Author Archives: Karen Weintraub

Sexual Reality: The Checkup Podcast Debunks A Few Myths (Like Size And Age Matter…)

Possibly our juiciest segment yet, the latest installment of The Checkup podcast, our joint venture with Slate, takes on some sexual myths and offers a bit of reality.

We bring you surprises about penis size, stories of great sex over 70 and new insights on how both men and women are lied to about their sexuality. As we have in past segments, Carey and I offer our fresh take on research-based news that could brighten up your life below the waist. Check it out here:

And in case you missed our last episode, “Grossology” (including a look at the first stool bank in the nation and research on the benefits of “bacterial schmears” from a mother’s birth canal) — you can listen now.

And if you want to hear earlier episodes: “Scary Food Stories” includes the tale of a recovering sugar addict and offers sobering news to kale devotees. And “On The Brain” includes fascinating research on dyslexia, depression and how playing music may affect our minds.

Make sure to tune in next time, when we present: “High Anxiety,” an episode on the (arguably) most prevalent of mental health disorders.

Each week, The Checkup features a different topic — previous episodes focused on college mental health, sex problems, the Insanity workout and vaccine issues. If you listen and like it, won’t you please let our podcasting partner, Slate, know? You can email them at podcasts@slate.com.

You Are When You Eat: Study Explores Body Clock Effects On Blood Sugar

(Macro Mondays/Flickr Creative Commons)

(Macro Mondays/Flickr Creative Commons)

You know the old saying (or maybe you should): “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”

A new study in the journal PNAS looks into some of the underlying biology: that our bodies tend to regulate blood sugar better after breakfast than after dinner.

Led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, it also helps explain why night shift workers tend to be at heightened risk for Type 2 diabetes.

Says the study’s senior author, Frank A. J. L. Scheer of the Brigham, on Radio Boston today: “What we wanted to explore was whether the biological clock — the internal clock — is playing an important part in this day/night variation, or that it might just be due to the sleep/wake and feeding/fasting cycle.”

The study pinpoints two separate mechanisms at work:

• Our basic body clocks, also known as circadian rhythm, have major influence on our blood sugar regulation: our glucose tolerance is naturally higher in the morning than the evening.

• And, independently, when our clocks are misaligned — when we’re forced to flip our days and nights — that, too, lowers our glucose tolerance.

Bottom line, for those of us who are not shift workers: The same exact meal can lead to more of an increase in blood sugar when eaten at night than when eaten in the morning (and higher blood sugar is considered a risk factor for developing diabetes.) Chalk one up for the writers of old sayings.

On the study: Continue reading

Daughter Born To Widow Of Slain Boston Surgeon

Mikaela Jane Davidson (Courtesy of Brigham and Women's Hospital)

Mikaela Jane Davidson (Courtesy of Brigham and Women’s Hospital)

This poignant birth announcement is just in from Brigham and Women’s Hospital:

Davidson Family Welcomes Baby Girl

Boston, MA – On behalf of Dr. Terri Halperin and the Davidson family, Brigham and Women’s Hospital announces the arrival of Mikaela Jane Davidson, born Saturday, April 4, 2015. Mother and baby are doing well.

Mikaela’s father, Dr. Michael J. Davidson, was tragically shot and killed by a patient’s son at BWH on January 20, 2015, leaving behind his beloved wife Terri, daughters Kate (10) and Liv (8) and son Graham (2). Mikaela was named after her dad and shares his initials – MJD.

Terri said, “Michael was very much looking forward to the birth of this beautiful baby girl. At a time when my children and I are completely heartbroken over the loss of Michael, we are finding joy in Mikaela’s arrival. We have been humbled and touched by the tremendous outpouring of love and support coming from family, friends, patients and all those kind-hearted souls who have been moved by Michael’s senseless death.”

Brigham and Women’s Hospital established the Davidson Family Fund to provide support for the Davidson children.

The press release notes that Dr. Halperin is not otherwise interacting with the media right now.

A woman wears a button honoring Michael Davidson at his January funeral service. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A woman wears a button honoring Michael Davidson at his January funeral service. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Related:

Visionaries: MIT Scientist Helps Blind Indian Children See, And Then Learns From Them

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

MIT neuroscience professor Pawan Sinha still gets goosebumps when he thinks about it, he says: “Things just happened so perfectly, so well-timed.”

Back in 2002, Sinha was grappling with a deep scientific question: How do we learn to recognize the objects we see? How do our brains know, “That’s a face”? Or “That’s a table”?

A fateful taxi ride set his research — and his life — onto a new road.

He was back visiting New Delhi, where he grew up on the elite campus of the Indian Institute of Technology before coming to America for graduate school. He was on his way to see a friend one evening, when the taxi he was riding in stopped at a traffic light.

“I noticed, by the side of the road was this little family, a mother and her two children,” he says. “And it felt really terrible to see these two children, who were barely wearing any clothes, very young children on this cold winter day. So I called over the mother to give her a little bit of change.”

When she approached, Sinha noticed that both of the children holding on to her sari had cataracts clouding their eyes.

