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Do weighted blankets help with insomnia?

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Insomnia is a sleep disorder that affects approximately 10% of adults in the United States. It is characterized by difficulty with falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or waking up too early, at least three times per week for a period of three months or more. Contrary to some beliefs that insomnia will get better by itself over time, evidence suggests that it will persist if not actively treated. In one study, 37.5% of patients with insomnia reported that their insomnia was still a problem five years later.

What are common treatment options used for insomnia?

Perhaps the most common nonpharmacological intervention used for insomnia is something called sleep hygiene. It describes a series of good sleep habits to engage in (such as keeping your bedroom quiet at night) and ones to avoid (turning off electronic devices before going to bed).

Unfortunately, as many patients know, sleep hygiene is not a very effective treatment for insomnia when implemented by itself. When sleep hygiene is used as one part of a multimodal approach, such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, it can be an effective complement to other important strategies. While cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is recommended as the gold-standard treatment by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American College of Physicians, finding a clinician with expertise in behavioral sleep medicine can be a challenge — even via telemedicine.

Integrative treatment approaches are popular

Many people are interested in pursuing other treatment options for insomnia that do not involve prescription medications. Increasing evidence suggests that a number of approaches may be beneficial, including mindfulness-based practices and mind-body movement practices like yoga. Some people may use dietary supplements such as valerian, melatonin, chamomile, and cannabis, though evidence is more limited regarding their efficacy. You should always tell your doctor if you are taking any dietary supplements, as these may interact with other prescription medications.

An integrative option for people with insomnia and a psychiatric disorder

Insomnia is a common issue for people with a psychiatric disorder, possibly because of overlapping neurobiology. For example, someone with insomnia is 10 times more likely than someone without insomnia to also have depression. Among patients receiving psychiatric care, compression and weight have been used therapeutically. It has been hypothesized that the calming (and possibly sleep-promoting) effects of such an approach may be similar to what is experienced with acupressure or massage.

A team of researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden conducted a study to determine whether a weighted metal chain blanket could improve insomnia symptoms compared to a light plastic chain blanket. They recruited outpatients with elevated insomnia symptoms who were being treated for one of several mood disorders: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a weighted metal chain blanket or a light blanket with plastic chains that were sewn on, which were the same shape and size as the metal chains on the weighted blanket. Those who were provided with a weighted metal chain blanket first tried on an 8-kilogram (17.6 pound) blanket. If this was too heavy, a 6-kilogram (13.2 pound) blanket was then provided. Over a four-week period, their sleep was assessed using surveys and a wrist-based device called an actigraph.

What did the researchers learn?

Participants who used the weighted metal chain blanket reported that their insomnia symptom severity declined significantly, while those who had used the light blanket did not experience such notable improvements. Furthermore, depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms decreased much more for those who used the weighted blanket than those who used the light blanket. This secondary finding is consistent with other work showing that interventions designed to treat insomnia can have a meaningful impact on mood.

These promising findings are tempered by data showing that there were no significant improvements to key insomnia metrics, such as the amount of time spent awake after falling asleep, when sleep was tracked objectively using the actigraph. Other research conducted in children has also failed to demonstrate that weighted blankets significantly change sleep outcomes when measured using an actigraph.

Should you buy a weighted blanket?

While these findings are intriguing, more research is needed. It is important to note that there is a very real placebo effect for insomnia symptoms. This means that if you are someone who believes a weighted blanket could have a positive effect on your sleep tonight… well, it's quite possible that it will. For healthy adults, weighted blankets are considered safe as long as the individual can lift the blanket off when necessary. Because sleep is such a subjective experience, the cost of a weighted blanket may be money well spent — as long as you don’t forget that there are other options available to treat insomnia, with much more research data to support their effectiveness.

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How to stay strong and coordinated as you age

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So many physical abilities decline with normal aging, including strength, swiftness, and stamina. In addition to these muscle-related declines, there are also changes that occur in coordinating the movements of the body. Together, these changes mean that as you age, you may not be able to perform activities such as running to catch a bus, walking around the garden, carrying groceries into the house, keeping your balance on a slippery surface, or playing catch with your grandchildren as well as you used to. But do these activities have to deteriorate? Let’s look at why these declines happen — and what you can do to actually improve your strength and coordination.

Changes in strength

Changes in strength, swiftness, and stamina with age are all associated with decreasing muscle mass. Although there is not much decline in your muscles between ages 20 and 40, after age 40 there can be a decline of 1% to 2% per year in lean body mass and 1.5% to 5% per year in strength.

The loss of muscle mass is related to both a reduced number of muscle fibers and a reduction in fiber size. If the fibers become too small, they die. Fast-twitch muscle fibers shrink and die more rapidly than others, leading to a loss of muscle speed. In addition, the capacity for muscles to undergo repair also diminishes with age. One cause of these changes is decline in muscle-building hormones and growth factors including testosterone, estrogen, dehydroepiandrosterone (better known as DHEA), growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor.

