Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Holiday health strategies, from the December 2015 Harvard Health Letter

Boston, MA — The winter holidays are known for celebration, but they're also loaded with hidden health risks, reports the December 2015 Harvard Health Letter. Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies for staying healthy and getting through the holidays.

Sometimes the holidays trigger loneliness and a general feeling of the blues. "People may be missing family members and friends who live far away, or those who've passed on. Or they may feel sad if they're unable to take part in holiday festivities the way they once did," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Ways to combat the blues include exercising, which releases the body's feel-good chemicals and is well-known for improving mood; distraction, such as seeing a movie; socializing; and volunteering for a worthwhile cause.

Another holiday health risk is overeating at parties. Strategies to avoid that include using a salad plate instead of a dinner plate to keep portions smaller and cut down on calories; staying away from red meats and other foods rich in unhealthy saturated fat; and avoiding or limiting foods that make blood sugar spike, such as potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, and sugary cocktails and desserts.

Some experiences during the holidays land people in the hospital. One example is slipping and falling in icy conditions. If people go out in icy weather, they shouldn't carry heavy shopping bags full of presents on slippery walkways or stairs. Another cause of hospital visits during the holidays: foodborne illness. Avoid getting sick by making sure any dishes with raw eggs, which may contain bacteria called Salmonella, are cooked to 160° F — even eggnog.

Read the full-length article: "3 health strategies to get you through the holidays"

Also in the December 2015 issue of the Harvard Health Letter:
  • Health apps to help the heart
  • Stop avoiding dietary fats
  • Tools to make everyday life easier
The Harvard Health Letter is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Story shorts: Drinking, Holiday Heart Syndrome, and Smoking

What is The Holiday Heart Syndrome?
By Patrick Neustatter, MD
My brother-in-law, Olly, likes a spot of red wine, but usually by the bottle rather than by the glass. When my wife Paula and I were visiting, he managed to drink himself into the "holiday heart syndrome", despite it not being the holidays. Now that the holidays, in all their horror, are actually upon us, let me tell you this salutatory tale.

Alcohol, which is of course the hallmark of the holiday season for anyone who is a serious party animal, has the ability to tickle up those specialized nerve cells in the heart. Then, what is meant to be an orderly progression of the electrical impulse to the heart muscle to make the heart beat—or pump to be more precise—becomes a bit chaotic.

Atrial fibrillation is the commonest specific arrhythmia caused by alcohol, and this whole phenomenon got named "the Holiday Heart Syndrome" (HHS for short) following an analysis of 32 patients who had "dysrhythmic episodes" after having been on a bender.

Symptoms are liable to be palpitations, which is a prominent or irregular heart beat. Or if the arrhythmias persistent, it may impair the hearts pumping ability, causing weakness, shortness of breath, even angina: the cramp like pain across the chest that typifies coronary artery disease, when there's not enough blood flow to the coronary arteries to oxygenate the heart muscle. Incidentally, some claim HHS can also be induced by marijuana – so potheads beware also.

It is common for my sister Angie, and Olly, to have fairly well-oiled dinner parties when we are over, when we are catching up with all our friends. The morning after one of these, Olly complained he hadn't slept well and he felt kind of peaky. When I felt I his pulse, it was definitely irregular, and my diagnosis was he had gone into atrial fibrillation—as he has in the past. His regular doctor being closed, we took a taxi to University College Hospital in London.

Despite the fact that on the way he suddenly announced "I feel a lot better", and when I felt his pulse it seemed to be back in regular normal sinus rhythm, we continued on. Olly was whisked into the British hospital, examined, had an ECG and was deemed cured, all in a matter of about 45 minutes.
So this story had a happy ending. But arrhythmias and atrial fibrillation can cause sudden death, according to a review in the Brazilian journal Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia. And atrial fibrillation especially can lead to the formation of blood clots that can cause strokes.

Alcohol can do other bad things to your heart but even if you're not a regular drinker, if you're tempted to gargle to excess at the office Christmas party or New Years eve, be warned, you might just short circuit your heart's vulnerable wiring.

Patrick Neustatter, M.D. ​practiced primary care for more than 40 years. Develop​ing​ an interest in coaching patients to help themselves and throw off the ingrained notion that "the doctor knows best, " he recently published Managing Your Doctor: The Smart Patient's Guide to Getting Effective, Affordable Healthcare​

Who is most likely to smoke?

The overall number of people who smoke is at an all-time low, but not everyone is ready to celebrate. Smoking rates remain alarmingly high among three groups: those with mental health issues, the LGBT community and American Indians.

Those with mental illness smoke at a rate of 36 percent - more than twice the national average. Research suggests those in the LGBT community are up to 200 percent more likely than others to be addicted to cigarettes. More than 26 percent of American Indians are smokers, the highest rate of any ethnic group and considerably higher than the national average.

