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35 Health News Stories You Need to Read This Week

From state-of-the-art treatments to the latest discoveries, these medical stories can have a positive impact on your life.

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Senior woman doing yogaPhoto: Shutterstock

Exercise is crucial in the COVID-19 era

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic puts limits on where we can go, physical activity remains as important as ever—if not more so, according to Exercise and Sports Science Australia. Scientific evidence suggests that getting your body moving supports the immune system; for instance, a 2018 British study found that older amateur cyclists had higher T-cell counts than their sedentary peers. Physical activity can also boost mental health during this difficult time. Exercising at home or outdoors are great options. If you’re considering hitting the gym, you might first want to find out what physical distancing and sanitation protocols are in place. Of course, if you suspect you have COVID-19, you should take a break from exercise and rest—and isolate yourself—until you recover.

Here are the household items that are fitness equipment in disguise.

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Fight age-related muscle loss with protein at each meal

When you eat protein (beans, meat or nuts, for example), you stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the body’s process for building and repairing muscle. This process grows less efficient as you age, which can contribute to a loss of muscle mass, strength and ability—especially if protein intake isn’t spread out over the course of the day. In a British study of dietary habits, most of the participating seniors reached the daily recommended allowance: at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, they tended to consume around three-quarters of it at dinnertime. If your habits are similar, you might be able to maintain more muscle mass by including protein in all meals, thus stimulating MPS more consistently.

Watch out for these signs you’re not eating enough protein.

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Scientists in a race to calm cytokine storms

For some sufferers, the immune system over­reacts to COVID-19 in a way that severely damages the lungs. This life-threatening complication is known as a “cytokine storm” because it involves an excess of proteins called cytokines. Several methods for treating this reaction are being explored. For instance, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is looking into whether it’s possible to “soak up” extra cytokines by injecting the bloodstream with proteins that bind with them. Other researchers have shown that dexamethasone, a drug usually used to reduce inflammation, increases the survival rate among critically ill COVID-19 patients who are struggling to breathe. This is presumably because it curbs the body’s over-the-top defences.

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Herbal medicines for weight loss: No good evidence

Green tea extract, garcinia cambogia and African mango are just some of the many herbal medicines and supplements marketed for weight loss around the world. Companies are usually allowed to sell them without having to demonstrate that they work. Researchers from Sydney, Australia, reviewed all of the randomized controlled trials putting such claims to the test that they could find. They found no reliable evidence that these herbal products had an impact on weight management, despite their popularity. (In the United States, for example, around 15 per cent of adults have tried a weight-loss supplement.) Consulting with a health-care professional, such as a doctor or a dietitian, would be a better bet.

Learn how to keep a special diet balanced.

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Senior couple washing up in their kitchenPhoto: Shutterstock

A subtle but common symptom of COVID-19

If your senses of taste and smell suddenly weaken, there’s a decent chance you have COVID-19, even if you otherwise feel okay. Several studies have now demonstrated a strong association between this symptom and the infection. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve lost the ability to smell and taste for a month,” says Dr. Carol Yan, a rhinologist at University of California San Diego Health and the lead author of one such study. “Because of the new research, they’ve been tested and all been positive,” she says. Yan notes that while having this symptom should now qualify you for testing, anybody who can’t access a test should call their doctor and quarantine themselves. Fortunately, smell and taste usually come back once the infection clears up.

These are the places you’re most likely to catch coronavirus.

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Senior woman walking her dog along the pierPhoto: Shutterstock

Attitudes toward aging may affect cancer survival

It may sound like magical thinking to say that your beliefs and feelings about getting older can influence your longevity. However, evidence is mounting that self-perception of aging (SPA) is among the many factors that play a role in physical health. A widely posited theory says that seniors who’ve internalized negative age stereotypes are more stressed, less likely to maintain healthy habits (such as exercising or seeking medical care at the first sign of a problem) and more likely to have low expectations of themselves.

A recent study asked if SPA would influence mortality among people over 65 with cancer that hadn’t yet spread from its original site. After controlling for other variables, participants with a negative SPA were 3.62 times more likely to die before the six-year study’s end, compared to those who thought more positively about their aging. “I think [views on aging] could influence the will to live,” speculates lead author and psychologist Sarah Schroyen from the University of Liège in Belgium. “Maybe people with a more negative SPA are less inclined to strictly follow treatment recommendations.”

