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Report: Dietary Supplements Send Thousands To The ER Annually

Dietary supplements can make you sick.

That’s the quick takeaway from a new report, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, that might make you think twice about the supplements.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conclude that about 23,000 emergency department visits each year in the United States can be attributed to “adverse events” due to dietary supplements. “Such visits commonly involve cardiovascular manifestations from weight-loss or energy products among young adults and swallowing problems, often associated with micronutrients, among older adults,” the study says.

Researchers analyzed data on dietary supplement-related emergency department visits over a 10-year period, from Jan. 1, 2004, through Dec. 31, 2013, from 63 hospitals. Of the more than 23,000 ER visits, researchers report that 2,154 patients were then hospitalized for further treatment. (The new analysis did not include patients who may have died en route to the hospital.)

The backdrop to all this is that supplement sales are dramatically on the rise:

The estimated number of supplement products increased from 4,000 in
1994 to more than 55,000 in 2012 (the most recent year for which data are publicly available), and approximately half of all adults in the United States report having used at least one dietary supplement in the past month. In 2007, out-of-pocket expenditures for herbal or complementary nutritional products reached $14.8 billion, one third of the out-of-pocket expenditures for prescription drugs.

I asked the study’s lead author, Dr. Andrew Geller with the CDC, what consumers should make of the study. Here’s what he said, via email:

People may not realize that dietary supplements can cause any adverse effects, but each year thousands of people are treated in emergency departments for symptoms attributed to dietary supplements.

Young adults taking products to lose weight or increase energy should keep in mind that some of these products can have effects on their heart, and they should not take these products in excess. If you have a heart condition, talk to your doctor before starting a weight loss or energy supplement.

Older adults should be mindful of possible choking or other swallowing problems from taking supplements. They should avoid taking several pills at once, avoid extra large pills or capsules, and swallow supplements with plenty of water or other fluid. Tell your physician you are having difficulty swallowing pills and ask him/her or your pharmacist for other options or if you can cut the supplement in half.

Patients should always tell their doctors if they are taking dietary supplements, and which ones.

All medicines and dietary supplements should be stored up, away and out of sight of young children.

Pieter Cohen — an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and asistant professor at Harvard Medical School who studies dietary supplements and has been critical of the federal law governing them — said the new study may trigger some long-needed changes.

“This study is the most important research published since the passage of DSHEA [the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994] and sends a clear message: Not only does the regulatory framework make no sense, it’s posing imminent threats to the public’s health,” Cohen says. “The publication of this new CDC study will hopefully be a watershed in regulating supplements in the U.S.”

He adds that the current regulations “are based on the premise that all supplement ingredients are safe.” But, he says, “with the new CDC study we learn that these products are anything but safe. In fact, the CDC found that supplements lead to tens of thousands of emergency room visits and thousands of hospitalizations each year.” Continue reading

How I Was Seduced By Cigarettes, And What Set Me Free

By David C. Holzman
Guest Contributor

More than half a century has passed since Luther Terry released the landmark U.S. surgeon general’s report on smoking and health.

Since then, smoking in the U.S. has declined dramatically. Nonetheless, roughly 50 million Americans still smoke.

Tobacco’s ‘Fantastic Voyage’

If anyone should have been immune to taking up smoking, it was me.

As a prepubescent child, I absorbed the lessons about the importance of living healthily that my parents instilled. At age 10, I got them to quit smoking after the first surgeon general report came out — although I’m sure they would have done it on their own, if not quite as quickly. Early on in my writing career, I wrote a “fantastic voyage” article about all the carcinogens in tobacco, where they went in the body, and what nefarious things they did when they got there. Little did I ever suspect I would become briefly but definitely addicted.

The germ of the habit occurred when I was medical writer for Insight Magazine. Dennis, the head copy editor, smoked like a chimney.

The author, smoking at his sister's wedding in June 1991 (Photo illustration courtesy of the author)

The author, smoking at his sister’s wedding in June 1991 (Photo illustration courtesy of the author)

“How’s that cigarette?” I’d tease him every morning when I arrived at work. “Not long enough!” he’d say. Or, “Not as good as the first one.” It became our way of bonding.