It was the first time that he had seen children with cataracts. When he looked into childhood blindness in India, he learned that it is a widespread problem, often caused by rubella during the mother’s pregnancy. Blind children in the developing world suffer so much abuse and neglect that more than half don’t survive to age 5, he says.

Sinha wanted to help, but he figured that what he could contribute on his academic salary would be just a drop in the ocean.

“And that’s when the realization struck me that in providing treatment to those children, I would have exactly the approach that I had been looking for in my scientific work,” he says.

“If you have a child, say, a 10-year-old child who has not seen from birth, has only seen light and dark, and in a matter of half an hour you’re able to initiate sight in this child, then from the very next day, when the bandages are removed, you have a ringside seat into the process of visual development.”

Sinha applied for a federal grant to pay for cataract operations, which are relatively simple, and for studying the children who got them. Usually, American research money stays in America, “but I took a chance because I completely, honestly believed, and believe, that in providing that surgery, we are benefiting science that belongs to all of mankind, it’s not just specifically India.”

That grant eventually came though and to continue the work, Sinha founded a nonprofit based in New Delhi. He named it Project Prakash; Prakash means “light” in Sanskrit. Since 2005, he says, nearly 500 Indian children have gained sight through the project.

Now, at 48, Sinha is planning a major expansion of Project Prakash, to create a center that includes a hospital, a school and a research facility. The goal is to serve many more children than the current 40 to 50 a year. Continue reading

Related:

Shops Remove Possibly Dangerous Diet Supplements After Study Faults FDA

Following a report this week that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration kept silent about synthetic stimulant contamination in some popular diet supplements, a major vitamin seller announced it will pull products that may be tainted with the chemical BMPEA.

Here’s The Vitamin Shoppe announcement via PR Newswire:

Mike Mozart/flickr

Mike Mozart/flickr

Because the health and safety of our customers is our number one priority, and out of an abundance of caution, we are immediately removing all acacia rigidula containing products, due to the concern that some of them may contain BMPEA, from our stores and website. BMPEA is a synthetic drug-like substance that should not be used in dietary supplements.

We are concerned by the findings outlined in the study published yesterday in Drug Testing and Analysis, which state that some acacia rigidula containing products may also contain BMPEA. If these findings are confirmed by the FDA, these products should not be sold as dietary supplements.

The Vitamin Shoppe requires that all manufacturers of the products we carry comply with all applicable laws. The Vitamin Shoppe decided to remove these products because the safety of these products is now in question and may not be in compliance with FDA regulations. In addition, the Vitamin Shoppe continues to encourage the FDA to use its authority to remove any dietary supplements from the market which it deems unsafe.

On Wednesday, The New York Times offered a detailed account of the tainted supplement study, which was published in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis:

Popular weight-loss and workout supplements on sale in hundreds of vitamin shops across the nation contain a chemical nearly identical to amphetamine, the powerful stimulant, and pose dangers to the health of those who take them, according to a new study. The Canadian health authorities in December called the chemical, BMPEA, “a serious health risk,” and pulled supplements that contain it from store shelves.

The Food and Drug Administration documented two years ago that nine such supplements contained the same chemical, but never made public the names of the products or the companies that made them. Neither has it recalled the products nor issued a health alert to consumers as it has done with other tainted supplements. The F.D.A. said in a statement that its review of supplements containing the stimulant “does not identify a specific safety concern at this time.”

But public health experts contend that the F.D.A.’s reluctance to act in this case is symptomatic of a broader problem. The agency is not effectively policing the $33 billion-a-year supplements industry in part because top agency regulators themselves come from the industry and have conflicts of interest, they say.

Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and the lead author of the study, said in an email that he has some short-and long-term hopes for what happens next in the tainted supplement saga. Cohen, also a primary care doctor at Cambridge Health Alliance wrote:

I would hope the FDA stops hiding their head in the sand and immediately warns consumers that they have found a synthetic stimulant in many supplements. The FDA should use it’s full enforcement capabilities to remove BMPEA from all supplements. The FDA should also clarify that the plant being used as cover for this stimulant, a shrub called Acacia rigidula, has no legitimate place in supplements and all supplements labeled as containing Acacia rigidula should be immediately withdrawn from the market. Continue reading

Mass. VA Clinic, Hospital Wait Times Vary Widely

In a state that prides itself on access to great health care, wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics vary widely, with some facilities in central and western Massachusetts delaying appointments at much higher rates than in the affluent east.

Nearly 9,000 medical appointments at VA facilities in Massachusetts – about 2 percent of the state’s total during the six-month period ending in February- failed to meet the department’s goal of completing medical appointments within 30 days.

That’s better than the national average of 2.8 percent, but nearly half the delays in Massachusetts occurred at only three of the state’s 20 facilities, according to government data reviewed by the Associated Press.

“We’re working to get the veterans into their appointments in a more timely manner. It’s a work in progress.”

– Dennis Ramstein, Central Western Mass. VA spokesman

The AP analysis of six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide found that the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has stayed flat since Congress began pumping $16.3 billion dollars into the VA system in August. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

Many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours’ drive of each other in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA’s sluggish planning process.