Changes in coordination

Changes in coordination are less related to muscles and more related to the brain and nervous system. Multiple brain centers need to be, well, coordinated to allow you to do everything from hitting a golf ball to keeping a coffee cup steady as you walk across a room. This means that the wiring of the brain, the so-called white matter that connects the different brain regions, is crucial.

Unfortunately, most people in our society over age 60 who eat a western diet and don’t get enough exercise have some tiny "ministrokes" (also called microvascular or small vessel disease) in their white matter. Although the strokes are so small that they are not noticeable when they occur, they can disrupt the connections between important brain coordination centers such as the frontal lobe (which directs movements) and the cerebellum (which provides on-the-fly corrections to those movements as needed).

In addition, losing dopamine-producing cells is common as you get older, which can slow down your movements and reduce your coordination, so even if you don’t develop Parkinson’s disease, many people develop some of the abnormalities in movement seen in Parkinson's.

Lastly, changes in vision — the "eye" side of hand-eye coordination — are also important. Eye diseases are much more common in older adults, including cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. In addition, mild difficulty seeing can be the first sign of cognitive disorders of aging, including Lewy body disease and Alzheimer’s.

How to improve your strength and coordination

It turns out that one of the most important causes of reduced strength and coordination with aging is simply reduced levels of physical activity. There is a myth in our society that it is fine to do progressively less exercise the older you get. The truth is just the opposite! As you age, it becomes more important to exercise regularly — perhaps even increasing the amount of time you spend exercising to compensate for bodily changes in hormones and other factors that you cannot control. The good news is that participating in exercises to improve strength and coordination can help people of any age. (Note, however, that you may need to be more careful with your exercise activities as you age to prevent injuries. If you’re not sure what the best types of exercises are for you, ask your doctor or a physical therapist.)

Here are some things you can do to improve your strength and coordination, whether you are 18 or 88 years old:

  • Participate in aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, biking, swimming, or aerobic classes at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week.
  • Participate in exercise that helps with strength, balance, and flexibility at least two hours per week, such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and isometric weightlifting.
  • Practice sports that you want to improve at, such as golf, tennis, and basketball.
  • Take advantage of lessons from teachers and advice from coaches and trainers to improve your exercise skills.
  • Work with your doctor to treat diseases that can interfere with your ability to exercise, including orthopedic injuries, cataracts and other eye problems, and Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.
  • Fuel your brain and muscles with a Mediterranean menu of foods including fish, olive oil, avocados, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and poultry. Eat other foods sparingly.
  • Sleep well — you can actually improve your skills overnight while you are sleeping.

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Harvard Health Ad Watch: An upbeat ad for a psoriasis treatment

Psoriasis is a chronic disease in which skin cells rapidly divide, causing the skin to develop rough, red, scaly patches. Plaque psoriasis is the most common form: affected skin has sharply defined, inflamed patches (plaques) with silvery or white scales, often near an elbow or on the shins and trunk.

The cause of psoriasis isn’t known, but there are a number of treatment options. Possibly you’ve seen a glossy, happy ad for one of these treatments, a drug called Skyrizi. It’s been in heavy rotation and in 2020, hit number four on a top 10 list for ad spending by a drug company.

Splashing in blue water

A woman in a bathing suit sprints down a dock and jumps into the water with several friends. There’s lots of smiling and splashing. A voiceover says “I have moderate to severe plaque psoriasis. Now, there’s Skyrizi. Three out of four people achieved 90% clearer skin at four months after just two doses.”

Then, the voiceover moves to warning mode: “Skyrizi may increase your risk of infections and lower your ability to fight them. Before treatment your doctor should check you for infections and tuberculosis. Tell your doctor if you have an infection or symptoms such as fever, sweats, chills, muscle aches, or cough, or if you plan to or recently received a vaccine.”

As these warnings are delivered, we’re treated to uplifting pop music — “nothing is everything,” a woman sings — while attractive young people flail about in the water.

“Ask your doctor about Skyrizi,” a voice instructs. Did I mention a plane is skywriting the drug’s logo? I guess it’s putting the “sky” in Skyrizi.

What is Skyrizi?

Skyrizi (risankizumab) is an injectable medication that counteracts interleukin-23, a chemical messenger closely involved in the development of psoriasis. The standard dosing is two injections to start, followed a month later by two injections once a month, and then two injections once every three months.

Did you catch that “injectable” part? This is not a pill. If you missed that point while watching the commercial, it’s not your fault. The word “injection” appears once, written in faint letters at the very end of the commercial.

By the way, the FDA has only approved this drug for moderate to severe — not mild — plaque psoriasis. The studies earning approval enrolled people with psoriasis on at least 10% of their skin and two separate measures of severity.

What the ad gets right

  • The ad states that 75% of people with moderate to severe psoriasis experienced 90% clearance of their rash within four months after only two doses of Skyrizi. This reflects the findings of research studies (such as this one) that led to the drug’s approval.
  • The recommendations regarding screening for infections (including tuberculosis) and telling your doctor if you’ve gotten a recent vaccine are appropriate and should be standard practice. By lowering the ability to fight infection, this drug can make current infections worse. It may reduce the benefit of certain vaccines, or increase the risk of infection when a person gets a certain type of vaccine called a live-attenuated vaccine.