One day he said, “You want to try it?”

Curious, I took a puff. It gave a powerful kick, like a turbocharger. But it was not something I felt I needed.

But one Sunday, a few years later, I needed it. I’d gone to the car races at Summit Point, West Virginia, with my friend, Don, a former racer, and his wife Eva, who smoked. I’d slept little the week before, and D.C., where I lived at the time, was being its usual oppressively hot, humid summer self. By mid-afternoon I’d gotten so sleepy that I was getting ready to curl up in the back of my car and snooze. Then I remembered Dennis’ cigarette. I asked Eva if I could finish one of hers. A couple of puffs, and I was wide awake, once again enjoying being with my friends.

My FDA Cigarette

Around this time, I was working for daily biotech news publication, regularly covering meetings of the Advisory Committee to the head of the Food and Drug Administration. These meetings were boring. They took place in a windowless room of the incredibly ugly, mid-’50s institutional style Parklawn building. As soon as they started, off went the lights, and on went the Powerpoints.

At that point, no matter how much coffee I’d had, my head would start to sag.

So the next time I had to cover one of these meetings, I bummed a cigarette. I took several puffs, and then tossed it. This time, I remained painlessly alert after the lights went out.

I took to bumming cigarettes while I waited for the FDA meetings to start, and ultimately I bought my own pack. Continue reading

Prevention Expert: What I Wish You Knew About Not Falling Down

(Courtesy of the CDC)

(Courtesy of the CDC)

By Dr. Audrey M. Provenzano
Guest contributor

One word comes to mind when I think about Mr. H: grit.

I met him while he was in the hospital with pneumonia, the latest in a long string of hospitalizations after he broke his hip in a fall. I would see him in the halls with the physical therapist, gripping his walker, utterly absorbed in the work of lifting each foot and placing it back down.

Every morning on rounds, Mr. H would joke with us: “You’re going to throw me outta this place today, right, doc? Don’t pass go, just go home!” But beneath his humor lurked true sorrow, anger and frustration over his loss of independence. Before his fall, Mr. H had never stayed overnight in the hospital; he took only a few medicines for high blood pressure, and lived alone with his cat — a simple life he lost in a second, and yearned each day to get back.

Many of us harbor secret fears about growing older, and what many of us fear most is the loss of independence, a tragic and terrifying possibility. I’d suggest a very specific focus for those fears: falls. The most common but least talked-about reason that older adults like Mr. H lose their independence is falling down.

Here is what I most wish everyone knew about falls: They are are common, they can be devastating and, most importantly, falls are preventable.

Falls are common

Incredibly common. Thirty percent of adults over 65 fall each year. Because falls happen all the time, we don’t think about how dangerous they are. Unfortunately, one in five falls results in serious injuries, including broken bones.

Falls can be devastating

Mr. H’s story is the story of hundreds of thousands of older adults. A fall may lead to surgery, and sometimes that leads to complications, like pneumonia. Some older adults in this situation regain enough function to go back home; sadly, many do not, and one in three is still living in a nursing home a year later.

Even worse, these types of injuries often lead to declining health overall, and 20 percent of older adults who break a hip die within one year from the medical complications that frequently attend such devastating injuries.

Falls can be prevented

How? Six key recommendations, backed by the CDC, some obvious, some less so: Continue reading

CDC: One-Third Of Children With ADHD Diagnosed With The Disorder Before Age 6

(Vivian Chen/Flickr)

(Vivian Chen/Flickr)

One-third of children diagnosed with ADHD were diagnosed young — before the age of 6 — according to a new national survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier, the CDC found that based on parental reports, 1 in 10 school-aged children, or 6.4 million kids in the U.S., have received a diagnosis of ADHD, a condition marked by symptoms including difficulty staying focused and paying attention, out of control behavior and over-activity or impulsivity.

The percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased steadily since the late 1990s and jumped 42 percent from 2003-2004 to 2011-2012, the CDC says. Last year, concerns flared when a report found that thousands of toddlers are being medicated for ADHD outside of established pediatric practice guidelines.

In the current analysis, also based on parental reporting, and using data drawn from the 2014 National Survey of the Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Tourette Syndrome, the CDC also found:

•The median age at which children with ADHD were first diagnosed with the disorder was 7 years old

•The majority of children (53.1%) were first diagnosed by a primary care physician

•Children diagnosed before age 6 were more likely to have been diagnosed by a psychiatrist

•Children diagnosed at age 6 or older were more likely to have been diagnosed by a psychologist

•Among children diagnosed with ADHD, the initial concern about a child’s behavior was most commonly expressed by a family member (64.7%)

•Someone from school or daycare first expressed concern for about one-third of children later diagnosed with ADHD (30.1%)

•For approximately one out of five children (18.1%), only family members provided information to the child’s doctor during the ADHD assessment

What are we — parents, educators, doctors — to make of all this? In particular, what does it mean that so many very young kids are being diagnosed with an attention disorder? (Has anyone ever encountered a 4- or 5-year-old child who is not hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive??)

I asked two doctors — a pediatrician and a psychiatrist — for their impressions of the CDC report. Both agreed that we seem to have two problems when it comes to ADHD: over-diagnosing and under-diagnosing. Here, lightly edited, are their responses.

First, the pediatrician:

James M. Perrin, MD, is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and associate chair of MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Dr. Perrin is also the immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and chaired the 1990s committee that wrote the first practice guidelines for ADHD (and he was on the committee for the 2011 revision).

RZ: How difficult is it to diagnose ADHD in children under 6 years old?

JP: In the pediatric community, we have worked over last 15 years to train general pediatricians to make diagnoses of ADHD reliably and follow very clear, specific guidelines on how to do so. In 2011, the AAP revised its practice guidelines for ADHD and included the opportunity to diagnose children ages 4 and 5 years old.

At the same time we recognize it’s very hard to do that well in that age group…because a lot of children are inattentive at 4 — you don’t expect them to work hard and read a Hardy boys book for an hour and half. Five is often impulsive, active, so it’s not unusual to have symptoms that children with ADHD would also have at age 4, 5. So, it’s not easy.

We did say [in the guidelines] pretty clearly that you shouldn’t make the diagnoses without significant impairment of normal behavior. What we mean by that is a child whose symptoms impair her ability to play with other children, or whose behavior is so out of control that it’s dangerous, for instance she runs out in front of cars, or has many accidents, that’s when the symptoms become impairing. Continue reading

Personalized Medicine Distracts From Public Health, 2 Scholars Argue

Personalized medicine is all the rage. President Obama mentioned it in his State of The Union address this year and launched a multimillion-dollar initiative to push a personalized medicine agenda forward. The head of the National Institutes of Health has made it a priority. And really, what’s not to like about the general concept of medicine that’s personalized (it’s also called “precision medicine”) —  an approach that analyzes an individual’s genetics to make medical decisions about diagnosing and treating disease.

Well, two public health scholars argue in the New England Journal of Medicine that the current high-profile fawning over personalized medicine may be a “mistake” that diverts resources away from other public health efforts that could benefit far more people.

Ronald Bayer, Ph.D., a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, write in the journal that the great enthusiasm around personalized medicine “derives from the assumption that precision medicine will contribute to clinical practice and thereby advance the health of the public.” But, they note, that may not be the case:

We suggest, however, that this enthusiasm is premature. “What is needed now” is quite different if one views the world from the perspective of the broad pattern of morbidity and mortality, if one is concerned about why the United States has sunk to the bottom of the list of comparable countries in terms of disease experience and life expectancy, or if one is troubled by the steep social gradient that characterizes who becomes sick and who dies. The burgeoning precision-medicine agenda is largely silent on these issues, focusing instead on detecting and curing disease at the individual level…

Without minimizing the possible gains to clinical care from greater realization of precision medicine’s promise, we worry that an unstinting focus on precision medicine by trusted spokespeople for health is a mistake — and a distraction from the goal of producing a healthier population.

