Personal Health

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Teen Birth Rate In Mass. At Historic Low

The birth rate among teens in Massachusetts is at its lowest recorded level in the state’s history, a report out Friday says.

The birth rate of teens ages 15-19 fell 14 percent last year, from 14 births per 1,000 women in 2012 to 12 births per 1,000 women in 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Health reported.

“This is terrific news for all Massachusetts families, and a dramatic indication that our decisions to invest in our young people — through education, support and resources — can have a real and lasting impact on their lives and in their communities,” Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement.

According to the report, there were 2,732 babies born to teen mothers between 15 and 19 years old in 2013, down from 3,219 the previous year. The number of children born to teen mothers in that age bracket is significantly lower than the 7,258 births reported in 1990. Continue reading

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Mass. Officials Say Most Have Yet To Pay For Health Plans

State officials say about 150,000 people have determined eligibility for insurance plans on the state’s overhauled Health Connector website. But less than 1 percent has paid for 2015 coverage with a deadline fast approaching.

The connector rolled out its new website on Nov. 15 to replace the one that was crippled by technical problems, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary Medicaid coverage.

Residents eligible to buy insurance through the connector have until Dec. 23 to make their first payment. The Boston Globe reports that few have sent checks so far, but state officials aren’t worried because people historically wait until the last week to pay.

The head of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans has expressed concern about the low enrollment and the prospect of many people going uninsured.

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World AIDS Day: A Look At The Gains And Challenges In The Fight Against HIV

A woman adjusts a red ribbon, symbol of the fight against AIDS, during a demonstration on World AIDS Day in Spain on Dec. 1, 2014. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

A woman adjusts a red ribbon, symbol of the fight against AIDS, during a demonstration on World AIDS Day in Spain on Dec. 1, 2014. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

From ribbons to lights on buildings, you may have seen a lot of red Monday — it’s the symbolic color for World AIDS Day (Dec. 1), which raises awareness about HIV.

The day began in 1988, some years after the AIDS epidemic was first identified in the early ’80s. As the world marks the day with events and vigils, here is a look at the current state of HIV:

Continue reading

Medical Marijuana 101: What Does A Dispensary Worker Need To Know?

As the marijuana industry takes shape in Massachusetts, it will need a trained workforce. What skills will that person behind the dispensary counter have? How about employees who will process marijuana? Who’s training these workers? Here’s a glimpse as the Northeastern Institute of Cannabis (NIC) in Natick opens its doors.

The Northeastern Institute of Cannabis in Natick (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

The Northeastern Institute of Cannabis in Natick (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

On a sunny fall afternoon, men and women sat at tables in a stark white classroom. For that day, the class was called “patient services.”

“Get a complete list of symptoms, right at the beginning,” instructor Bill Downing said. “Ask your patients, ‘How long have you suffered from this condition?’ It gives you a feeling for what their situation is.”

Downing, who is also a marijuana caregiver, clicks through charts that match the reasons patients use marijuana — relief from pain, depression, nausea and glaucoma, with compounds in the plant that are most likely to help.

CannLabs' breakdown of health benefits specific cannabinoids have for certain diseases. (Courtesy of CannLabs)

Click to enlarge: CannLabs’ breakdown of health benefits specific cannabinoids have for certain diseases. (Courtesy of CannLabs)

He runs through the marijuana-infused products his students would be selling at a dispensary: tinctures, lip balm, bubble bath, salves and lotions.

“Topical applications are great for localized pain,” he said. “And they don’t get you high.”

This is one of 12 classes students must complete and pass tests on to receive a certificate from NIC. It’s a for-profit training center with two classrooms in an office park. The course costs $1,500 and covers growing marijuana, legal, business, science and regulatory issues.

