network of cells and molecules interacts in some patients to cause inflammation, which triggers pain and may also spur the disease’s progression. They also identified ways in which new drugs might someday help to quiet that signalling."

Find out more about the M.I.T. Center for Gynopathology Research's current investigations here, which include endometriosis, adenomyosis, and infertility.

To find more information on endometriosis:
* Daily Strength endomeriosis support group
* Endometriosis Foundation of America
* From the Mayo Clinic: endometriosis symptoms, risk factors, complications, and treatments.
* FAQs about endometriosis from

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Health Notes: New Thinking on Fats & CVD; Alzheimer's Deaths Widely Underreported; Colon Cancer Rates Drop

 Above: Photomicrograph of the distal right coronary artery, showing complex atherosclerosis (thickening of the artery wall due to the accumulation of calcium and fatty deposits). Photo: Nephron, Wikimedia Commons.

We've been away for a long time, but now we're back to report on some new findings that shed a new light on some long-held medical beliefs.

* New study casts doubt on the link between saturated fats and heart disease. Saturated fats are a major contributor to heart disease, we've long been told. Not so fast, says a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. As explained in an article by the CBC, the researchers draws on more than 70 studies to conclude that "Current evidence does not clearly support guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats."

In addition, two studies have found that taking daily fish oil supplements may not help your heart health, either. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil supplements "showed consistently little or no significant effect on reducing coronary heart disease events," said the lead author of one of the studies.

* Alzheimer's deaths may be five times more than reported. Cases of Alzheimer disease are projected to grow dramatically in the coming years, but the disease may already be causing many more deaths than are reflected in the official stats. Researchers at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center say that hhis is because death certificates often neglect to mention Alzheimer as a contributing cause of death. The new numbers would make Alzheimer disease the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

What's more, a new report from the Alzheimer's Association says that women over 60 "have a 1 in 6 chance of getting Alzheimer's disease in their lifetime, and are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's compared with breast cancer.

* Colon cancer rates decline sharply. The incidence of colorectal cancer, one of the most deadly forms of the disease, is down more than 30% among Americans due to increased use of colonoscopy for screening. "Xolonoscopy rates among adults ages 50 to 75 rose steeply — from 19 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2010," says an article in drawing on a study from the American Cancer Society.

The decrease was highest among older people: those 50 and older saw a decrease in colon cancer of 3.9% per year. There was bad news for younger people, however, as there's been a 1.1% per increase in colon cancer in persons under 50.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Health Notes: Genetic Links Seen Between Depression, Autism, & other Disorders; Mind-Reading Rats; Public's Help Sought in Curing Cancer; More

Some interesting news from the world of health and medicine:

* Scientists see link in depression and four other disorders: Five disparate mental-health disorders may have a common genetic link, according to a new study that's getting lots of attention. The research has found that a number of genes are shared by people who have major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The study was published in the edition of The Lancet publishing on Wednesday (abstract).

The researchers found that "four spots in the genome that were more common among those with psychiatric disease, two of which occurred in genes involved in communication between brain cells," according to an article in the Boston Globe. Also, "They also found that genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most overlap."
They also found that genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most overlap. - See more at:
They also found that genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most overlap. - See more at:
four spots in the genome that were more common among those with psychiatric disease, two of which occurred in genes involved in communication between brain cells. - See more at:
found four spots in the genome that were more common among those with psychiatric disease, two of which occurred in genes involved in communication between brain cells.
They also found that genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most overlap.
- See more at:
found four spots in the genome that were more common among those with psychiatric disease, two of which occurred in genes involved in communication between brain cells.
They also found that genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most overlap.
- See more at:
found four spots in the genome that were more common among those with psychiatric disease, two of which occurred in genes involved in communication between brain cells.
They also found that genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had the most overlap.
- See more at:

Telepathic rats? See for yourself.

* "First mind-reading implant gives rats telepathic power": Now there's a headline that'll get your attention. The New Scientist articles reports that "The world's first brain-to-brain connection has given rats the power to communicate by thought alone."

Although this is an exciting development in brain research (rats on different continents were even able to communicate via the Internet), the article notes that  "the exact information being communicated between the rats' brains is not clear."

* Tech giants seek public's help for cancer cure: British cancer researchers are joining forces with Google,, and Facebook to enlist the public's assistance in finding cures for cancer. Cancer Research U.K. is teaming up with the tech firms to get the public to perform tasks that can help in efforts such as "working out the exact sequence of a tumor's DNA,"according to a BBC News article.

Programmers, game designers, and others are set to meet this week to figure out how to create a game-life way to put the collective eyeballs and computer power of everyday citizens to solve problems in cancer research. The concept is similar to volunteer-computer efforts from the BOINC project, such as SETI@Home and medical-related endeavors such as RNA World and It's hoped the project will be up and running by summer.

* Coronary calcium indicates stroke risk: A coronary artery calcification score can predict the risk of stroke, independent of other factors, at least in cases of people with lower risk of cardiovascular disease. An article in MedPage Today says that this may or may not change how clinicians work, since it's already been established that stroke and coronary artery disease have some of the same disease processes.

What's more, the measure of calcification is done by an electron-beam CT scan, so any potential benefit of the rest must be weighed against the additional radiation exposure.