I spoke with Dr. Galea about why he and Bayer targeted personalized medicine, in particular. Here, lightly edited, is what he said:

Personalized medicine has become this rallying cry around resource allocation in the health sciences. The president mentioned in the State of the Union. There is a White House precision medicine initiative, and it has dominated much of the NIH agenda…so it seems important to address it directly…

Nobody is arguing that precision medicine does’t have potential, but the number of people who you could point to who have actually benefited from it are very small. And so we are investing in potential — which is fine — but it’s a matter of calibrating our investment. Instead of investing in a untried, untested approach, we should be investing in things that we know make a difference…

We know that macroeconomic taxation on unhealthy substances, on alcohol, for example, can save thousands of lives, early childhood education can make an enormous difference, efforts to increase and improve vaccination rates, efforts to mitigate cycles of violence, one could go on and on….these could improve the lives of hundreds and thousands of people…

Our commentary was a call for a recalibration…I think there’s a feeling in the scientific community that the precision medicine agenda is becoming the overwhelming direction in which we are headed and that we would benefit from discussion and debate and a more careful calibration of the questions we ask and where we invest our resources.

Continue reading

New Moms Cite Lack Of Advice From Docs On Key Issues: Sleeping, Breastfeeding

A new study found that about 20 percent of mothers said they didn’t receive advice from their baby’s doctors about breastfeeding or the current thinking on safe placement for sleeping newborns. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

A new study found that about 20 percent of mothers said they didn’t receive advice from their baby’s doctors about breastfeeding or the current thinking on safe placement for sleeping newborns. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

After I gave birth to my kids, I was bombarded with advice from family, bestselling books and even strangers on topics ranging from how to lose the baby weight, when to have sex again and which infant toys boost IQ.

But according to a new, NIH-funded study, many sleep-deprived, hormone-addled new mothers may not be getting enough advice on critical issues from a most important source: doctors and other health care providers.

When it comes to breastfeeding, infant sleep position, immunization and pacifier use, many new moms report they get no advice at all from their children’s doctors — despite medical evidence on the benefits of certain practices, like breastfeeding and placing babies on their backs for sleep.

The new study — published in the journal Pediatrics and conducted by researchers at Boston Medical Center, Boston University and Yale University — found that about 20 percent of mothers said they didn’t receive advice from their baby’s doctors about breastfeeding or the current thinking on safe placement for sleeping newborns. And more than 50 percent of mothers told investigators that doctors did not offer guidance on where the babies should sleep.

(Of course the whole issue of where newborns should sleep is controversial. Official recommendations now say babies should “room share” with parents but not “bed share.”)

The study, part of a larger national effort called SAFE (Studies of Attitudes and Factors Effecting Infant Care Practices), surveyed more than 1,000 new mothers across the country, inquiring about infant care advice they received from different sources: doctors, nurses, family members and the media.

Dr. Staci Eisenberg, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center and lead author of the new study, said in an interview that the number of moms who reported no advice from across the board is surprising.

“These findings say to me, ‘Hmm, this is a time to stop and think carefully about how we communicate, and are we communicating in a clear, specific enough way, and are we being heard, especially by new moms — new parents — who are often tired and likely overwhelmed?’ ” she said. “Amidst this sea of information, what are the messages that need to be highlighted and communicated clearly?” Continue reading

Happy 100 To You, And You — Centenarians Multiply, At Forefront Of Age Wave

Ethel Weiss, 100, dances with her daughter Anita Jamieson at the “Party Of The Century” at the Brookline Senior Center on Wednesday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ethel Weiss, 100, dances with her daughter Anita Jamieson at the “Party Of The Century” at the Brookline Senior Center on Wednesday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s a rare milestone, to turn 100 — but not nearly as rare as it used to be.

