Archive for January, 2016

Should I get a c-reactive protein test to check for heart disease?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Both my parents had heart disease, so I'm worried I might get it. A friend said I should get a CRP test, but my doctor hasn't ordered one. Should I ask him about the test?

DEAR READER: The answer is controversial. For full transparency, I should say that this test was developed and studied by a colleague of mine at Harvard Medical School, and revenue from the test comes to my colleague and to the hospital where I practice.

How much sleep do I really need?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Between my young kids and a full-time job, I'm lucky if I manage five hours of sleep per night. My husband says I'm running on empty. How much sleep do I really need?

DEAR READER: You're not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of adults sleeping fewer than six hours per night has increased by 31 percent since 1985. I spoke to my colleague Dr. Stuart Quan, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. He noted the many negative consequences of insufficient sleep.

What are the risks and benefits of mammograms?

DEAR READERS: In yesterday's column, I answered a question from a 47-year-old woman who had never had a mammogram and wondered if she should have one. She had heard that one group of experts -- the American Cancer Society (ACS) -- had recently changed its recommendations on this issue.

When should I start getting mammograms?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm a 47-year-old woman who has never had a mammogram. Some experts recommend I get one, but others do not. I understand that the American Cancer Society recently updated its recommendations about breast cancer screening. Does it say I should have a mammogram? If so, which experts should I believe?

DEAR READER: I'm surprised when people are bothered by medical experts having different opinions. Expert politicians, expert lawyers, expert architects -- experts of all kinds disagree with each other all the time. Why? Because it is rare for the "truth" of any question to be clear beyond dispute.

Can brain stimulation devices help improve memory and thinking?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I saw an ad for something called a "tDCS brain-stimulating device." It supposedly helps improve memory and thinking. Is it worth a try?

DEAR READER: Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) transmits a current into the brain through electrodes (little metal plates) on the forehead or scalp. The current is weak; it comes from a 9-volt battery (the size used in a smoke detector). People who undergo tDCS may feel their scalp tingle and hear a humming noise. Doctors can control whether the current activates -- or suppresses -- the neurons in your brain that lie beneath the electrodes.

How can I protect my daughter from lead poisoning?

DEAR DOCTOR K: A friend's daughter got lead poisoning from paint in her house. What can I do to protect my kids?

DEAR READER: Lead is poison. Although major strides have been made in the past 50 years, lead poisoning is unfortunately still a problem. All of us are exposed to lead, but children are most vulnerable to it.

What will happen during my pulmonary function tests?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My doctor ordered breathing tests to see if I have asthma. He didn't tell me what it's like to go through this. Can you explain?

DEAR READER: The tests your doctor almost surely is referring to are pulmonary function tests. The tests are painless. You breathe in and out through a tube that is connected to various machines.

Why do dentists recommend chewing gum?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Why do dentists recommend chewing gum? Doesn't gum cause cavities?

DEAR READER: Dentists don't recommend just any chewing gum. They recommend sugar-free gum, specifically gum that contains xylitol, a sugar-free, no-calorie sweetener made from the bark of birch trees. It may actually lower your risk of tooth decay and cavities by interfering with the growth of harmful mouth bacteria.

Are organic foods healthier than non-organic?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Many of my friends buy only organic foods. But are they really healthier than non-organic?

DEAR READER: Organic crops are grown without most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic animal products are free of antibiotics and hormones. Many people believe these foods are better for them. But we really don't know that they are.

How can I stay as active as possible as I get older?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm in my 80s, and I've lost some mobility over the years. How can I continue to stay as active as possible?

DEAR READER: Most of us take for granted the stamina, strength, balance, coordination and range of motion needed to perform even simple acts such as getting out of bed, heading down the stairs and walking around the block. But when we lose these basic skills, we begin to understand how much of living well relies on being able to move.