And the theme song? People with visible psoriasis often cover up their skin due to embarrassment or stigma. The rash isn’t a contagious infection or a reflection of poor health, but other people may react as if it is. So, an effective treatment could potentially allow some to forego covering up and show more skin: it means “everything” to someone suffering with psoriasis to cover “nothing.” Thus, a theme song is born.

What else do you need to know?

A few things about this ad may be confusing or incomplete, including:

  • Currently, each dose of Skyrizi is actually two injections. So, a more accurate way to summarize its effectiveness would be to say that improvement occurred within four months after four injections (rather than “just two doses”).
  • Like most newer injectable medications, this one is quite expensive: a year's supply could cost nearly $70,000. The drug maker offers a patient assistance program for people with low income or limited health insurance, but not everyone qualifies. Health insurance plans generally require justification from your doctor for medications like Skyrizi, and your insurer may decide not to cover it. Even if covered, this prior approval process can delay starting the medication, which may still be expensive due to copays and/or deductibles.
  • There is no mention of the many other options to treat psoriasis, some of which are far less costly. These include medications that do not have to be injected (such as oral methotrexate or apremilast), and UV light therapy (phototherapy). And there are other injectable medications. So, ask your doctor about the best options for you.

The bottom line

Some people appreciate the information provided by medication ads. Others favor a ban on such advertising, as is the case in most other countries. And recently, two advocacy groups asked the FDA not to allow drug ads to play music when the risks of drug side effects are presented, arguing that it distracts consumers from focusing on this important information.

Since these ads probably are not going away anytime soon, keep in mind that they may spin information in a positive light and leave out other important information altogether. So, be skeptical and ask questions. Get your medication information from your doctor or another unbiased, authoritative source, not a company selling a product.

Regardless of how you feel about medical advertising, it’s hard to hate the Skyrizi theme song. Feel free to sing along.

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A new targeted treatment for early-stage breast cancer?

In the US, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Each year, an estimated 270,000 women — and a far smaller number of men — are diagnosed with it. When caught in early stages, it’s usually highly treatable.

A promising new form of targeted treatment may expand options available to some women with early-stage breast cancer linked to specific genetic glitches. (Early-stage cancers have not spread to distant organs or tissues in the body.)

The BRCA gene: What does it do?

You may have heard the term BRCA (BReast CAncer) genes, which refers to BRCA1 and BRCA2genes. Normally, BRCA genes help repair damage to our DNA (genetic code) that occurs regularly in cells throughout the human body.

Inherited BRCA mutations are abnormal changes in these genes that are passed on from a parent to a child. When a person has a BRCA mutation, their body cannot repair routine DNA damage to cells as easily. This accumulating damage to cells may help pave a path leading to cancer. Having a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation — or both — puts a person at higher risk for cancer of the breast, ovaries, prostate, or pancreas; or for melanoma. A person’s risk for breast cancer can also be affected by other gene mutations and other factors.

Overall, just 3% to 5% of all women with breast cancer have mutations in BRCAgenes. However, BRCA mutations occur more often in certain groups of people, such as those with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, a strong family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, and younger women with breast cancer.

Inherited BRCA mutations and breast cancer types

Certain types of breast cancer are commonly found in women with BRCA gene mutations.

  • Estrogen receptor-positive, HER2-negative cancer: Women with a BRCA2 mutation usually develop ER+/HER2- breast cancer — that is, cancer cells that are fueled by the hormone estrogen but not by a protein known as HER2 (human epidermal growth factor 2).
  • Triple negative breast cancer: Women with a BRCA1 mutation tend to develop triple negative breast cancer (ER-/PR-/HER2-) — that is, cancer cells that aren’t fueled by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, or by HER2.

Knowing what encourages different types of breast cancer to grow helps scientists develop new treatments, and helps doctors choose available treatments to slow or stop tumor growth. Often this involves a combination of treatments.

A new medicine aimed at early-stage BRCA-related breast cancers

The OlympiA trial enrolled women with early-stage breast cancer and inherited BRCA1/BRCA2 mutations. All were at high risk for breast cancer recurrence despite standard treatments.

Study participants had received standard therapies for breast cancer:

  • surgery (a mastectomy or lumpectomy)
  • chemotherapy (given either before or after surgery)
  • possibly radiation
  • possibly hormone-blocking treatment known as endocrine therapy.

They were randomly assigned to take pills twice a day containing olaparib or a placebo (sugar pills) for one year.

Olaparib belongs to a class of medicines called PARP inhibitors. PARP (poly adenosine diphosphate-ribose polymerase) is an enzyme that normally helps repair DNA damage. Blocking this enzyme in BRCA-mutated cancer cells causes the cells to die from increased DNA damage.

Results from this study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Women who received olaparib were less likely to have breast cancer recur or metastasize (spread to distant organs or tissues) than women taking placebo. Follow-up at an average of two and a half years showed that slightly more than 85% of women who had received olaparib were alive and did not have a cancer recurrence, or a new second cancer, compared with 77% of women treated with placebo.