This week in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, the senior center hosted more than a dozen local centenarians for a “Party of the Century.” In the not-so-distant past — centenarian parties in 2002 and 2007 — party organizers had to reach out to centenarians from all of Greater Boston to gather a critical mass for a fete.

But now, the 99-and-over set has so grown that the party had to limit itself to just Brookline, says Ruthann Dobek, director of the Brookline Council on Aging. And if the numbers keep growing, she told the crowd, “we’re going to have to start it at 105 or 110 to be eligible.”

The centenarians are the leading edge of the fastest-growing sector of the population: people over 60. In this state, the population over 60 has grown 17 percent over just the last five years, and the over-60 cohort will soon outnumber people under 20 for the first time in history, says David Stevens, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging. Continue reading

It’s Not Just The Heat: How New England’s Sharp Shifts In Weather Affect Death Rates

(Zacharmstrong/Flickr)

(Zacharmstrong/Flickr)

You know the old saw: “If you don’t like the the weather in New England, just wait a minute.”

We tend to see our rapid shifts in weather as a benign local quirk, but there’s a darker side to them as well, and it may grow as the climate shifts: Heat waves and cold snaps are linked to little spikes in death rates, and those spikes add up to long-term effects, according to a paper just out in the journal Nature.

It charted temperature and death rates among the Medicare population for all of New England, ZIP code by ZIP code, from 2000 to 2008. Among its findings: It’s not just heat or cold that kills, it’s the sudden shifts in weather.

I asked Joel D. Schwartz, professor of environmental health at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and senior author on the paper, how he would sum up its findings. Our conversation, lightly edited:

J.S.: There are hundreds of studies that have shown that when it gets hot, more people die, and when it gets cold, more people die, on that day or in the next couple of days. But these are all studies that look at what happens in a day or two; they’re not telling you anything about the long-term effects of temperature on people’s life expectancy. Maybe all the people who die when it gets hot would have died in the next month anyway — they’re sick and something is going to cause them to die in the near future.

“If the variation in temperature went up, more people died, and that was true for winter and summer.”

– Professor Joel Schwartz

What we did is a cohort study: We took all the people in New England who are on Medicare — about 2.9 million people — and we followed them over time. And we asked the question: Does their annual mortality rate change when weather changes?

This way, we avoid having to worry about whether these are really just the short-term effects, and we can address the question: Is there really an impact on life expectancy of temperature? This is the first study to do that in a general population study; we studied all of New England.

The second new thing is that all of the studies heretofore that have looked at the effects of temperature on the risk of dying have been done in cities, because a) that’s where the weather stations are, and b) in smaller towns there aren’t enough people to really be able to see anything. But we used satellite remote sensing and we calibrated it, and were able to get the temperature for every day for every square kilometer of New England — that’s about 6/10 of a mile on a side.

We had a separate measurement of temperature for every day for every ZIP code from 2000 to 2008. And so we could calculate, then, for each person, the mean temperature in the summer for each year and the mean temperature in the winter, over multiple years. And we could ask, “Well, if mean temperature is higher one summer than the previous year in a particular zip-code, were people in that zip-code more likely to die?” And the same for winter temperature.

What we found was that indeed, if the temperature in the summer was higher, the annual mortality rate went up. If the temperature in winter was higher, the annual mortality rate went down. The summer effect was bigger than the winter effect, so if it went up by the same number of degrees in the summer and the winter, then more people would die.

The next thing we did is we asked the question, “Well, since we have this fine geographic scale of temperature, did temperature differences across ZIP codes affect mortality rates?” And what we found was that there was lower mortality rates in ZIP codes that had warmer temperatures in the winter. Continue reading

Related:

CDC: Certain Antidepressants, But Not All, Taken During Pregnancy May Raise Birth Defect Risk

The debate over whether or not it’s safe to take antidepressants during pregnancy is heated, with extreme emotions — and conflicting research studies — on both sides.