“This industry’s coming, and we need to be ready to train the workers,” said NIC events coordinator Chris Foye. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

NIC opened this fall. So far, 14 students have graduated and 70 more are enrolled. There’s one other classroom program in Massachusetts. The New England Grass Roots Institute says its classes are for person enrichment, not professional training. Foye says NIC is filling a demand from dispensary owners who will be required to pay $500 to register each employee yearly with the state. Continue reading

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Project Louise: Trying Not To Hate Steve Brown For Easily Losing 30 Pounds

(Duncan via Compfight)

(Duncan via Compfight)

In 11 months, I’ve lost 15 pounds.

In three months, Steve Brown lost 20 pounds.

I am trying very hard not to hate him.

It helps that we’re colleagues; he’s a longtime anchor and reporter at WBUR. And it helps even more that he has been telling me for months that I’m his “inspiration” for this success. Flattery will indeed get you everywhere.

So I had to ask him: How’d you do it?

And it turns out that the answer is, well, just a little bit despicable too. He used an app. That’s it. He used an app, and he lost 20 pounds.

Actually, Steve tells me, once he reached his goal of losing 20 pounds, he decided to keep going and lost another 10. And, he says, “it was kind of fun.” He lost 30 pounds! And it was fun!

What have I been doing wrong? Or, more constructively, what has he been doing right?

The joy of the Hershey’s kisses was extended.
– Steve Brown

Coincidentally, a recent study found that just knowing about a weight-loss app won’t necessarily help you lose weight. But Steve insists that downloading — and using! — this app was really the only thing he did. The app he used is called Lose It!, and it’s developed by a company right here in Boston. It’s free, although you can also get a premium version with more features.

The free version, Steve explains, is basically a calorie tracker. You tell it how much you weigh now and how much you’d like to weigh; it then tells you how long it will take to get there based on how quickly you want to lose – a pound a week? Two?

And then you start telling it everything you eat, and it keeps track of how many calories you have left to “spend” each day. It can also factor in any exercise you do – and it will even give you credit for whatever steps your phone tells it you’ve taken that day.

It seems so … simple. Can it really make you lose weight? Surely there’s more to it than that. So what exactly did this app make Steve do? Continue reading

Westminster Officials Shut Down Rowdy Hearing On Tobacco Ban After 20 Minutes

Brian Vincent poses in front of a large display of tobacco products at Vincent's Country Store in Westminster on Nov. 6. Local officials are contemplating what could be a first: a blanket ban on all forms of tobacco and e-cigarettes, leaving some shop owners fuming. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Brian Vincent poses in front of a large display of tobacco products at Vincent’s Country Store in Westminster on Nov. 6. Local officials are contemplating what could be a first: a blanket ban on all forms of tobacco and e-cigarettes, leaving some shop owners fuming. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Health officials in the central Massachusetts town of Westminster say they will not hold another public hearing on their proposed first-in-the-nation town-wide ban on tobacco sales, after a rowdy crowd of hundreds forced Wednesday night’s meeting to end in just 20 minutes.

Board members began the hearing with warnings that if the crowd couldn’t remain calm and respectful, they would end the meeting.

The hearing was dominated by opponents of the ban, such as Westminster resident Kevin West.

“I find smoking to be one of the most disgusting habits anybody could possibly do. On top of that, I find this proposal to be even more of a disgusting thing that anybody could ever give any town in the United States of America,” he said.

When repeated efforts to calm the crowd, which erupted into applause a number of times, failed, the meeting was ended and health board members were escorted out by police.

Instead of another meeting, the board will accept written comments through the end of the month.

Mass. Town Considers First-In-The-Nation Ban On All Tobacco Sales

Brian Vincent poses in front of a large display of tobacco products at Vincent's Country Store in Westminster on Nov. 6. Local officials are contemplating what could be a first: a blanket ban on all forms of tobacco and e-cigarettes, leaving some shop owners fuming. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Brian Vincent poses in front of a large display of tobacco products at Vincent’s Country Store in Westminster on Nov. 6. Local officials are contemplating what could be a first: a blanket ban on all forms of tobacco and e-cigarettes, leaving some shop owners fuming. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Updated 5:43 p.m.

BOSTON — A town in north-central Massachusetts is considering banning the sale of all tobacco products — the first such sweeping measure in the country.

