Prescription Plan 2010

A New Year means a new start. For 2010, we offer ten ways to improve your health.



1. SURVIVE A HOSPITAL STAY

That sounds ironic, doesn't it? But the sobering truth is that in recent years more and more hospital patients have picked up infections while they were being treated for other ailments. Some of these infections were mild, but in the 1990s a growing number of infections proved resistant to drugs, and were all too often fatal. The main problem was the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) bacteria, which the Journal of the American Medical Association said was increasing at an "alarming" rate.

The good news is that, thanks to more stringent sterilization procedures, the number of MRSA infections in hospitals has dropped by almost 50 percent in the past 10 years.

But it's still a risk, so patients should speak up: Mention any unsanitary conditions they see during their stay in the hospital, and — though it may sound rude — insist that doctors and nurses wash their hands thoroughly before they touch you.

One other helpful hint: Always bring along a friend or family member if you'll be staying awhile in the hospital. If you're ill or disabled, they can ask questions for you, check on medications ("he got a blue pill yesterday, so why is it a white pill today?"), and in general keep an eye on you while the nurses and doctors are tending to other patients.

2. PUT A CORK IN IT

Everybody's familiar with the T-shirts or hats that say, "I don't have a drinking problem. I get drunk, I fall down, no problem." A few drinks now and then probably don't hurt, and some studies indicate a glass of red wine daily can prevent heart disease. But if you reach the point where you drink to the point of falling down, well, you really do have a problem.

All sorts of remedies have been tried in the past, but nothing really works; that's why Alcoholics Anonymous has more than 1.8 million members. But doctors have recently discovered the drug naltoxene, which curbs your body's urge to drink. Time magazine reports that "in order for the pill to work, you have to take it daily, making a commitment to sobriety every day," which can be a challenge. The FDA has recently approved an injectable form of naltroxene, which works for an entire month. "In a study conducted last year," says Time, "the injection got high marks, reducing the number of days on which the subjects drank and the amount they consumed when they slipped."

3. ENJOY SOUNDS OF SILENCE

More than 50 million Americans are afflicted with tinnitus — a ringing, buzzing, or hissing noise in one or both ears. Sometimes it's so loud that normal conversation is difficult, and so bothersome that it leads to anxiety and depression. Tinnitus can be the result of exposure to loud noises, diseases, and the normal aging process.

So how to treat it? The first step is a visit to an otolaryngologist, who can test for Meniere's disease (abnormal fluid buildup in the inner ear), tumors on the nerves linking the ear to the brain, and other causes.

Once medical problems have been ruled out, doctors usually recommend reducing your sodium intake, which affects the fluid pressure in the inner ear. Memphis otolaryngologist Dr. Thane Duncan suggests a diet that keeps sodium levels under 1,000 milligrams per day — not so easy with today's on-the-go diets. Most fast-food offerings easily top 1,000 mg for just one meal

Keep in mind, too, that common drugs — including aspirin and products with alcohol or caffeine — can also trigger tinnitus.

Don't bother with over-the-counter remedies touted to "cure" tinnitus. Consumer Reports recently tested a product called Serenity, which promises "tinnitus relief." Each pill contains ginkgo biloba and zinc, and CR says that "the bulk of scientific research shows inconsistent or no benefit."

4. SCREEN AGAINST SKIN CANCER

Last year, more than 60,000 people were diagnosed with melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — and some 8,000 died. Those deaths are especially depressing because this type of cancer is largely preventable, and even curable if caught early.

But detection is the key. Is that odd splotch on your shoulder a harmless mole, or something more ominous? Everyone needs to recognize the warning signs of skin cancer, and — even easier — they need to avoid excessive exposure to the sun.

"The relationship between ultraviolet light and skin cancer is now more firmly established than the relationship between smoking and lung cancer," says John Huber, a skin cancer specialist with the Memphis Dermatology Clinic.

Anyone spending a day at the beach should wear sunscreen, though sometimes the lotions themselves can contribute to the problem. "They make people think they are a lot more protected than they really are," says Huber. "Sunscreens replace common sense." He reminds patients that the SPF number does not translate into hours: A sunscreen with 15 SPF (relatively weak protection, actually) does not mean it gives 15 hours' protection. In fact, if you go into the ocean, for example, and it washes off, it offers no protection at all.

5. MY HEAD HURTS!

It's hard to describe the pain of a migraine, and it's even more frustrating to find an effective treatment for it. Over the years, researchers couldn't even agree on the causes of these excruciating, often-one-sided headaches. Some said it was the result of blood vessels in the head and brain constricting; others believed the blood vessels actually expanded. New research suggests the pain may, in fact, be the result of electrical activity.