Continue reading

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John Hancock Taps Fitness Trackers To Breathe New Life Into Insurance Industry

John Hancock Financial is the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers, like the ones pictured here. (Richard Drew/AP)

John Hancock Financial is the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers, like the ones pictured here. (Richard Drew/AP)

Could 15 minutes of exercise could save you 15 percent on your life insurance?

John Hancock Financial on Wednesday became the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers. Sign up for a new life policy today, and the company will send you a Fitbit, one of those bracelets that tracks your steps.

The more you exercise, the bigger discount you get on your insurance premium, up to 15 percent.

Company President Craig Bromley says the policy will also incentivize healthy behavior with “fun sort of rewards” to get policyholders to the gym, like gift cards, discounted hotel stays and leisure travel.

Delaying a death benefit “would obviously be good for us, but also good for them,”  TWEET Bromley said. “You know, other companies are not really helping people to live longer.”

It’s not just about customers living longer. By leveraging wearable devices and promoting wellness, the 153-year-old company is also trying to bestow a youthful glow on the aging life insurance industry.

“It’s great to be at sort of the forefront of all this technological change, which hasn’t always been the case for the life insurance industry,” Bromley said.

Continue reading

Mass. Revamps ‘Confusing’ Medical Marijuana Dispensary Licensing Process

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is “aggressively” revamping its process for licensing medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, a system the head of the department says has been “confusing and overly lengthy.”

Dispensaries will now be licensed in a process similar to that used for pharmacies, DPH Commissioner Monica Bharel announced at a Public Health Council meeting Wednesday morning.

The current process has “delayed appropriate patients from getting access” to medical marijuana, Bharel said.

Massachusetts voters approved a medical marijuana ballot initiative in November 2012. But the licensing process became bogged down after it came to light that the applicants were not thoroughly vetted before the first round of provisional approvals. Some of those applicants were then eliminated for having misrepresented claims of community support or for other problems with their applications. To date, no dispensaries have opened in the state.

Continue reading

More Medical Marijuana Coverage:

Bill Would Toughen Oversight Of Planned Hospital Mergers

Attorney General Maura Healey is pushing legislation designed to give her office stronger oversight of hospital mergers.

The bill would toughen the authority of the Health Policy Commission when considering mergers of health care providers.

The bill would allow a report issued by the commission to be considered strong enough evidence that the Healey’s office could use it to seek a temporary block of a proposed deal between health care organizations if the deal would force up health care costs.

Continue reading

Predicting The Next Mental Health Crisis: Sometimes We Just Can’t Know

Chris/flickr

Chris/flickr

By Steve Schlozman, M.D.

When tragedies hit, it is in our nature to ask why. The co-pilot in the horrific Germanwings crash had serious mental health problems, according to reports. How could no one have known how serious his challenges were? How could no one have predicted this terrible outcome?  On its surface this line of questioning seems even a bit ludicrous.  After all, even in the murky face of mental illness, the potentially deliberate and fatal nose-dive of a commercial aircraft seems impossible to imagine.  Nevertheless, this is exactly the question that we’re seeing over and over in the coverage of the crash.

How could we not have known?

The fact is, however, that this particular question glosses over a profoundly uncomfortable quandary that is by no means unique to psychiatry. For all of modern medicine, predictions are surprisingly fraught with difficulty.  For all of medicine’s miracles, for all of its technological wonders and advances, medicine remains a quintessentially human endeavor.  You might even argue that phrases like “medical miracle” are indeed part of the problem.  This more we grant medicine undue and mystical prowess, the more resistant we grow to the grueling trial and error that characterize everyday medical practice.  Doctors are wrong all the time.  That’s a fact.

Nevertheless, physicians are asked to prognosticate. That’s the verb form of “prognosis.” As patients and families, we look to our doctors daily for prognostic estimates.  (Emphasis on estimates.)  These estimates are really hypotheses necessarily based on incomplete data. Rare complications and twists of fate befuddle even the best.

For psychiatry this truth can be especially hard to swallow.  A neurologist might not be able to predict every migraine, but it is the rare migraine that results in tragedy.  Still, remember that psychiatrists cannot read minds. Like all physicians, psychiatrists will try their best to understand what is the cause of suffering.  And, as with all clinicians, psychiatrists will sometimes be right and sometimes not.  Medicine remains an art even as the science continues to improve.

The fact that someone suffers a psychiatric disorder, even a recurrent psychiatric disorder, is not remarkable when compared to the rest of medicine.  The same occurs with ulcers, asthma, allergies, orthopedic injuries, sinus infections and so forth. Most medical illnesses are chronic and many are intermittent. No medical professional can predict with absolute certainty when an episode is going to occur or how severe it may be. To be fair, physicians can and do identify triggers, but the intensity of a presumed reaction is outside anyone’s ability to predict.

And this is where society gets especially flummoxed. No one would argue that the art of medicine is infallible. No one would suggest that medical practice is right 100% of the time. But faced with tragedy, we are much more comfortable as a species pretending that our predictions are foolproof and that our mishaps are exceedingly rare.

Why can’t we always know? Medicine is post-modern. We cannot know because we can’t. Continue reading