The proposal has Westminster businesses up in arms, while the town’s health board says it’s concerned about the effects of smoking and minors having access to tobacco products.

At a public hearing tonight, the board of health will hear comments about the proposed ban. The town’s health agent, Elizabeth Swedberg, was unavailable for comment today.

In its proposal, the Westminster Board of Health outlined the harmful effects of tobacco, including evidence that it leads to cancer and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The board also said that e-cigarettes could normalize smoking behavior and “serve as a gateway” for ex-smokers to begin smoking again. And the board expressed concern about the allure of tobacco products to minors, saying that despite state laws prohibiting sales to youths under the age of 18, the access to tobacco products by minors is “a major public health problem.”

The proposed ban would prohibit the sale of any product containing, made or derived from tobacco or nicotine that is intended for consumption. Should the ban move forward, first-time violators could be fined $300, and have board of health permits suspended or revoked for further violations.

The American Lung Association and the Massachusetts Public Health Association each said they do not have a position on this specific proposal.

Tami Gouveia, the executive director of the advocacy group Tobacco Free Mass, called the Westminster proposal an important approach to protecting public health. She said boards of health in all communities should look at different policies and approaches to keep their residents healthy.

“It’s important for us to be taking a real hard look at that and to continue to find ways to reduce youth use of cigarettes as well as adult use,” Gouveia said. “When we learned that lead was dangerous when people were exposed and when children were exposed, we removed lead from paint and we removed it from gasoline.”

Gouveia also said the Westminster proposal could help those struggling with nicotine addiction and make it easier for them to quit smoking when they realize the store they frequent can no longer sell tobacco products.

Opponents of the ban say it would hurt local businesses by driving customers — and profits — to neighboring communities. Continue reading

Project Louise: With Two Months To Go, Where Are We?

(Andrew Borgen via Flickr)

(Andrew Borgen via Flickr)

Tick, tick, tick. Two months to go before the official end of Project Louise – though of course I’m now seeing that improving my health is a lifelong project. In any case, Coach Allison Rimm suggested it was time for a checkup. With her, not my doctors.

So we got together last week and reviewed my progress toward the goals I originally laid out for the year. Here’s how that went:

Goal: Reach 145 pounds and feel comfortable in size 10-12 clothing.

Status: I’ve lost 15 pounds, putting me at 174. Clearly, since I am not going to do a crazy fasting thing, I will not reach 145 by the end of the year. On the plus side, however, I am now solidly a size 12, rather than the tight-14-oh-help-please-no-I-won’t-buy-16s I was in January.

More important (since, as all women know, clothing sizes are pretty crazy, arbitrary and variable anyway), I truly believe that the 15 pounds I’ve lost this year are gone forever. This is a huge shift from my previous attempts at weight loss, when I would lose 15 or 20 pounds, then bounce right back up again as soon as I stopped “dieting.” Now, I don’t feel as if I’m on a diet every day; I’m just generally making better choices, eating smaller portions of more nutritious foods, and the scale is heading in the right direction. Slowly, slowly, but I’ll take it.

Goal: Eat healthfully at least five days a week.

Status: Generally, yes. I have “bad” foods once in a while – French fries are my weakness – but I find that I don’t crave them as I used to, I don’t eat as much of them when I have them, and I eat them only when I really, really want to. The random office cakes, cheap Halloween candies, and fast-food burgers have lost their power over me. Continue reading

Project Louise: What To Do About Cholesterol?

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

One of my original goals for this project was: “Lower my cholesterol and triglycerides.” I’ve been doing some serious thinking about that lately, along with a bit of research, and I’d like to share the results with you.

The serious thinking started last spring, when I ran across the current controversy about the risks of statins in postmenopausal women.

A growing number of physicians and researchers are arguing that, for some women like me, the risks of taking statins to lower cholesterol may outweigh the potential benefits. And the risks are scary: muscle pain (and, more rarely, permanent muscle damage), kidney and liver issues and – yikes! – increased risk of diabetes. Aside from being my own biggest fear, diabetes also, ironically, increases the risk of heart disease, the very thing statins are meant to prevent.