Further, the researchers estimated that at three years:

  • The likelihood that cancer would not spread to distant organs or tissues was nearly 88% with olaparib, compared to 80% with placebo.
  • The likelihood of survival was 92% for the olaparib-treated group and 88% for the placebo group.

The side effects of olaparib include low white cell count, low red cell count, and tiredness. The chances of developing these were low.

The bottom line

Olaparib is already approved by the FDA to treat BRCA-related cancers of the ovaries, pancreas, or prostate, and metastatic breast cancer. FDA approval for early-stage breast cancer that is BRCA-related is expected soon based on this study. These findings suggest taking olaparib for a year after completing standard treatment could be a good option for women who have early-stage breast cancer and an inherited BRCA gene mutation who are at high risk for cancer recurrence and, possibly, its spread.

Follow me on Twitter @NeelamDesai_MD

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Caring for an aging parent? Tips for enjoying holiday meals

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The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, and the meal is a centerpiece of the occasion. But when you’re a caregiver for an aging parent, the joy can be overshadowed by stress.

Whether you’re observing winter holidays — such as Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or New Year’s Eve — or holidays that fall during another time of year, take steps in advance to ensure that you and your loved one can enjoy the meal together with as little stress as possible. These tips can help.

Consider the dining schedule

Your mom or dad might normally eat at a different time than the planned holiday meal. If the meal times don’t match, give your parent a nutritious snack to stave off hunger, or find out if it’s possible to serve the holiday meal at a time that’s good for your parent. If other festivities are on the docket, consider that timing as well. Your parent likely has a limited amount of energy to spend visiting with others, so allow plenty of time to eat.

Serve your parent easy-to-eat food

Holiday meals often feature special-occasion foods that may be overly rich or hard for your parent to cut, chew, swallow, or keep on a fork or spoon. Talk about this beforehand, if that’s possible. Know which foods your parent should avoid, such as nuts. Serve safer choices in small amounts, and help by cutting up hard-to-eat foods before they come to the table or arrive on a plate.

Another option is serving something simple for your parent to eat that won’t need much supervision and won’t make a mess. Rice or fine pasta with vegetables, pureed beef or fish stew (no bones!), or mashed root vegetables and beans are some examples. If you’re not hosting the holiday event, ask if it’s okay to bring a meal that’s right for your parent.

Remember medicines

If your parent normally takes prescribed drugs at meals, don’t let this holiday be a time to get off schedule. Go over the medication list in advance and set a timer on your phone to remind you of dosing times.

Work in shifts with other guests

Have a conversation ahead of time with other guests who can help. When assisting a parent during a meal, you may not get much of a chance to eat your own food or chat with people at the table. Build in a break by arranging for another guest (perhaps a sibling) to take a turn helping out.

Plan the bathroom break

When you have to go, you have to go. And aging parents, like young children, sometimes need to excuse themselves mid-bite. A bathroom trip before the meal might reduce that risk, but it’s no guarantee. Work out in advance who’s going to assist your parent if nature’s call arrives during the meal.

Keep fluids handy

Make sure your parent is staying hydrated and getting enough fluids before, during, and after the meal. Also, keep an extra glass of water handy, and a straw if necessary, in case your parent is having a hard time swallowing food. Note also that moistened food is easier to swallow, so consider adding a little extra sauce to a parent’s meal.

Watch alcohol intake

While alcohol may be offered at the holiday meal, it doesn’t mean it will be safe for your parent. Alcohol consumption can lead to falls in older adults, and can interfere with medications. Ask your parent’s doctor if a little libation is allowed. such as a half-glass of wine. If not, consider offering your parent non-alcoholic beer, wine, or champagne if they’d like it. And mind your own alcohol intake: while you’re acting as a caregiver you’ll need to stay in control.

Arrange your parent’s exit well in advance

Gatherings can be tiring and stressful for older adults, and your parent might be ready to leave before the holiday meal officially concludes, especially if guests linger. Decide on a realistic exit time and let other guests know about it in advance, so everyone can plan accordingly.

If all goes well, you and your parent will both enjoy the holiday meal and wind up feeling the glow of meaningful family connection, sharing, and love — all of which are great for health.

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Anti-inflammatory food superstars for every season

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Berries and watermelon in the summer, kale and beets in the winter. The recipe for anti-inflammatory foods to enjoy can change with the seasons.

Your heart, your brain, and even your joints can benefit from a steady diet of these nutritious foods, and scientists think that their effects on inflammation may be one reason why.

Inflammation: How it helps and harms the body

Inflammation is part of your body’s healing mechanism — the reason why your knee swelled and turned red when you injured it. But this inflammatory repair process can sometimes go awry, lasting too long and harming instead of helping. When inflammation is caused by an ongoing problem, it can contribute to health problems. Over time, inflammation stemming from chronic stress, obesity, or an autoimmune disorder may potentially trigger conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, or cancer. It may also harm the brain. Researchers have found a link between higher levels of inflammation inside the brain and an elevated risk for cognitive decline and impairment. Regularly adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet may help to switch off this process.