But a broad new analysis led by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came to a fairly measured conclusion when comparing pregnant women who took SSRIs — a class of antidepressants — to women who did not take those medications during pregnancy.

The analysis suggests that certain serious birth defects occur 2 to 3.5 times more frequently among babies born to mothers taking the antidepressants Prozac or Paxil early in pregnancy. But the researchers also conclude that for pregnant women taking other SSRIs, such as Zoloft, the data “provide some reassuring evidence” that earlier studies linking the drug with specific birth defects could not be replicated.

The analysis of 17,952 mothers of infants with birth defects and 9,857 mothers of infants without birth defects was published in The BMJ.

“What our paper really adds, is that we can now offer women more options,” said Jennita Reefhuis, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities and the study’s lead author. Reefhuis said that since Zoloft (sertraline) was the most common SSRI taken among the women, “it was reassuring that we could not replicate the five earlier links with birth defects.”

In an interview, Reefhuis said: “The main message is that depression and other mental health conditions can be very serious and many women need to take medication to manage their symptoms. So women who are pregnant, or thinking of becoming pregnant, shouldn’t stop or start any antidepressants without speaking to a health care provider.”

The issue, she added, isn’t clear cut, but highly dependent on each individual woman and a very personal calculation of risks versus benefits. “We are trying to find the nuance here,” Reefhuis said. “It is really important that women get treated during pregnancy. Their illness doesn’t stop the moment they get pregnant. Women need options.”

It’s also important to retain perspective when evaluating risk, Reefhuis said, noting that in every pregnancy there is already a 3 percent risk of a birth defect. Continue reading

More Health Coverage, And Perhaps More Health, For Same-Sex Couples

A crowd waves rainbow flags during the Heritage Pride March in New York on Sunday, June 28. (AP)

A crowd waves rainbow flags during the Heritage Pride March in New York on Sunday, June 28. (AP)

You know how it goes: You have the great joy of the wedding — or of the gay pride celebrations that followed the Supreme Court’s marriage decision — and then the honeymoon’s over and it’s time to talk about the mundanities of stuff like (sigh) health insurance.

But still, it can be at least quietly pleasing to contemplate the many a newlywed who’ll now qualify for insurance offered by their new spouse’s employer. (And that on top of the several million people whose health insurance subsidies were just saved by the previous Supreme Court decision, on Obamacare.)

Not to rain on the weddings, but it’s also likely that many employers’ “domestic partner” benefits will go away. The picture is complex, but a study just out in JAMA finds that legalizing gay marriage does indeed increase employer-based health insurance coverage for same-sex partners. It looked at New York after gay marriage was legalized there in 2011, and more than 12,000 same-sex couples wed. From the press release:

Compared with men in opposite-sex relationships, same-sex marriage was associated with a 6.3 percentage point increase in ESI [employer-sponsored health insurance] and a 2.2 percentage point reduction in Medicaid coverage for men in same-sex relationships. Same-sex marriage was also associated with an 8.9 percentage point increase in ESI and a 3.9 percentage point reduction in Medicaid coverage for women in same-sex relationships vs women in opposite-sex relationships.

I asked the study’s author, Gilbert Gonzales of the University of Minnesota, whether anyone had done a similar study in Massachusetts after our own pioneering legalization of gay marriage more than a decade ago. He replied by email:

The only Massachusetts study I’m familiar with is an American Journal of Public Health study that found potential improvements in gay and bisexual men’s health after MA enacted same-sex marriage in 2003. There were significant reductions in mental health care visits and expenditures in the year after MA enacted same-sex marriage, which suggests broad public health benefits for LGBT people when states recognize same-sex marriage.

Another related study on health insurance coverage looked at the 2005 domestic partnership law in California, and found the law increased health insurance coverage among lesbian women relative to heterosexual women. There was no similar finding for gay men. The JAMA study suggests that legal same-sex marriage–rather than domestic partnerships–may improve coverage options for both men and women in same-sex relationships.

How many people in all may gain employer health insurance thanks to the Supreme Court ruling? Continue reading

Further Reading: