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December 31st, 2008
04:18 PM ET

On being grateful and random acts of kindness

By Andrea Kane
CNNhealth.com Producer

I am sure that I am not the only one who is going to be glad to see 2008 in the rearview mirror, receding in the distance - what with all the financial turbulence, the foreclosures, the layoffs, the generally gloomy mood.

And for me, the economic downturn was mirrored by a downturn in my husband's health. Neither one is permanent (I hope!) but both served to cast a pall over the year. It started in May, with the quite sudden discovery of kidney cancer. From discovery to diagnosis to surgery to release from the hospital took a week and a day. My parents came down from New York City to help with the girls, neighbors and friends brought food, helped with daily stuff.

My husband recovered from his surgery (with an excellent prognosis) and gradually life returned to normal. In two months, he had returned to work part-time.

Part-time slipped to full time until... the end of September when he developed a tear in his retina after a jump from a climbing wall; by the following week, despite laser treatment, it had detached.

He had to have real cut-open-your-eye surgery (including stitches!) –the kind that required him to lie with is head at a 30-degree angle for 20 out of 24 hours. This lasted two weeks. Then, he was able to move around for two hours a day. This lasted another two weeks. And, just when we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel (so to speak), we got devastating news: he was among the 5% that developed proliferative vitreoretinopathy (PVR), a catastrophic complication to the surgery. Basically it means that his eye produced too much scar tissue, which stuck to the retina and then contracted, and redetached the retina all over again.

Another surgery to reattach. Another two weeks of immobility. Then a third surgery to replace the gas bubble in his eye with the stronger silicone oil in the hopes of keeping his retina as "flat as a pancake" against the eye's back wall.

Throughout this whole time, there were countless early morning doctor's appointments I had to drive him to and from (plus get myself ready for work, and get the girls to school in a timely manner), groceries to buy, kids to tend and a household to run. Friends, neighbors and family were kind and understanding, but because it happened on the heels of the other crisis, because it wasn't life-threatening and because I didn't expect it to drag on, I didn't get my support system in place.

I turned away general offers of help ("Oh, we're just fine, thanks!") until... a perfect stranger knocked on my door. Or, rather, rang up my cell. Until that moment, I hadn't realized how overwhelmed I felt.

The unknown neighbor heard about our situation  - through the ever-present neighborhood grapevine - and called: she wanted to bring me dinner and would Sunday be okay to drop it off?

I fought off tears. Her kindness touched my heart and made me realize how desperate I was for... what? Relief from the drudgery of every day household tasks like cooking? While the dinner, for food's sake, was certainly appreciate, it went so much deeper than that. While I had been trying to keep it all together, keep it all inside, here was someone who without even knowing me had extended - unasked, unbidden - a helping hand. And by reaching out, she had unleashed a gush of gratitude.

Studies out of Kent State University and University of California at Davis have shown that gratitude, or being thankful, can increase a person’s happiness levels. People who count their blessings are more satisfied with their lives overall, more optimistic about the future.

In 2009, I resolve that when someone has a baby, gets sick, or has some kind of difficulty, I will remember this lesson: Don't ask, just do. So strange that it took a stranger to remind me of the power of a random act of kindness, and the heart-warming pleasure of gratitude.

What are you grateful for? Tell us.

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


Filed under: Cancer • Caregiving • Men's Health

December 25th, 2008
09:30 AM ET

Is belly fat more dangerous to our health?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers’ questions. Here’s a question for Dr. Gupta.

Asked by Sydney, Fort Wayne, Indiana

"I heard that having a potbelly is the worst type of fat to have. Any truth to that?"

Answer:

Thanks for the question, Sydney. There’s been a lot of research trying to determine whether abdominal fat is, in fact, different from fat in other areas of our body. The answer is yes. We now know belly fat is the most dangerous type to have because it’s actually more biologically active, which causes calcium build-up in our arteries. This is significant because often people in a normal BMI range are still carrying extra weight in their stomachs but may not realize they’re at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Also, research recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people with belly fat have a higher risk of dying compared to their peers without a spare tire.

So now the question is how do you figure out whether you’re at risk? Instead of just looking at the number on the scale, keep track of something known as your waist-to-hip ratio. Here’s how to do it: Measure the circumference around your belly button and then around your hips. You want your waist measurement to be smaller than your hips and thighs. The smaller the better. In the study I mentioned, researchers say a 2-inch increase in waist circumference raises mortality risk by 17 percent in men and 13 percent in women, regardless of BMI.