If you’d like to improve your SPA, Schroyen says it might be possible using strategies such as spending meaningful time with younger people, focusing on what matters to you (such as personal interests, family, the natural world or helping others) or intentionally thinking in ways that oppose age stereotypes.

The fountain of youth isn’t a myth—delay the aging process with these lifestyle choices.

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High-salt diets and the immune system

Hypertension is the best-known risk of consuming too much salt, but it isn’t the only one. For an experiment, healthy volunteers in Germany added six extra grams of salt to their usual daily intake for a week. This is roughly equivalent to what you’d find in two fast-food meals. At week’s end, tests revealed increased levels of hormones called glucocorticoids in participants’ blood. These hormones help keep inflammation in check, but in excess, they can inhibit the immune system’s ability to attack harmful bacteria. The World Health Organization recommends keeping salt intake under five grams per day. The researchers said this may be particularly good advice when you’re dealing with a bacterial problem, including listeria food poisoning or a urinary tract infection.

Here’s a list of low-sodium foods to swap in for high-sodium culprits.

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Meet you at the memory café

When a person shows symptoms of dementia in public, others around them may not know how to react. As a result, many people living with dementia withdraw from society, along with their caregivers. To help them feel less isolated and stigmatized, hundreds of memory cafés have opened up around the world—non-judgmental places where families affected by dementia can meet. Each memory café is a bit different, but they typically offer games, music, snacks and opportunities to share stories. Their main goals are to provide enjoyment and boost social support—for both the person with dementia and the caregivers who share their lives.

Adopt these habits to reduce your risk of dementia.

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Osteoarthritis: There’s an app for that

The first-line treatments for osteoarthritis (OA) include tailored exercise, which can strengthen the muscles around the affected joint, enhance its functioning and reduce pain. However, frequent visits with a physiotherapist can be inconven­ient for OA patients.

A Swedish trial investigated whether the same kind of guidance could be provided online. After six months of using an app called Joint Academy, OA sufferers improved their mobility and cut their pain almost in half, on average. “The app’s program is delivered in a structured way on a daily basis, supported by a physiotherapist,” explains researcher Håkan Nero of Lund University. The app’s US$89 per month cost is sometimes covered by public and private health insurance.

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Erratic sleep-wake patterns raise heart disease risk

Having established that the amount of sleep you get makes a difference to your health, scientists are now looking at the effects of sleep timing. In a study of Americans over age 45, the participants without a usual bedtime and wake time were nearly twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease, compared to people who more or less stuck to a schedule, even on weekends. An irregular sleep pattern remained a significant risk factor even after the researchers accounted for other influences, such as the average number of hours slept. Harmful disturbances to the body’s circadian rhythm may help to explain this apparent link.

Find the best sleeping position for you and get the rest you need.

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Healthier mouth, healthier body

In a recent study of over 185,000 Koreans, tooth brushing at least three times per day was associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes. This could be more than a coincidence, since gum disease involves long-term inflammation, which is known to increase insulin resist­ance. Previous studies have connected poor dental health to other inflammation-related problems, including heart attack and stroke. Besides brushing and flossing every day, you can also reduce your risk of serious diseases by visiting the dentist as regularly as you can.

Here are the signs of disease your teeth can reveal.

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Who should get tested for Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver infection that often goes undetected for years, until serious complications such as liver scarring arise. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended hep-C screening for everyone aged 18 to 79, given that medication now exists to offer a safe and quick cure. The Canadian Association for the Study of the Liver suggests a one-time test for people born between 1946 and 1975. Meanwhile, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is focused on the highest-risk groups, such as people who received blood transfusions, organs or underwent surgery before hep-C safety regulations were enforced in their countries. Regardless of where you live, you can request testing if you think you’re at risk.

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Lessons in happiness

There are plenty of classes claiming they can make you happier, but few are backed up by the gold standard of evidence: a randomized controlled trial. Investigators from the London School of Economics conducted such a study for an eight-week curriculum called Exploring What Matters, developed by the international charity Action for Happiness. The course’s themes, which are rooted in positive psychology studies, include how to foster good relationships, cope with adversity, make the workplace happier and build caring communities.