Quitline experts are working to better help counsel members of these groups by offering coaches in their demographic. "We're making great strides, but it's evident that there are large groups of people who continue to struggle with tobacco and the chronic diseases associated with it," said Amy Lukowski, Psy.D., clinical director of Health Initiatives at National Jewish Health in Denver.

The quitline at National Jewish Health is the largest non-profit smoking quitline in the country, fielding up to 22,000 calls per day. Those wanting to quit can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW, to be directed to their individual state quitline.

Simply Gum 
Simply Gum is the perfect stocking stuffer this holiday season.  The only all natural, premium chewing gum on the market makes it its mission to inspire people to live simply.  Six all natural ingredients are handcrafted in the highest quality to make a gum that is not only better for the body but also for the environment as it is biodegradable, unlike most other chewing gums.  Whether you're looking for a breath refresher like their mint, cinnamon, or fennel licorice or a more tasty treat like maple, ginger, or coffee, you are sure to find a flavor that will please anyones palate and body. Simply Gum is available at retailers across the nation as well as online at

Jennifer Niven talks about her new book All The Bright Places

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Give gift of healthy vision

Give the gift of healthy vision
this holiday season

Dec. 1, 2015 – Macular degeneration affects more than ten million Americans and is the leading cause of vision loss for those aged 55 and older in the United States – but you can help improve the lives of those already diagnosed and reduce the risk for the next generation in various ways this holiday season.

The holidays are spent with family, friends - and food! This year, make a dish that's not only tasty, but rich in good-for-you nutrients that can help prevent macular degeneration and, in some cases, aid in fighting other health problems. Eat Right For Your Sight: Simple Tasty Recipes That Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration by Jennifer Trainer Thompson  and Johanna M. Seddon MD  (The Experiment, 2015) is a cookbook from the American Macular Degeneration Foundation (AMDF) that's full of mouthwatering recipes. The collection is great for year-round use, but also dishes that fit your holiday gathering needs, like the simple and delicious Roasted Butternut Squash and Cranberry Salad recipe we've provided below. There are also tips from our nutritional partner, Toby Amidor, MS, RD, whose contact information is below if you'd like to arrange an interview with her.

You can also help those affected by macular degeneration by capturing the giving spirit of the season and consider making an end-of-the-year donation to AMDF. Donations go towards supporting scientific research, educating, engaging, and empowering the public by building awareness of, and knowledge about, this incurable eye disease through online tools and resources, free educational materials, and healthful lifestyle tips, such as the following.
Other foods to include in your holiday repertoire that help prevent macular degeneration include: 
  • Kale chips: Kale is a power food for eye health as it contains vitamins A and C and phytochemicals lutein and zeaxanthin. Vitamin A is vital to eye growth and development while the powerful antioxidant vitamin C helps protect the body against the damage of free radicals which have been shown to contribute to macular degeneration.
  • Spiced nuts: Add nuts like almonds, walnuts, and peanuts to your holiday spiced nut mixture. Almonds contain the antioxidant vitamin E, while walnuts contain omega-3 fats – both which support healthy eyes. Peanuts also contain zinc, which recent studies suggest may help slow down the progression of macular degeneration.
  • Guacamole: This wildly popular party dip is brimming with vitamin E, which supports eye health. It also contains lutein, an antioxidant naturally found in the macula (the center of the retina) which needs to be replenished regularly.
If you'd like to talk to Toby, please contact Jaimee Constantine at

For more information, to purchase a cookbook, or to make a donation, visit

Try this recipe from Eat Right For Your Sight: Simple Tasty Recipes That Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration:
Roasted Butternut Squash and Cranberry Salad
Serves 4-6
A good source of carotenoids, vitamins A, B6, C, and folate, butternut squash is also rich in phytochemicals, which convert into antioxidants, thought not only to help prevent macular degeneration, but also to reduce the risk for certain cancers and cardiovascular problems. This is a pretty salad that offers a colorful change of pace with its roasted squash, goat cheese, pecans, and cranberries.
  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into
  • 1/2-inch chunks (about 2 cups)
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons agave nectar
  • 1¼ teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • One 5-ounce bag baby greens
  • ¼ cup dried cranberries
  • ¼ cup pecan halves, lightly chopped
  • ¼ cup crumbled goat cheese
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons whole grain Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon freshly snipped chives

Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a mixing bowl, toss the butternut squash with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the agave nectar, and 1 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake until tender and golden, 20 to 25 minutes, tossing after 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Assemble the baby greens, cranberries, pecans, and goat cheese in a salad bowl. Top with the butternut squash. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining olive oil, vinegar, mustard, chives, ¼ teaspoon salt, and extra pepper into a vinaigrette and toss with the salad. Serve immediately.