Three diets that emphasize anti-inflammatory patterns

Research hasn’t looked specifically at the anti-inflammatory benefits of eating foods that are in season. “But it’s generally accepted that eating what’s in season is likely to be fresher and obviously there are other benefits, including those for the environment,” says Natalie McCormick, a research fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Eating foods that are in season may also help your grocery bill.

When it comes to anti-inflammatory foods, the goal should be to incorporate as many as you can into your overall diet. “Our emphasis now is on eating patterns, because it seems that interactions between foods and their combinations have a greater effect than individual foods,” says McCormick.

Three diets in particular, she says, contain the right mix of elements: The Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the Alternative Healthy Eating Index. These diets are similar in that they put the emphasis on foods that are also known to be anti-inflammatory, such as colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats such as olive oil and nut butters. But just as importantly, these diets also eliminate foods — such as highly processed snacks, red meat, and sugary drinks — that can increase levels of inflammatory markers inside the body, including a substance called C-reactive protein.

Mixing and matching different foods from these diets can help you tailor an anti-inflammatory approach that fits your personal tastes, as can choosing the freshest in-season offerings. Whole grains, legumes, and heart-healthy oils can be year-round staples, but mix and match your fruits and vegetables for more variety. Below are some great options by season.

Winter anti-inflammatory superstars

In the cold winter months, think green. Many green leafy vegetables star during this season, including kale, collard greens, and swiss chard. Root vegetables like beets are another great and hardy winter option. Reach for sweet potatoes and turnips. Other options to try are kiwi fruit, brussels sprouts, lemons, oranges, and pineapple.

Spring anti-inflammatory superstars

When the spring months arrive, look for asparagus, apricots, avocados, rhubarb, carrots, mushrooms, and celery, as well as fresh herbs.

Summer anti-inflammatory superstars

Summer is prime time for many types of produce, and you’ll have lots of choices. Berries are a great anti-inflammatory option. Try different varieties of blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Go local with marionberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, and cloud berries, which grow in different parts of the US. Also reach for cherries, eggplant, zucchini, watermelon, green beans, honeydew melon, okra, peaches, and plums.

Fall anti-inflammatory superstars

Nothing says fall like a crisp, crunchy apple. But there are a host of other anti-inflammatory foods to try as well, such as cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, winter squash, parsnips, peas, ginger, and all types of lettuce.

Whenever possible, when you choose an anti-inflammatory food try to substitute it for a less healthy option. For example, trade a muffin for a fresh-berry fruit salad, or a plate of French fries for a baked sweet potato. Making small trades in your diet can add up to big health benefits over time.

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Time to stock up on zinc?

As if stubbornly high rates of COVID-19 aren’t giving us enough to worry about, welcome to cold and flu season!

Yes, colds and influenza, two well-known upper respiratory infections, will soon be on the rise. Last year we saw remarkably low rates of flu. Many experts don’t think we’ll be so lucky this year.

Think zinc?

A new analysis reviewing available research suggests that over-the-counter zinc supplements could be one way to make cold and flu season a bit easier. Of course, this isn’t the first study to look into zinc as an antiviral remedy, including for COVID-19. But the results of past research have been mixed at best: some studies find modest benefit, others find no benefit, and the quality of the research has been low. Also, some people experience bothersome side effects from zinc, such as upset stomach, nausea, and in some cases, loss of the sense of smell.

What did the study say?

Published in November 2021 in BMJ Open, the study looks at zinc for preventing or treating colds and flulike illness. The researchers reviewed more than 1,300 previous studies and narrowed the analysis down to 28 well-designed trials, which included more than 5,000 study subjects. Here’s what they found:

For preventing colds and flu-like illness:

  • Compared with placebo, zinc supplements or nasal spray zinc are associated with fewer upper respiratory infections. The estimated effect was modest: about one infection was prevented for every 20 people using zinc. The strength of the evidence for these findings is considered low.
  • A few studies suggest preventive effects were largest for reducing severe symptoms, such as fever and flulike illness. It’s worth noting that the studies didn’t confirm whether participants had flu infections.
  • Small studies of intentional exposure to cold virus found that zinc did not prevent colds.

For treating colds and flulike illness:

  • Compared with placebo, those who took zinc had symptoms go away about two days sooner. The study estimated that of 100 people with upper respiratory infections, an extra 19 people would have completely recovered by day seven due to zinc treatment. The strength of the evidence for these findings is considered low.
  • Some measures of symptom severity were lower for those treated with zinc (versus placebo): on day three of the infection, those taking zinc had milder symptoms. Further, there was an 87% lower risk of severe symptoms among those taking zinc. However, the daily average symptom severity was similar between those taking zinc and those taking placebo. The data quality and certainty of these findings were low to moderate.

