News from the World of Medicine: How Humour Helps the Heart, Breast Cancer Red Flags, Reversing Sleep Deprivation and more

The latest in medical research and health news you need to know    

Samantha Rideout Published Apr 12, 2024 16:16:17 IST
News from the World of Medicine: How Humour Helps the Heart, Breast Cancer Red Flags, Reversing Sleep Deprivation and more freepik

A New Treatment for Heart Disease 

Since the 1950s, medical scientists have understood that high cholesterol can contribute to coronary artery disease (CAD) by clogging the arteries with plaque. More recently, researchers have learnt that chronic inflammation in the arteries can play a role in restricting blood flow, too. Now, two large multi-national clinical trials have shown that colchicine, a drug that’s already used to treat other inflammatory conditions, such as gout, is also useful for preventing heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular death in people with CAD. When added to standard treatments such as statins, it reduced the risk of these complications by as much as 31 per cent. The FDA recently approved low-dose colchicine for this purpose, making it the first medication that tackles cardiovascular disease by specifically targeting inflammation.

A Few Steps Go a Long Way

The more you walk each day, the greater the health benefits. If there is an upper limit to this general rule, it hasn’t been determined yet—but the minimum number of steps needed to start making a difference might be lower than previously thought. A Polish- and American-led review of 17 previous studies found that as few as 2,500 steps per day could reduce, by 16 per cent or more, the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to walking less. When it comes to prolonging lives, the senior researcher said in a press release, even modest lifestyle changes can be surprisingly powerful.

Sharing Food With Gut Microbes

When it comes to gaining, losing or maintaining body weight, not all calories are equal, suggests an experiment published in Nature Communications. It involved a small group of young adults who tried two very different diets for 22 days each. Both diets involved eating the same amount of calories, but one was rich in fibre while the other was full of processed foods, such as white bread and sugary snacks. On average, participants absorbed 116 fewer calories per day while on the high-fibre diet—without feeling hungrier. How? The upper gastrointestinal tract absorbs highly processed foods quickly, whereas whole foods take longer to digest and often manage to get through to the colon. This is where most of our gut microbiota are, so healthier foods provide calories to the microbes to feed on, rather than being absorbed by the body.

Defibrillators Save Lives

If you witness someone suffering a cardiac arrest in public, it’s always worth trying to find an automated external defibrillator (AED), even if an ambulance isn’t far off. In a recent analysis of Danish data, defibrillation improved cardiac-arrest victims’ chances of survival. (If paramedics were on the scene in less than two minutes, it made no significant difference.) Many public spaces, such as community centres, fitness facilities and airports, are legally required to have public access to AEDs. But they aren’t mandatory in all workplaces and buildings. In those cases, a large group of neighbours or co-workers might split the cost (starting from Rs 50,000 going up to Rs 2 lakh) to purchase one.

You Can’t Reverse Sleep Deprivation

With help from people who volunteered to stay up overnight, scientists from the University of Pittsburgh and Michigan State University have tested two popular ways of compensating for sleep deprivation: caffeine and napping. By comparing per-formance on cognitive tests by subjects who slept and those who stayed up all night, the investigators saw that sleeplessness had taken a toll on their ability to stay focused on a task and to follow a complex set of directions. Consuming the equivalent of two coffees’ worth of caffeine improved the former but not the latter. Taking a 30- or 60-minute snooze didn’t fully restore their brain function, either. In the end, these strategies might help you feel better and get through the day, but neither of them will have you performing at your best.

Battling Cancer with Bubbles

After 20 years in development, a new kind of cancer treatment with seemingly minimal side effects has arrived on the market. Histotripsy (Greek for “tissue crushing”) uses ultrasound waves to make microscopic gas bubbles form and pop within bodily tissues. A machine called the Edison System can make these waves target tumors, destroying the abnormal cells. The patient’s own immune systemthen cleans up the debris. Rodent studies suggest that in doing so, bodies get better at recognizing the cancer cells and fighting them off. In a recent clinical trial, histotripsy successfully destroyed tumorsin 42 out of 44 liver cancer patients. So far, it’s authorized only for liver tumors, and only in the United States. But developers hope it will go on to treat other cancers in other countries as well.

Breast Cancer Red Flags

Nearly everyone would consider a breast lump to be a sign of possible cancer, according to a survey commissioned by the University of Ohio Comprehensive Cancer Center. But most breast cancers don’t begin with a noticeable lump. Fewer than half of the respondents knew about the other red flags, which can include nipple changes, loss of feeling in part of the breast, or puckering in the breast when you raise your arms. Many changes are just the harmless effects of hormonal fluctuations or aging, and some breast tumors cause no symptoms. That’s where screening comes in. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends mammography every two years for women ages 50 to 74. And when in doubt, get it checked out.

Humor Helps the Heart

In a small trial, 26 participants with coronary artery disease—when plaque and inflammation impede the arteries’ ability to bring enough blood and oxygen to the heart—were split into two groups.One group watched two comedy TV shows each week, while the other watched documentaries. After 12 weeks, those who watched comedy saw a 10% increase in how much oxygen their heart could pump. By releasing endorphins, laughter may reduce inflammation and help muscles in the arteries to relax. It’s also proven to lower stress.

Snoozers Don’t Lose After All

It’s well known that a night of disrupted sleep can harm your cognitive performance, alertness and mood. However, the studies that showed this correlation examined a whole night’s worth of repeated awakenings, not just a few interruptions tagged onto the end of the seven to nine hours of shut-eye that most adults need. Hitting the snooze button in the morning, even multiple times, isn’t likely to affect your well-being, concludes a recent Swedish trial published in the Journal of Sleep Research. Of course, it didn’t promise you’d make it to work on time!


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