The trial looked at 146 people who’d registered for the course. For the participants who completed it, self-rated life satisfaction rose from an average of 6.4 out of 10 before the course to 7.4 afterwards. This one-point increase is bigger than what happiness researchers usually measure when an unemployed person finds a job or a single person enters a new relationship. The course participants also reduced their anxiety and depression, going from mild to minimal symptoms, on average.

The course is run by volunteers, and anyone can sign up on Action for Happiness’s website to learn how to offer it in their own cities. Participants pay by donating what they can afford, making it financially accessible to all. So far, over 6,000 people in 250 locations around the world have tried it out.

Happiness can be hard to come by. From owning a dog to wearing sunglasses, these tips can boost your mood—and your well-being.

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Cannabis might interact with your meds

Cannabis use is on the rise among seniors, the majority of whom are also on prescriptions. (In 2019, seven per cent of Canadians over 65 reported recent cannabis use, compared to less than one per cent in 2012.) “If you take cannabis—or are considering taking it—have a conversation with your pharmacist or doctor about the risk of interactions,” advises Tony Antoniou, co-author of a Canadian Medical Association Journal report. It warns that cannabis could affect how you metabolize some drugs, making them too strong or too weak. For instance, it might dangerously increase the effects of warfarin (a blood thinner). And certain drugs, such as ketoconazole (used for fungal infections), could make cannabis’s effects more potent than intended.

Can CBD treat anxiety, chronic pain and stress? Find out here.

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The problem with homemade sunscreens

While it may sound like a fun project that’ll help you better control what goes on your skin, making your own sunscreen can leave you burned. American public-health researchers collected a random sample of 189 Pinterest pins promoting DIY sunscreen. Despite the posts’ claims, the great majority of the recipes would not offer adequate protection against ultraviolet rays. Coconut oil, their most commonly featured ingredient, has been shown to offer an SPF (sun protection factor) of only 1 to 7—not nearly enough to prevent skin cancer. Commercial sunscreens, which are regulated for efficacy and safety, are a more surefire bet.

Considering a detox of your entire grooming routine? Find out what it’s like switching to natural deodorant.

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Many seniors overestimate how well they can see

Vision decline can sneak up on you so gradually that you don’t notice it. That probably explains why 61.5 per cent of the Swedish seniors who got an eye exam for an Acta Ophthalmologica study hadn’t realized they’d be able to see better by starting to wear glasses or by changing the strength of their existing prescription. Parti­cipants tended to know their vision was sub-optimal if there was a problem with their contrast sensitivity (their ability to distinguish between an object and its background) but most of the seniors with impaired visual acuity (sharpness of vision) reported that they had good sight. The lesson: even if you don’t think your vision is deterior­ating, you could still benefit from visiting the optometrist regularly as you get older.

To keep your peepers healthy, make sure to follow these eye care tips from Canadian optometrists.

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Senior woman lifting weights at homePhoto: Shutterstock

Don’t make pills an excuse to drop good habits

A healthy lifestyle is key to managing your cardiovascular risk, even if you’re also taking medication for it. As a Finnish study that followed over 40,000 people for four years showed, it can be tempting to substitute one for the other. The subjects who started preventative prescriptions for heart issues were more likely to cut back on exercise and gain extra pounds. Obesity and physical inactivity both tend to make it so that you need higher doses of drugs—increasing adverse side effects in the process. What’s more, “Even if medication helps patients decrease their risk of cardiovascular events,” says lead researcher Maarit Korhonen, “their risk of other health problems—cancer, diabetes and so on—may still increase.”

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Alarm clock sounds may affect morning grogginess

The drowsy, still-half-asleep feeling that can last up to a few hours after waking is known medically as “sleep inertia.” Not only is it unpleasant, it can impact your work performance and put you in danger if you need to drive a car. Research from RMIT University in Australia asked whether the sound you use to awaken might influence how alert or groggy you feel. Participants who used melodic alarms (for example, the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”) reported less sleep inertia, compared to beeping, buzzing and other unmusical noises.

Find out the best time to wake up to be more productive.