What else to consider before stocking up on zinc

While these findings suggest promise in the ability of zinc to prevent or temper cold and flulike illness, here are other points to consider:

  • Side effects. Side effects occurred more often in those taking zinc (versus placebo), including nausea and mouth or nose irritation. Fortunately, none were serious. But they might be bothersome enough for some people to stop using zinc.
  • Cost. Zinc supplements are generally inexpensive. A daily dose of zinc lozenges for a month may cost less than $2/month (though I also found certain brands for sale online for as much as $75/month).
  • Zinc deficiency. Study subjects either had normal zinc levels or were otherwise considered unlikely to be zinc deficient. There’s a big difference between taking a zinc supplement to prevent or treat respiratory infections and taking it because your body lacks enough of the mineral. Zinc deficiency is more likely among people with poor nutrition or digestive conditions that interfere with mineral absorption; they require supplementation to avoid serious complications such as impaired immune function and poor wound healing.
  • Different doses or types. Additional research is needed to determine the best way to take zinc.
  • COVID-19. None of the studies in this analysis assessed the impact of zinc supplements on SARS-CoV-2, so these conclusions do not apply to COVID-19.

You know the drill

Perhaps this new analysis will convince you to take zinc this winter. Or perhaps you’re still skeptical. Either way, don’t forget tried and true preventive measures and treatments during cold and flu season, including these:

  • Get a flu shot
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid contact, maintain physical distance, and wear a mask around people who are sick
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Choose a healthy diet.

If you do get sick:

  • Stay home if possible
  • Wear a mask if you can’t avoid contact with others
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Take over-the-counter cold and flu remedies to reduce symptoms
  • Contact your doctor if you have symptoms of the flu; early treatment can shorten the duration of the illness. In addition, other conditions (especially COVID-19) should be ruled out.

Many of the measures recommended for cold and flu season overlap with those recommended to prevent or treat COVID-19.

The bottom line

Colds and flulike illnesses afflict millions every winter. You might feel as though it’s inevitable you’ll be among them. But you may be able to spare yourself the misery by following some simple, safe, and common-sense measures. As evidence mounts in its favor, perhaps these measures should include zinc.

As for me, I remain steadfastly on the fence. But it wouldn’t take much — perhaps one more large, well-designed, randomized controlled trial — to push me onto the zinc bandwagon.

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A conversation about reducing the harms of social media

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Editor's note: In this blog post, Dr. Sharon Levy interviews her son Isaiah Levy, a college student. We appreciate Isaiah’s insights and comments on social media's impact on teens and young adults.

It is hard to remember (or for younger people, hard to imagine) a world without social media, but indeed such a world once existed — and in fact, it is the world humans evolved in.

Humans are social animals. Friendly interactions release dopamine in our brains’ reward centers to get us to repeat the behavior. Until recently, that feedback loop suited us very well, with little opportunity to get off track. Social media changed things by providing the opportunity for nearly infinite interactions. This excess exploits our natural inclination for social contact in the same way that sweets exploit our natural drive to eat ripe fruit. Too much refined sugar can cause a cascade of medical problems; too much social media can also affect health — especially mental health.

Beyond sheer volume, social media interactions are qualitatively different from in-person meetings. For one thing, social media platforms have developed easy opportunities for viewers to react to content, resulting in objective feedback metrics for the content creator. Because the denominator is essentially infinite, no matter how many likes a post gets, the numerator may not feel like enough. Feeling insufficient, not liked enough, judged by others, or excluded from an "in group" takes a heavy toll on mental health.

For perspective from a digital native, I posed questions about social media to my son Isaiah Levy, a computer science major at New York University.

What do you see as the benefits of social media?

Theoretically, social media can connect people across the globe at scale, presenting an opportunity for users to form relationships beyond their geographic boundaries. Popular social media platforms can also provide a stage with a potential audience of one billion eyes. Social media offers tremendous potential for people who want to be noticed. However, most connections are extensions of our real-life relationships, and many users say that social media enriches friendships. For example, a Pew survey found that a majority of teenage respondents said that Instagram enhanced their connections with people they already knew (many of whom are classmates).

Why is Instagram so popular with young people?

Web developers and graphic designers created Instagram using sophisticated algorithms and attractive visual presentation, to keep users engaged and interacting with its nearly limitless content for as long as possible. According to surveys done by Facebook (owner of Instagram), youth describe Instagram as current, friendly, trendy, and creative. Many teens say that Instagram helps define who they are and makes them feel more connected to the people they know. Another significant source of Instagram's allure, particularly for younger users, are the objective feedback measures that can make users feel important or of high social status.

The flip side is that the drive for attention creates its own problems. The Pew survey linked to above found that more than one-third of teen Instagram users said they feel pressure to post content that will get a lot of likes and comments, and more than 40% feel pressure to only post content that makes them look good. According to Facebook’s own internal surveys, more than 13% of teen girls said that Instagram worsens suicidal thoughts, and 17% said their eating disorders got worse with Instagram use.

As the government considers regulating social media, what suggestions do you have in regard to protecting mental health?