On a positive note, stomach fat is really the easiest to lose. Making a few tweaks to your diet routine and more importantly, if you get moving, you’ll notice your stomach fat slim down in no time at all. Exercise is still the best way to maintain long-term healthy weight. Try to fit in some sort of daily activity. Don't have an hour? No problem. Split up activities into small amounts throughout your day and reap the same benefits. Also, if you have weight to lose, the worst thing you can do is stop eating. The best way to get your metabolism moving and lose weight is to eat frequently - small meals every four to five hours. Also, never skip breakfast. Studies show people who eat breakfast lose more weight and burn more calories than those who do not.

So bottom line, Sydney, pay attention to not only how much you weigh, but where the fat is settling in on your body.


December 24th, 2008
09:30 AM ET

Broken heart syndrome

By Karen Denice
CNN Medical Senior Producer

As a medical producer I’ve become a bit of a de facto health adviser to my family. Usually it’s about knee pain or headaches, minor stuff. Unfortunately a few weeks ago it was major – my mother was feeling fatigued, coughing frequently and her heart ached. I was worried, but thought it might just be grief. Her brother had died suddenly just days before and anyone who has dealt with the death of a loved one knows it feels like your heart is physically breaking.

Marie Denice and Karen Denice

Marie Denice and Karen Denice

I’m lucky that my parents are great “empowered patients” and so now in their 70s they work hard to remain in good health. So after some prodding, my mom went to her doctor, who didn’t like the sound of things and sent her to a cardiologist. The cardiologist already had a baseline EKG for her, so when he did another he knew something was wrong. My mom called. “The doctor said I had a heart attack,” and she was going in the next day for an angiogram. Those words still shock me.

Luckily, rational thought returned, and I remembered a story we’d done a couple of years ago on a condition called "broken heart syndrome". It looks like a classic heart attack with an abnormal EKG, chest pain, fatigue etc., but doctors have discovered it is far less damaging to the heart. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that found stress cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, can occur when someone, often older women, receive shocking news. The emotional impact of that news can set off a powerful chain reaction – adrenalin and other stress hormones surge – stunning the heart. While this syndrome is still a bit of a mystery, the good news is, doctors believe that, unlike a heart attack, there is usually no long-term impact on the heart.

I e-mailed my mother the study and other articles, hoping this is what she had, hoping there was no damage to her heart. But her angiogram would tell the tale – showing any blockages or damage. Thank goodness, she came out with a clean bill of health and the doctor diagnosed stress cardiomyopathy. Phew!

Days later she went back to her primary care physician to tell him the good news and brought the research I’d sent her. The doctor had never heard of broken heart syndrome. This is an important point for everyone who comes to CNNhealth and is a health consumer. In this state of health care, primary doctors often don’t have time to read all the medical journals and research out there. So, empower yourself and if you suspect your symptoms are something other than what they say – speak up and talk it over with your doctor.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


December 22nd, 2008
09:30 AM ET

The impact of meanness

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

I can't handle rude people. You know the ones I'm talking about: the pushy pedestrians who shove you as they pass you on the escalator, the speed demons who cut you off in traffic, the shoppers who try to jump in front of you in line. They never say "excuse me",  and they don't wait their turn.  No one matters but them. They care less about anyone else.

Yet you'd figure during the holidays, when COMFORT and JOY are the buzz words of the day, and "Peace on Earth, good will to men"  is echoing in every grocery store, these lads and ladies of the long faces and bad attitudes would cheer up a little bit.  Hardly. In fact, during stressful times of the season, these "Nasties" seem to thrive and what's worse, they can turn unsuspecting folks into "Nasties" as well.

That's because, it seems being inconsiderate and rude to people has a much bigger impact than being nice. A recent study, conducted at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, found feeling slighted can have a bigger impact on how a person treats another, than being the recipient of someone's generosity.

Working with college students who were tasked with exchanging money in an orchestrated test of taking and sharing, researchers found the young people were willing to share at beginning of the study. But when they felt they were being taken advantage of, or that their fellow students were cheating them, they became more aggressive and greedier, rather than stepping back and appreciating what they were given.

