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Reducing the risk of falls

Practicing tai chi or taking part in the Silver Sneakers exercise program seemed to reduce the risk of falls among stroke survivors in a study reported at the International Stroke Conference in Honolulu last month.

Over 12 weeks, there were five falls among 30 stroke survivors who practiced tai chi, compared to 15 falls among 28 stroke survivors assigned usual care, said Ruth E. Taylor-Piliae, assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Nursing.

The 31 stroke survivors assigned to the Silver Sneakers group experienced a similar decline in the incidence of falls, compared to usual care, Ms. Taylor-Piliae said. Stroke survivors suffer seven times as many falls, on average, as do healthy adults of the same age.

Ms. Taylor-Piliae cautioned that the number of participants in the study was too small to draw statistically valid conclusions from it. Tai chi's emphasis on balance is why it is apparently so effective, she said.

The West Penn-Allegheny Health System offers eight- and 16-session tai chi classes at two locations, the professional building at Allegheny General Hospital, and the WPAHS Outpatient Care Center in Peters. The next class sessions begin April 8. The cost is $75 for eight classes (one per week), $130 for 16 classes (two per week). For more information, or to register, call 412-362-8677.

Berries a heart-healthy habit

Women who eat strawberries or blueberries at least three times a week may be protecting their heart health, suggests a study published recently in the journal Circulation.

Researchers examined the outcomes for 93,600 women enrolled in the Nurses Health Study II. At the time of their enrollment in 1991, the women were ages 25 to 42.

During the 18 years following their enrollment, women who ate at least three servings a week of berries were 34 percent less likely to suffer a myocardial infarction than the women who rarely or never ate these fruits.

"We've known for some time that berries are good for the heart, but we aren't certain of the mechanism," said Indu Poornima, director of the Women's Heart Center at Allegheny General Hospital.

The most likely reason, Dr. Poornima said, is the high level of anthocyanins in the berries. Anthocyanins are responsible for the red, blue and purple colors in fruits, vegetables, cereal grains and flowers.

Anthocyanins are among the flavinoids -- compounds with strong anti-oxidant properties. Flavinoids are found in many other fruits and vegetables, and in red wine and dark chocolate. All flavinoids improve heart health, but the anthocyanins appear to be the most potent. Consuming other types of flavinoids didn't lower significantly the risk of heart attack, the researchers found. But, they caution, this may have been in part because dark chocolate wasn't included in most of the food frequency questionnaires on which the study is based.

Another factor clouding the outcome is that the women who ate a lot of berries had a healthier diet overall, were more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke.

Vitamin D is useful, again

Taking a vitamin D supplement can help older adults maintain muscle strength, according to a study published in January in the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

"Vitamin D was significantly associated with arm and leg muscle strength when controlling for age and gender," said researchers affiliated with the Henry Low Heart Center at Hartford (Conn.) hospital in their study of 419 healthy men and women, ranging in age from 20 to 76.

Vitamin D appears to be better at building arm strength than leg strength, the researchers found.

An earlier review by researchers at the University of Western Ontario of 13 studies of 2,146 adults aged 63 to 99 concluded that daily doses of vitamin D of 800 to 1,000 international units "consistently showed beneficial effects on muscle strength and balance." (An international unit measures the potency, rather than a quantity, of a substance. It varies from substance to substance. An IU of vitamin D isn't the same size as an IU of vitamin A or vitamin E.)

Vitamin D is absorbed natually from sunlight and some foods, including salmon and milk. In older adults, vitamin D deficiency has been associated with falls, fractures, reduced muscle strength and difficulties with balance and walking.

Perils of TV watching

If you don't want your child to be overweight, don't put a television set in his or her bedroom.

Children with television sets in their bedrooms spent more time watching TV than the kids who have to go to the living room or the family room to watch, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University found in a study of 369 children and adolescents in Baton Rouge. More weight gain was associated with more time watching TV.

"A bedroom TV associated with three times the odds of elevated cardiometabolic risk, elevated waist circumference, and elevated triglycerides," the Pennington researchers found.

In addition to promoting sedentary behavior, bedroom sets are related to lower amounts of sleep and a lower prevalence of family meals, independent of total TV viewing time, the researchers said.

"Both short sleep duration and lack of regular family meals have been related to weight gain and obesity," they said.

The average American child aged 8 to 18 watches about 4.5 hours of television a day. Seventy percent have a TV in the bedroom.

Adults need to watch their own television habits, too, of course: After the age of 25, every hour we spend watching television reduces our life expectancy by 21.8 minutes, according to a study of 12,000 Australian adults published last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. This was true even for adults who exercise regularly. By comparison, smoking a cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes.

The average adult spends 50 to 70 percent of his or her time sitting, according to another Australian meta-study published the year before. Those who sit the most have a 49 percent greater risk of premature death.

"The most striking feature of prolonged sitting is the absence of skeletal muscle contractions, particularly in the very large muscles of the lower limbs," said the senior author of that study. Lack of muscle contraction means less glucose burned, which results in surplus blood sugar, which contributes to diabetes and other health risks.

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