Government regulations should protect our freedom of expression while mediating risks, especially to children. The government could consider regulating some of the advanced algorithms that social media corporations use to increase user time expenditure (and thus profits). For example, "infinite swiping" is a design feature that continuously pushes forward new content after a user has exhausted content from the people they follow. These tactics pose serious threats. Just like use of alcohol, nicotine, or drugs, the act of swiping triggers neurological reward. Over time, the brain learns to seek social media instead of more natural rewards, putting users at risk of dissociation with meaningful priorities. As with drug addiction, younger users are at greatest risk. Government regulation of the most sticky algorithms would help promote a healthier balance for users. Deciding which algorithms to ban and how to implement such a ban is certainly a difficult task, and the solution will not be perfect; however, given what we know of the impact of social media on children’s mental health, it should be a federal priority.

While the government grapples with regulation, parents can step in. First, set a good example by putting your own screens down when interacting with your children. Talk to your teen about the pros and cons of social media: while it can be fun, it can also become a distraction. Set limits on your child’s social media use. Most importantly, talk to your children about their experiences, including who they are interacting with and what they are talking about. We know social media can harm mental health, so be on the lookout and intervene if you have concerns.

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Wondering about COVID-19 vaccines for children 5 to 11?

Last week, the FDA authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. After conducting their own review, the CDC now recommends this vaccine for children in this age range, who can begin receiving their first dose within the week.

While many families have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity for their children to be immunized, others are hesitant. And most parents have questions about how COVID-19 affects younger children, vaccine safety in this age range, and whether the benefits outweigh potential risks. As a pediatric infectious disease specialist, I hear certain questions crop up repeatedly. Here’s what we know so far.

How does COVID-19 affect children in this age range?

While children continue to be much less likely than adults — especially adults 65 and older — to get severely ill from COVID-19, some children do get very sick. Thousands of children 5 to 11 have been hospitalized or need ICU-level support to recover from this infection. Almost 150 children in this age range have died from COVID-19. Additionally, over 5,000 cases of a serious inflammatory condition known as MIS-C that can follow COVID-19 infection have been reported. The majority of cases of MIS-C have occurred in children in this age range.

How has the Delta strain of the virus affected children?

The Delta strain of the virus that causes COVID spreads easily, particularly among people who haven’t received the vaccine. Children ages 5 to 11 remain more susceptible to infection, given their ineligibility to be vaccinated. In fact, more than one in five new cases recorded over the past two months while Delta infections surged in the US occurred in this age group, according to weekly reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

Can children spread the virus to others?

Several detailed reports describing outbreaks associated with settings such as summer camps, daycares, and schools, and those tracing transmission of COVID-19 within households, clearly demonstrate that children can spread this virus and infect others with whom they come into close contact.

Which COVID vaccines and doses are authorized for children ages 5 to 11?

Pfizer/BioNTech is the first COVID vaccine authorized by the FDA for this age group, based on results from a randomized controlled trial evaluating safety and immune responses. A separate trial launched by Moderna is being considered separately.

In a small number of children, the Pfizer/BioNTech trial compared three doses:

  • 30 micrograms (the dose adults receive)
  • 20 micrograms
  • 10 micrograms.

This part of the trial showed that 10 micrograms, the smallest dose, resulted in fewer side effects while still generating robust immune responses similar to responses achieved with higher doses.

In the next part of the trial, more than 2,200 children ages 5 to 11 were randomly assigned to receive either a 10-microgram dose of the vaccine (two-thirds of participants) or a placebo dose (one-third of participants). All received two shots, spaced three weeks apart.

Those given the vaccine had similar immune responses as 16-to-25-year-olds who had received the full-dose series of two shots.

When Pfizer/BioNTech submitted data to the FDA, there were not many cases of symptomatic COVID-19 infections in trial participants. Out of 19 documented cases, most had received the placebo shots. Estimates suggest the efficacy rate of the vaccine is 90%. (Efficacy measures how much a vaccine reduces infection in a controlled trial.) Tests confirmed that the Delta viral strain had caused the infections.

What do we know about side effects for children this age?

Most children had no side effects other than pain at the injection site. Those who did have side effects most commonly experienced fatigue, headaches, and/or muscle aches after the second dose rather than the first dose. For example, only 6% of children had fever after the second vaccine dose. There were no cases of severe allergic reaction to the vaccine.

What is not yet known?

In very rare instances, the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is linked to myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart. When this occurs, it is mostly seen in young males following their second dose of an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna). Most cases are mild, and children show no signs of long-term injury to the heart.

Among the 5-to-11-year-olds who received the Pfizer vaccine during the trial, there were no cases of myocarditis. However, this side effect is very rare and might not be noted until the number of children receiving the vaccine is much higher. The FDA and Pfizer/BioNTech will continue to closely monitor this age group for any occurrence of this rare side effect.

Can children get vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza at the same time?

Yes. Children and adults can safely get both vaccines at the same time. The CDC urges everyone to get flu shots to help stay healthy during this flu season.

A randomized, controlled trial in the UK evaluated adults who received a flu shot or placebo shot in one arm and their second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the other arm. The researchers reported in Preprints with The Lancet that side effects and immune responses were similar, whether the flu shot or a placebo shot was given at the same time as the COVID vaccine.

What other steps can parents take to protect children against COVID-19?