Friday, February 1, 2013

FDA Panel Seeks New Limits on Powerful Painkiller Hydrocodone

An advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended that the agency put tighter restrictions on the common painkiller hydrocodone, an ingredient in brand-name drugs such as Vicodin. The vote of the panel was 19-10: a majority to be sure, but certainly not unanimous.

Hydrocodone/paracetamol tablets
Hydrocodone/paracetamol 5/500 tablets (Mallinckrodt). Photo: Elbreapoly

The panel is calling for hydrocodone, an opioid, to be made a Schedule II drug, which will place it in the same category as morphine, fentanyl, and oxycodone. Hydrocodone is currently in Schedule III.The FDA is likely to follow the panel's advice, according to the New York Times. The agency is seeking to limit widespread abuse of painkillers; the Times article notes that the number of deaths from pain drugs has increased fourfold since 1999.

Among other things, being in the more restrictive Schedule II would mean that hydrocodone prescriptions would be harder to refill (a patient would need to get a new prescription to get a refill). The drug could also not be obtained by faxed prescriptions.

Hydrocodone is the most frequently prescribed pain medication in the U.S., and some experts say it is because of the misconception in the medical community that it is not as dangerous or addictive as Schedule II drugs such as Percocet or methadone.

Other professionals question whether putting hydrocodone in Schedule II would actually limit its abuse, and may make it harder to obtain for patients suffering from pain.

The FDA panel is hoping to make the nation's most-prescribed painkiller less of a killer.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2013 Flu Outbreak: Know the Signs & Protect Yourself

The 2012-2013 flu season is shaping up to be a very bad one, with widespread flu "activity" reported in 47 states, according to the CDC. New York became the latest state to declare a public health emergency due to the epidemic, but some areas may begin to see fewer cases.

Below the Google flu map are some ways to protect yourself from getting the flu and, failing that, keep it from getting worse if you do get it.

Google flu map
Google's flu map shows data from around the world.

* First off, get a flu shot. You can find out where in your area to get one by using the HealthMap flu-shot finder at the American Lung Association website. Just enter your zip code and find a location that's near you. (And no, even though it's January, it's definitely not too late to get your shot for this season.) See this CDC Q&A on the flu shot.

* See the CDC's flu prevention page for tips on how to avoid getting the flu. You'll recognize most of the commonsense guidelines, which include:
  • wash your hands often with soap and water or a an alcohol-based hand sanitizer; 
  • try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth (these are the prime entry points for germs); 
  • and try not to get too close to people who are already sick
Door handles, bathroom fixtures, ATM keypads, and the like harbor abundant number of germs; try touching them only with a paper towel. Also: Computer keyboards are also home to a mind-boggling array of germs. If you have to access a shared keyboard, wipe it down with one of those alcohol-based sheets.

* What if you've gotten the flu already? You probably know the drill: get lots of sleep, drink plenty of fluids, take medication to reduce the fever if you have it, etc. See the Red Cross's information sheet (PDF) for more tips on what to do if you get the flu.

Google is once again doing its Google flu map (see above), which it has done for several years now, so you can see the relative amount of flu activity across the U.S. and around the world.

For some good information (with a humorous touch) on avoiding the flu, see this article from Digital First Media. It includes advice such as getting more sex (it may boost your immune system), avoiding the flu by pretending you're a detective; and even a link to 50 ways to spend your sick day.

Get your flu shot, and stay healthy out there.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fungal Meningitis Outbreak Spreads; 11 Now Dead

More victims are turning up in the growing outbreak of fungal meningitis linked to drugs from a company in Massachusetts. More than 13,000 people have gotten fungus-contaminated injections of a steroid that they were given to relieve pain (most in the back), and 119 have come down with the fungal infection in their cerebrospinal fluid. The list of infected individuals spans 11 states.

CDC fungal meningitis fact sheet
The CDC has a patient FAQ for the fungal meningitis outbreak.

To date, 11 of the victims have died. But the number of people infected as well as the number of deaths can be expected to grow, since it can take up to a month for fungal meningitis symptoms to present, and delays can take place in reporting the illness.

The drug involved is preservative-free methylprednisolone acetate, and injections of the potentially contaminated lot were given starting May 21st, 2012. All of the cases result from a product manufactured by a compounding pharmacy, New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts, which has recalled the tainted product as well as the other drugs it produces. (See the complete list of NECC products being recalled [PDF file].)

The CDC has reported that the type of meningitis involved is not contagious. See the CDC's patient information page for the fungal meningitis outbreak for questions and answers about the disease and this outbreak, including the symptoms.

The CDC says that patients should talk to their doctor as soon as possible if they've had an epidural steroid injection since May 21, 2012 and have any of the following symptoms:
  • New or worsening headache
  • Fever
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stiff neck
  • New weakness or numbness in any part of your body
  • Slurred speech
  • Increased pain, redness or swelling at your injection site
A WebMD article posted today has more details on the outbreak and on fungal meningitis symptoms.

A report on CNN tonight (Oct. 9th) said that unlike traditional drugmakers, compounding pharmacies aren't regulated by the federal government. What do these pharmacies do? "Compound pharmacists create customized medication solutions for patients for whom manufactured pharmaceuticals won't work, according to the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists," said the print version of the CNN report.

[UPDATE, Oct.10th: As another person died from fungal meningitis, calls have grown for FDA oversight of compounded drugs, says a story from ABC News.]