Psychologists say this is not unusual. The meaner deed has the greater impact. Give something to someone and they may appreciate it. Take it away and they'll fight you or at least object strongly.

One incident I witnessed a few years ago sprang to mind when I read this study. Picture a crowded shopping mall parking lot, two days before Christmas. The place is packed, and a young mother is waiting patiently for a soon-to-be open slot. It's obvious the parking spot is her "found treasure" and the rest of the drivers, including myself, are steering around her. Once the spot is vacated she begins to pull in, when POW, a Mini Cooper slips into the space. Without warning, the mild mannered mom with her child sleeping in the back seat, flies into a horrible rage. She jumps out of the vehicle and runs up to the driver of the Mini Cooper, who could care less that he has taken her parking spot. He begins to walk away. She attacks him, not physically, but verbally with a few single digits for good measure. And the rude gent decides he's going to one digit her one better and they proceed to scream at each other, till they are hoarse. Suddenly the woman's baby begins to cry from the idling car. She immediately runs back to her little one to comfort him and begins to cry herself in the front seat, with her car still in the parking lot aisle. All over a parking spot. In the meantime, Mini Cooper Meanie is in the mall. It was spectacle I will not soon forget. And it impacted not only her but the rest of us.

So what does this say to us? People should be good to one another. It's really that simple. All this anger and hostility not only leads to unhappy people, but can cause anxiety, which raises our blood pressure, and puts stress on our hearts. Maybe it's time we start practicing patience and understanding, instead of jumping in front of others and not caring how others feel.

Peace on Earth, good will toward people. What do you think?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


December 19th, 2008
10:30 AM ET

Facing a normal life

By Shahreen Abedin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

It’s hard to imagine not being able to go to the grocery store, or even step outside to the mailbox, out of fear of humiliation or name-calling by random strangers. And yet the woman who underwent the first successful face transplant in the U.S. two weeks ago endured these challenges on a daily basis, according to her doctors. She was robbed of a normal life when she suffered a severe trauma to her face; she lost 80 percent of it: the middle of her face was gone, as was her right eye, nose, and upper jaw bone. She could not smell, taste, and had trouble speaking and communicating. The medical team said it took 20 years of preparation, 22 hours of surgery, and months of tireless preparation using microsurgical techniques for the medical team to hook up blood vessels, nerves, and all the tiny tissues, with hopes of restoring one woman’s dignity and quality of life. Her sibling wrote a letter to doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, saying how overwhelmed they were to think of the patient finally on the road to returning to a normal life.
Isabelle Dinoire underwent the first partial face transplant in France in November 2005

Isabelle Dinoire underwent the first partial face transplant in France in November 2005

But how normal can it be? Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone totally different – the face of the transplant tissue donor? No - that’s not really what happens, as we've seen in the case of Isabelle Dinoire, the French woman who underwent the very first partial face transplant in Lyon, France, three years ago. Although today she doesn’t look like she did before her face was mauled by her dog, she also doesn’t look like the transplant donor; she has a different visage altogether. She faces a lifetime of taking anti-rejection drugs, and was reported to have twice experienced violent reactions to the new tissue, and the drugs caused infection and even kidney failure.

The Cleveland Clinic docs strongly emphasized that this isn’t just a cosmetic procedure (although it does involve plastic surgery), and they were very careful about picking the right person. After exhausting all other possible treatments, and after rigorous physical and psychological evaluations, she was chosen to receive the transplant. But it’s just a matter of time before they do the first full face transplant, and surely down the line, the procedure will become more and more frequent.

Do you foresee regular, healthy people (with lots of money!) undergoing face transplants just for the heck of it? If so, do you have a problem with it, moral, ethical, or otherwise?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


December 18th, 2008
04:40 PM ET

How can parents reduce the risk of SIDS?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

Asked by Tom, Avon, Maine

"As a father of a newborn, I am wondering what is the best way to prevent SIDS?"

Answer:

Congrats, Tom, on becoming a new parent! I am a dad of two girls, with a third on the way, so I understand the concerns that come with that responsibility.

Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, is a pretty common concern among parents. By definition it’s an unexplained death of a healthy baby, but it typically happens while they sleep. There is no clear reason why it occurs, but there are some things we know that work to lower a baby’s risk.