Nutritional Profile
Serving size: 1 cup / Calories: 360 / Protein: 4 g / Fiber: 4 g / Fat: 30 g  Saturated fat: 5 g / Sodium: 260 mg / Vitamin A: 10,343 IU / Vitamin C: 6 mg  Vitamin D: 3 IU / Vitamin E: 13 IU / Zinc: 1 mg / Beta-carotene: 3,774 μg  Lutein and zeaxanthin:5,000 μg

 Recipe may be reprinted with the following credit:
Recipe from Eat Right For Your Sight: Simple Tasty Recipes That Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration,
copyright © American Macular Degeneration Foundation, 2014.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment.
Available wherever books are sold.

A Savior Is Born—Christmas Video

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

4 Techniques for Improving Memory

By John Fisher

As I get older my memory seems to get worse.  I leave home and wonder if I locked the door. I get out of the car and forget if I locked it too. It seems that throughout the day I forget whether I have done those rudimentary, daily tasks. And so I go back to check and find that indeed they were done. It's just that I have forgotten.

Memories in a fish bowl - Photo by Catherine Jamieson
On the other hand, the memories I have from long ago seem crystal clear.

Professor John Medina, University of Washington School of Medicine, in one of The Great Courses called "Your Best Brain," says recollection of events or information from long ago becomes less accurate over the passage of time.  What I think happened may not be the way it really happened.

Medina distinguishes between reproductive and reconstructive memory retrieval. Reconstructive memory he says is less accurate with a 55% error rate.

Studies suggest that loss of memory is a problem that occurs at the moment of retrieval rather than at storage (Hasher and Griffin, 1978). A mistaken belief is that we use reproductive memory for simple things while reconstructive memory is used for more complex constructions like prose.

Reproductive memory is recall is where we store the original stimulus input and reproduce it during recall. On the other hand, reconstructive memory is a theory of elaborate memory recall in which the act of remembering is influenced by various other cognitive processes including perception imagination, semantic memory and beliefs.

Here are several findings from Hasher and Griffin (1978).

  • The more retrieval cues available the greater the possibility of remembering. Two cues are better than one. 
  • Passages that are presented without a theme are obscure and ambiguous. 
  • Information given after understanding a story doesn't help improve remembering the story.
  • With both prose and a simple-unit recall there is evidence that a postinput cue with help memory. 

Medina describes four ways of improving memory.

  1. Overlearning. Practice overlearning where we review material at timed intervals over the week before having to recall the information, like in a test or speech delivery. Ten times over 10 days is better than cramming for the test. Don't cram and don't do all nighters. It is far more effective to remember by learning the material in regular time exposures to the information.
  2. Elaborative rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal is a "shallow" form of information processing where you focus on an object without considerinng its meaning or associating it with other objects. For example, the repetition of a series of numbers is a form of maintenance rehearsal. In contrast, elaborative or relational rehearsal is a process in which you relate new material to information already stored in your long-term memory. It's a "deep" form of processing information that involves thinking about the object's meaning as well as making connections between the object, past experiences and the other objects. In learning numbers, you might associate them with personal experiences like significant dates such birthdays or perhaps you might see a pattern in the numbers that helps you to remember them.
  3. Mnemonics. This strategy is useful in learning a list of words. The peg-word system associates the to-be-remembered items with a list of easily remembered items. Acronyms are developed that refer to the first words of the list of material we are trying to remember. SMART is the acronym for writing objectives. ROY G. BIV are the first letters of the colors in the rainbow. 
  4. Mental Imagery. Mental imagery (also called visual memory) is where we use visual experience to preserve memories We place in memory visual information which resembles objects, places, animals or people in a mental image. Mental imagery is also referred to as the mind's eye through which we retrieve from our memory a mental image of original objects, places, animals or people. For example, when I try to remember a difficult to spell word, I close my eyes and actually see the word in my brain. 


Hasher, Lynn & Mary Griffin. (1978). Reconstructive and Reproductive Processes in Memory. Journal of Experimental Pyschology: Human Learning and Memory, 4 (4): 318-330. Retrieved from

See also

Medina, John. How Your Brain Uses Memory. Your Best Brain (Lesson 5). The Great Courses. Retrieved from

A Tale of Two Hospitals 

What’s the difference between the Denver VA hospital and the Parkland Hospital in Dallas? Parkland, a public-private venture, was finished largely on-time and on-budget, while the Colorado VA hospital continues to flounder, according to a new report by National Center for Policy Analysis Research Associate Jennifer Vermeulen.

“Twenty years have passed since the VA began exploring options for replacing the Denver VA, and 10 years have passed since planning began. Yet, the veterans of Colorado are still waiting to receive the high-quality care they deserve,” says Vermeulen. “Conversely, the county hospital project in Dallas remained accountable in real-time to both taxpayers and private donors. The new hospital was better than originally planned, delivered nearly on-time and on-budget. Results like that are worth every penny.”