Parents should remember that an individual is not fully immunized and protected by the vaccine until 14 days after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Masks are recommended for anyone who is unvaccinated, or not fully immunized, when indoors with people outside of their household. If rates of COVID-19 are high where you live, masks may be recommended indoors for vaccinated individuals as well.

Parents can continue to encourage other simple habits that help prevent colds, flu, and COVID-19, such as washing hands often, coughing or sneezing into an elbow, throwing away used tissues quickly, and avoiding crowded places and people who are ill when possible.

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Menopause and memory: Know the facts

By 2050, 13.8 million people in the US will likely have Alzheimer’s disease, and two-thirds will be women. The economic cost is staggering, as it is estimated to rise to more than $2 trillion. Women are at the epicenter of this because the economic threat is especially dire for women, given they are an increasingly powerful element of our global economy and the vast majority of unpaid caregivers. Thus, maintaining intact memory starting early in midlife with the transition to menopause is critical not only for women themselves, but also for their families, society, and our economic health.

Preventing memory decline starts in early midlife

The decline in cognitive ability is not limited to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease (AD), but also part of healthy aging, with consequences for our quality of life. Most studies of aging and cognitive decline, particularly studies of AD, begin in people in their 70s. However, understanding factors that happen earlier in life, and how they impact age-related brain changes, is critical for developing prevention strategies for one of the major public health challenges of our time.

What happens to women’s brains through the transition into menopause?

In addition to chronological aging, women undergo reproductive aging in early midlife: menopause, during which they experience a depletion over time of ovarian hormones such as estradiol, the primary form of estrogen that works in the brain. Our research team and others have demonstrated that estradiol directly relates to changes in memory performance and reorganization of our brain circuitry that regulates memory function. Thus, women and men undergo different aging processes, especially in early midlife when reproductive aging is more critical for women than chronological aging. However, cognitive aging is rarely considered a women’s health issue. This is essential, because viewing brain aging as beginning in early midlife, and understanding the impact of menopause on the brain, will allow for development of strategies to prevent memory loss for women.

On average, women perform better than men on measures of verbal memory, beginning as early as post-puberty. However, women’s advantage for verbal memory performance is reduced with menopause. Many women report increased forgetfulness and “brain fog” during the menopausal transition. All women eventually undergo menopause, but there is a large age range for when it begins (from late 40s to early 60s), and substantial variation in women’s experience of its impact.

Over the last 15 years, an increasing number of studies are mapping out the intricate ways in which menopause affects the brain and what helps maintain intact memory. For example, menopause can affect how brain cells are generated, connect with each other, and even die, and these processes impact brain regions that are critical for memory. Menopause also lowers the level of glucose in the brain, the primary fuel used by brain cells. The brain then looks to other metabolic sources to provide the necessary fuel to function — that is, the brain adapts to a new hormonal environment in order to maintain functioning.

Further, women with other medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension are at increased risk for cognitive decline. Research into understanding this is focusing, in part, on how the brain and body share similar processes to produce energy to function (metabolism), and how blood pressure and other aspects of the vascular system function similarly in the brain and body.

Can hormone replacement treatment help?

Research shows that timing matters. Initiation of hormone replacement (HR) in perimenopause (roughly four to eight years before menopause) or early menopause may have positive effects on brain activity and memory function, although systematic HR trials have not been conducted during perimenopause. Initiation of HR in late menopause may have adverse effects on the brain, and increase risk of disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Research is critically needed to establish the most effective timing of administration, hormonal formula, dose, route of administration (for example, orally or by skin patch), and duration.

Further, to date much of the HR research has been conducted in healthy women, and little is known about its impact in women with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Finally, there may be differences in responses in women who are genetically at high risk for brain disorders, like AD, that show increased benefits for using HR. Research shows us that one size does not fit all, and precision medicine is needed to identify which women may benefit the most. One example is for women with bilateral removal of the ovaries, particularly at a young age, for whom HR has been found to be very beneficial for brain function. In some women HR may not be an option, and alternative mechanisms may need to be identified, such as targeting levels of glucose and other effects associated with estradiol regulation of the brain.

What can women do to maintain brain health?

There are three major pillars for maintaining intact memory: effortful physical activity, effortful cognitive activity, and social contact. Research shows that the first two of these have direct beneficial effects on the brain, even at the level of cellular function. Social contact is another form of keeping our brains active by external stimuli, novel experiences, and perspectives outside of ourselves. Dietary habits (such as the Mediterranean diet, or intake of omega-3 fatty acids like in fish oil) have also had beneficial effects on memory function. The good news is that these are modifiable lifestyle habits, which may be particularly important for women with hypertension or diabetes who are at higher risk for cognitive decline.

Finally, adequate sleep (currently suggested as seven hours a night) is critical for brain health. Research has shown that during certain periods of sleep, learning is consolidated; that is, sleep plays a key role in storing and maintaining what we learned during the day, and even helps in clearing the brain of amyloid, one of the markers of potential AD pathology. More research is required to fully understand the beneficial impacts of these modifiable lifestyle factors. However, the time to start incorporating them into your life is now.