Many studies have showed that simply placing your baby on his or her back can dramatically reduce the risk of SIDS. You should also choose a firm crib mattress. You don’t want the baby to sink in a soft surface that could potentially block their airway. Also, don’t keep blankets and bedding in the crib with your newborn. Rather, put the baby in a sleeper, as opposed to putting a lot of bedding around the baby, and keep the face and head uncovered at all times during sleep.

And be empowered to share what you know about SIDS with your friends, family and your babies day-care facility. Don’t assume others watching your child will know the best way to reduce the risk. It occurs most often in babies 2 to 4 months, and rarely occurs after age 1.

One thing not to worry about is the common belief among some parents that childhood vaccines may cause SIDS. The American Academy of Pediatrics investigated the claim and found no link.

Bottom line Tom, as parents we can all do our best to provide a safe and healthy environment for our children but with something as uncertain as SIDS, there is often no explanation.


December 16th, 2008
03:07 PM ET

Colon cancer screening confusion

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

In a study published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Canadian researchers found that colonoscopies, the procedure used by doctors to examine the colon for abnormalities and growths, is useful for finding cancer or pre-cancerous growths in the left side of the colon, but not so useful at finding them in the right side of the colon.

Now I’ve done a lot of stories on colon cancer and colonoscopies, but left and right sides of the colon haven’t come up that often.

Researchers think that colonoscopies may not detect as many cancers in the right, or “ascending” part of the colon because it’s the farthest region to reach with the probe, making it difficult to access.

But when I first read the study I wondered what people will think when they read the study results? Possibly that colonoscopies don’t work?

And the story headlines confirm my hunch:

“Colonoscopy Screenings May Not Be That Accurate”
“Colonoscopies Prevent Fewer Cancer Deaths Than Thought in Study”
“Colonoscopy saves lives, but study finds flaws”
“Colonoscopies miss many cancers, study finds”

It’s important to understand that colonoscopies are a screening tool, meant to detect the earliest signs of cancer. Having the screening at the recommended age of 50 can locate and remove pre-cancerous polyps, preventing the development of cancer. But, like other screening tools, the procedure isn’t perfect.

The accompanying editorial suggests doctors may mislead patients into thinking that the screening reduces the risk of colorectal cancer death by 90 percent, when it’s closer to 60 or 70 percent. The American Cancer Society told me that they conservatively say colonoscopies reduce the risk for colorectal cancer by about 50 percent.

I spoke with Dr. Hal Sox, editor of the journal, to get clarity on the message they are trying to send. Sox said the message is not to discourage people from getting a colonoscopy, but to stress that it’s not a perfect screening tool. A clean colonoscopy doesn’t mean that people who have other symptoms, such as blood in the stool, shouldn’t have themselves checked by a doctor.

Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third-leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the United States. Getting screened and finding polyps or tumors early saves lives.

Have you had a colonoscopy? If not, why?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


December 12th, 2008
11:25 AM ET

Fighting high cholesterol

By Caitlin Hagan
CNN Medical Associate Producer

Everyone is afraid of something. Some people are scared of heights. Some people hate small spaces. Some people can't stand snakes. Me? I'm afraid of having my blood drawn. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your perspective), I was able to dodge it for years. But that all changed at my annual physical last January. At the time my only concern was the needle going into my arm but days later when the doctor called with my results, I learned I had a much bigger problem: high cholesterol. Despite being a healthy non-smoking 24-year-old, my cholesterol levels were much too high. I had to lower my numbers or I faced a lifetime of medicine.

For a few months I made an effort to reduce my saturated fat intake. Most mornings I took a quick walk around my neighborhood for 30 minutes. I thought high cholesterol was an easy problem to solve if I just stopped eating cheese and exercised more. But another blood test four months later proved me wrong; not only had my numbers not changed at all, but my doctor wanted to write a prescription immediately. I needed to make some drastic changes but I had no idea where to start.

My parents don’t have high cholesterol and I was at a loss to understand how I did. What foods did I need to avoid? What foods did I need to start eating? What lifestyle changes did I need to make? What, exactly, is cholesterol anyway? Armed with all these questions I started researching and what I learned was pretty sobering. Research has shown that people with high cholesterol in their 20s and 30s are more likely to suffer from heart disease later in life. Women especially need to beware because heart disease kills more women annually than any other affliction. My goal became very clear: Get my heart in shape now and save myself from possible trauma later.

Fixing my cholesterol meant making some major lifestyle changes. I joined a gym and with my new membership came a new mentality. To keep perspective, I remind myself that I'm working out to elevate my heart rate, not to drop ten pounds. I love the instant gratification of leaving an hourlong cardio class knowing that I might not have lost any weight but I literally worked my heart out. On off days I walk a two mile loop around my neighborhood to soak up some sunshine while I exercise. My goal is to move my body and elevate my heart rate once every day, either through a cardio class, a weightlifting class, a yoga class, or hiking or walking outside.

Of course, you cannot keep your cholesterol levels in check without healthy eating. Over the last several months I have restricted my diet to portions of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and omegas 3s. I rarely drink soda or eat fried food (although I randomly indulge in French fries; I can't help it!) and I have learned to cook healthy meals at home. I am not a vegetarian but I have reduced the amount of meat I eat, especially processed deli meats. So far my efforts have made a difference; I dropped my cholesterol level 11 points over the past five months. There is still room for improvement but for now I am confident in the life changes I've made.

Do you know your cholesterol levels? What have you done to lower your cholesterol score?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


December 11th, 2008
02:13 PM ET

Prescribing a clearer mind?

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

As things stand now, it is illegal for a healthy person to take prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall without a prescription. It is happening, though. In surveys of college students, some places reported use as high as 25 percent! They say they use it to boost memory, concentration and focus. And, who wouldn’t want that?

Seven scientists are asking the question aloud in a commentary that caught my eye. I have been doing stories about brain cognition for some time, and they are always some of our most popular stories. That’s because you would be hard pressed to find someone who says their memory, focus and concentration is as good as it can be. I know mine certainly isn’t. And, therein lies the problem. Should I be taking a drug to solve the problem or is our society way too over medicated already?

In case you are curious, the authors were no slouches. The group of scientists includes ethics experts and the editor in chief of the journal Nature. They all call for more research into the risk of the drugs including addiction and long term effects of amphetamines, which are an important ingredient in these brain enhancing drugs. They also want policies to ensure people are not coerced or forced into taking them. For example, you wouldn’t want your employer requiring  you to alter your brain chemistry because they thought it made you more productive or focused.

I guess the real question is would you take these medications? Let’s say they went over the counter tomorrow, would you start taking them or recommending them for your family members even if you or they had never been diagnosed an with attention disorder?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


December 9th, 2008
12:05 PM ET

Welcome to CNNhealth!

For over a year now, we at CNN have been busy working on a new Web site. Dozens of people came together to try and figure out what our Web users really wanted. You probably know CNN.com is already one of the most visited news sites in the world, and when it came to health, we knew we had to deliver something special. It had to be a place where you could not only get the latest news in the world of health, but also the knowledge that could improve your life every single day. It had to be a place where you could feel confident in the information you were getting, but also offered a way to communicate directly with experts, who are the very best at what they do. It had to rise above the clutter that has become a characteristic of so many health sites and it also had to appeal to your brain… and to your heart.  It had to become an essential part of your life.

The site you are about to open is essential, and we take great pride in knowing it could help improve the quality and length of your life.

You see every day, there is something happening somewhere in the world that could make your life better, sometimes in huge ways, sometimes in small. But, always better. So, here was our challenge. How do we find these new discoveries from places like Okinawa, Costa Rica and Sardinia and make them available to people everywhere in the world? How do we make sure the first sign of success in the treatment of  diseases such as Alzheimer's, spinal cord injury or ALS is brought to you the consumer immediately? How do we make sure the very best knowledge available anytime, anywhere would be immediately available at your fingertips? That was the challenge and we are pretty sure we got it right.

You see, CNN is a huge news organization with bureaus in major cities all over the world and a newsgathering operation that is second to none.

Just about every minute of every day, our reporters and producers are all over the world finding knowledge.

 Truth is, we gather more far more information and content than can ever be used on television alone. But we also recognize this information is valuable and should be made available to you, the consumer. So, part of our mandate is everything we learn and know – you will now learn and know. It is an incredible tool and we call it CNNhealth.com.

I will be your guide, and I could not be more delighted and honored to do it. Go on this journey with us – and together we will create a culture of wellness and prevention in this country. Together we will create a more fit America and together we will live better and longer for ourselves and for our loved ones.

Let's get started.


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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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