Who cares WHY? We just want our heads to stop hurting. There's plenty of prescription medicine available, either in oral or injectable form. Some of these are taken before a migraine starts; others are designed to lessen the severity of an attack. The problem is that none of them work all that well.

The main focus these days is on "triggers," and migraine sufferers are now told to avoid certain foods (including such seemingly innocuous items as lima beans and baked bread), and smells (such as strong perfume). Even the weather (changes in barometric pressure that accompany a thunderstorm, for example) can be a trigger for some people.

Well, to find another trigger, just look to the light. A recent study published by the Vestibular Disorders Association examined fluorescent lamps as migraine triggers. What researchers discovered is that normal incandescent lightbulbs barely flicker when they are on, but fluorescent tubes can flicker as much as 40 percent above and below their average intensity — enough, they say, to cause headaches in people abnormally sensitive to these changes.

The good news is that the smaller compact fluorescent lights, which are becoming more popular because of their energy savings, only flicker about 12 percent — not enough to induce migraines, they feel.

6. WATCH OUT FOR THE RAYS

This happens all the time. You go to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for nasal congestion, and the doctor orders an x-ray of your sinuses. A few weeks later, perhaps you develop a headache or earache. You visit another doctor, and once again you get an x-ray of your head.

Nobody is quite sure what cumulative damage — if any — results from repetitive x-rays, but if the medical community wasn't concerned, their technicians wouldn't step out of the room (or wear lead smocks) while making the scan.

A normal set of low-power dental x-rays isn't an issue, but CT scans — increasingly used for diagnostic testing — expose patients to rather high levels of radiation. Obviously, in case of severe illnesses, the benefit outweighs any risk. But according to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine of some 950,000 adults, almost 20 percent received what physicians considered "high" doses of radiation from repetitive testing.

The solution? Time magazine reports that Canada is establishing a national "radiation-dose registry" so that physicians can keep track of testing and "records of radiation exposure would be stored." The U.S. may soon follow their example. This would allow doctors to determine if non-radioactive procedures, such as ultrasounds or MRIs (which use magnetic waves) would be just as effective — and less harmful in the long run.

7. KICK THE HABIT

Smoking is "cool" — everybody knows that. Just look at the movie stars, the billboards, all the images that bombard us every day. Once you take that first puff, maybe as early as elementary school, you've got that first hit of nicotine, and few substances are so addictive.

Later, when you begin to realize that the specter of lung cancer or emphysema is definitely not cool, you try to stop, but it's almost impossible. You may escape the tobacco fiend for a while, but then you find a half-empty pack in a drawer and think, "Oh, just one cigarette won't hurt," and it's back to a two-pack-a-day habit.

A popular treatment technique is the use of nicotine patches, designed to pump the drug into your system on a gradually decreasing basis, as you switch to less and less potent patches, but the process takes time and many patients give up. Another approach is a drug called Chantix, which curbs the pleasure of puffing by "shutting off the nicotine receptors in your brain," according to the company website.

It's not a sure-fire cure. Patients have to continue taking Chantix for up to 12 weeks, and studies show that it is effective in only 44 percent of patients. That means more than half take up cigarettes again, but for the rest who complete the program, it's like a breath of fresh air — literall

8. KEEP THOSE LOCKS

Every year, more than 33 million men and 22 million women in America look in the mirror, see their scalp peeking through, and realize with a shock, "I'm going bald." Then they start paying more attention to the ads and TV commercials about hair-loss treatment: shampoos, chemicals, even things like laser combs. The problem is that most of these products do not work.

"Salons will often sell deep-cleansing treatments that claim they clean the root, which is what causes hair loss, and that is completely false," says Memphis dermatologist Dr. Thomas Chu.

Only two nonsurgical treatments work, and not very well. "Propecia is effective in about 30 to 40 percent of patients, but it won't grow a full head of hair," says Chu. "Rogaine will keep what hair you have, to some degree in some people, but any new hair will be very fine — like peach fuzz. In most people, it doesn't make any appreciable change." Another problem with the medications is the cost — $3 a day — and patients have to continue them for the rest of their lives, or the hair loss will recur.

A more permanent treatment is hair restoration surgery. Developed in the 1980s, the early transplants were crude because doctors took large "plugs" from the scalp and planted them in rows. Today, doctors like Chu have improved the procedure with micro transplantation, which involves harvesting and implanting 400-800 hairs per session in tiny grafts. It's a demanding procedure, and not for people who have lost their hair from medical problems or chemotherapy.