All this gave me pause, because my doctor had prescribed a statin a while ago, and my argument to the nurse practitioner (whom I actually see more often than the doctor) that I didn’t really want to take it had been met with a firm insistence that I should. Based on my numbers, she said – total cholesterol around 350, with an HDL (“good” cholesterol) of around 60 – there was no question.

So I took it for about a month, but I felt tired and achy – maybe just because of life in general, but the achiness felt worse than usual. So when I saw the new studies, I thought, “You know what? I’m just going to stop.”

And I did, and I felt better. But I’ve been avoiding going back to the nurse practitioner to tell her. All of which strikes me as the behavior of a naughty child, rather than a mature adult.

So, as a mature adult, this week I sought another opinion. My editor, Carey Goldberg, suggested I talk with Dr. Vikas Saini, a cardiovascular specialist and the president of the Lown Institute. He’s known for promoting the cause of “right care,” or “avoiding avoidable care” – that is, for arguing that modern medical practice too often overtreats patients, with frequently expensive and sometimes disastrous results. This seems self-evident to me, though it has been enough to create huge controversy in some circles.

In any case, I called Dr. Saini and talked with him about statins, in both general and personal terms. After noting that statins have become a fairly polarizing issue in the medical community, he asked a few questions about my personal and family history.

Dr. Vikas Saini

Dr. Vikas Saini

I gave him my numbers, which he agreed create a slightly increased risk – on paper, anyway. But when I told him that both my grandmothers had high cholesterol but lived into their 90s (and neither died of heart disease), and that neither of my parents, who also had high cholesterol, died of heart disease, either, he said that this history “makes me very, very suspicious of any attempt to paint your high cholesterol as a risk factor. It doesn’t add up.”

Well, hurrah. So I’m not being stupid to stop taking the statin?

“I don’t think that’s stupid at all,” Saini said. “I personally wouldn’t do much of anything except check your numbers.”

And, of course, keep increasing my commitment to exercise – “at least get it up to three times a week” – and eat your basic Mediterranean diet with plenty of olive oil, and work on stress reduction. All these factors, he noted, clearly help prevent heart disease. Continue reading

Project Louise: The Zombie Workout Adds Strength Training

Louise's new role model: Rob Zombie. Note the muscle tension achieved by the squat.

Louise’s new role model: Rob Zombie. Note the muscle tension achieved by the squat. (Alfred Nitsch via Wikimedia Commons)

Back to the gym at last! I’ve been working out, far too sporadically and half-heartedly, at home, mostly doing my zombie workout on the treadmill. But as the cooler temperatures have been reminding me that year’s (and Project’s) end draws ever nearer, I knew it was time to get serious. And that meant a call to Trainer Rick.

Rick DiScipio is a kind, patient trainer who always manages to push me without making me feel guilty for not having pushed myself. So, even though I’d been neglecting him for months, he happily scheduled a session and walked me through a simple routine. Because he knew I’ve managed to do some cardio on my own, we decided to focus on some very simple strength training.

The key this time is that it’s all something I can do at home – no more using “no time to get to the gym” as my excuse for not doing a real workout. And Rick suggested that I set a small goal for the first couple of weeks. “Just do it twice a week,” he said. “That’s all. Just twice a week. What you need is to develop the habit.”

What I also need, I’m discovering, is a sense of community – a sense that other people are on this journey with me. So here’s my routine. I hope you’ll join in (assuming your doctor wouldn’t object, of course). Just twice a week.

First, a couple of notes. I don’t know about you, but I have torn out pages of suggested workouts from magazines, bookmarked routines online, bought videos, picked up flyers … and never done any of them. So I am deliberately not making this fancy, because I don’t want you to bookmark it or print it out and then never do it.

Instead, I want you to read through it, realize how ridiculously simple it is, and then try it just once. Continue reading