Finally, Chu warns patients about hair restoration clinics that have opened up in other cities: "I see people who have gone to these chains, and they have to wear hairpieces just to cover up the scars. If you can't get a good transplant, don't get one at all. You're better off bald."

9. SEE STRAIGHT

If you're reading this without any problem, even with glasses, then you're probably okay. But if any of these lines are squiggly, blurry, or — more alarming — missing altogether, it's time to make an appointment with an eye doctor now. An exam may reveal symptoms of macular degeneration — the deterioration of the retina inside your eyeball — one of the leading causes of blindness in adults, affecting some 15 million Americans each year.

The disease comes in two forms, wet and dry, and it's particularly insidious because it affects the central portion of your vision. Images in your peripheral vision may be clear, but you just can't see what you are looking at directly.

The wet form, so named because there is actual bleeding beneath the macula, is the kind to worry about. "The wet accounts for the fewest cases, but it is the most devastating," says Dr. Allessandro Iannaccone with UT Medical Group, "because it causes disruption of the retinal tissue. The vision loss can be sudden, and severe."

Although there is presently no cure for the disease, researchers are exploring treatment that will slow its progress. One involves a needle injection directly into the eyeball. "That is pretty creepy to say but very easy to do," says Dr. Iannaccone. "You inject substances that block the growth of the membrane that leads to the bleeding and disruption of vision."

10. LIVE LONGER

Obvious advice might be: Avoid bungee-jumping, don't step in front of moving trains, and wear a high-quality parachute if you really must skydive to celebrate your 50th birthday.

But in a few years, longevity may come in the form of a pill. Time magazine reports that a study conducted by the National Institute on Aging revealed that mice given an immunosuppression drug called rapamycin lived longer — 9 percent longer for males, and 12 percent longer for females. The drug is normally used in people to prevent rejection after organ transplants; this unusual side effect was rather unexpected.

"How rapamycin works is not clear," says Time, "but the investigators believe it may be related to the mechanics of caloric restriction, which has also been shown to have life-extending powers." In other words, the medicine somehow "tricks" cells into using their available nutrients more efficiently.

It's still a giant leap from mouse to man, and the drug has some rather severe side effects. But if it adds years to your life, it may be worth it

Just a Click Away

Looking for quick — and reliable — medical advice? Here are 10 web resources for 2010.  
 

WebMD
This should be your first stop on the information highway. WebMD is a comprehensive site, with sections devoted to health topics, drugs and supplements, healthy living, eating and diet, parenting and pregnancy, and mental health. There’s even a new section devoted to pet health.
webmd.com

MedLinePlus
Concerned about drug efficiency, side effects, interactions, and other issues with your prescriptions? MedLinePlus has all the answers, with every drug currently being manufactured listed alphabetically.
medlineplus.com

American Heart Association

The latest news on treatments, medications, diets, healthy living, and more. The “Stories of Hope” section tells about heart attack survivors. www.americanheart.org

American Stroke Association
A comprehensive site that describes warning signs, stroke prevention and survival, with a heart and stroke encyclopedia.
www.strokeassociation.org

American Cancer Society
The definitive website for anyone who has cancer, or knows somebody else suffering from the disease. Cancer facts and figures, the most effective treatments, the latest research programs, ways to quit smoking, stories of hope, and much more. 
www.cancer.org

MAYO CLINIC SYMPTOM CHECKER
Probably not the best site if anyone has the slightest case of hypochondria, but an excellent resource if you’re concerned about nagging pains, an odd-looking mole, a new headache — just about every condition you can imagine.
MayoClinic.com/health/symptom-checker

VESTIBULAR DISORDERS ASSOCIATION
The latest medical advances for anyone who suffers from vertigo, tinnitus, migraines, and other neurological disorders.
www.vestibular.org

AMERICAN DENTAL ASSOCIATION        
We’ve come a long way since the days when George Washington wore wooden teeth, and this website offers more than 200 topics related to the latest news on dental health, care, and treatment.
www.ada.org

NATIONAL HEADACHE FOUNDATION
Treating headaches is one of the medical profession’s most baffling tasks, but this site offers information on the latest techniques, medical advances, and medications.
www.headaches.org 

AMERICAN DIABETES ASSOCIATION
A very reliable source for patients suffering from one of this country’s most prevalent diseases Up-to-date information, medications, and more.
www.diabetes.org

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