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A popular muscle relaxant can cause disorientation

Commonly prescribed for muscle pain and heartburn, the drug baclofen can build up in your body and make you feel confused if your kidneys aren’t efficient at filtering it out. Roughly a fifth of seniors live with kidney function of less than 60 per cent. In a study from Western University in London, Ont., this group had a 1.11 per cent chance of being hospitalized for severe confusion shortly after starting a high dose of baclofen (20 milligrams per day or more). For seniors with the lowest kidney function, the odds were one in 26. If anyone experienced milder effects that didn’t land them in the hospital, they weren’t recorded. Bottom line: You and your physician should take your age and kidney health into account when considering this drug.

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A new treatment for a dangerous infection

As an ever-growing health threat, drug-resistant bacteria are forcing medical scientists to look for new ways of treating infections. For example, a growing proportion of people with cystic fibrosis are getting an opportunistic bacterial infection called Mycobacterium abscessus, which can speed up lung-function decline and even lead to death. These bacteria can also be a scary problem for people with other lung conditions, such as bronchiectasis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. Resistant to many antibiotics, M. abscessus is very hard to eradicate. The current treatment, an aggressive antibiotic regimen that can bring serious side effects such as hearing loss, hasn’t always worked. However, a new combination of existing antibiotics might just do the trick.

A team of British researchers mixed amoxicillin with imipenem-relebactam. This combination reliably killed off M. abscessus in the lab, using doses that should be safe for patients. Their next goal is to try it out in real life. If you’re struggling to beat this infection, “It’s worth discussing our findings with your doctor,” says co-author Jonathan Cox of Aston University in Birmingham. Bacterial samples from your body should be pre-screened before going ahead with the new combination, to make sure they’re susceptible to the antibiotics.

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When summer is SAD

Seasonal affective disorder (depression linked to the time of year, the light and the weather) is common during the winter months. But for some people, it’s summertime that brings symptoms, which can include low mood, anxiety, agitation, poor appetite and insomnia. Scientists aren’t certain about the causes of summer SAD. It could be brought on by excessive heat and long days that throw off your circadian rhythms. A peer-reviewed study recently offered evidence for an additional possibility: sufferers reported their mood worsening on days with a high pollen count, suggesting that allergen exposure may play a role. If you have summer SAD, anti­depressants, talk therapy, allergy treatment or keeping a regular sleep schedule could all help.

Here’s what you need to know about high-functioning depression.

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Altruism may ease physical pain

Selflessly helping others changes your brain activity and alleviates your experience of pain, suggests a series of experiments in China. In one, people giving blood to earthquake victims found the needle less painful than people getting blood tests. In another, subjects who volunteered to help migrant children found that immersing their hand in cold water was less uncomfortable than those who declined. And cancer patients who cleaned up for others reported less pain than patients who merely cleaned their own spaces. Researchers posit that altruism may temper unpleasant experiences by giving you a sense of reward, control and meaning.

Check out more health benefits of helping others.

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Testing for radon? Do it for at least three months

It’s odourless, invisible and carcinogenic. Radon gas, which escapes naturally from certain minerals in the ground, dilutes to levels that are irrelevant in terms of health risk in outside air. But it can accumulate dangerously inside a building. In fact, it’s responsible for three to 14 per cent of lung cancers in any given country. That’s why health authorities recommend checking how much radon exposure you’re getting in your home at least once. For the most accurate result, take a longer-term measurement. When Aaron Goodarzi, a University of Calgary scholar, and his colleagues compared 90-day test kits to five-day test kits, the short-term kits’ readings were frequently unreliable because radon levels fluctuate from day to day.

See your doctor if you notice any of the following lung cancer symptoms.

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Domestic abuse is a risk factor for chronic health issues

The causes of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome—conditions that can involve pain and extreme exhaustion—are poorly understood. But both conditions have been linked to excessive stress, which might explain why a study from the University of Birmingham found that women who have experienced intimate-partner violence are nearly twice as likely to develop one of these syndromes as women who have not. Discovering this risk factor could aid with a diagnosis. “It’s hard to talk about,” says lead author Joht Singh Chandan, “but we recommend that where appropriate, doctors should not be afraid to ask.”

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ASA for migraines: Affordable and effective

Several prescription drugs are available for migraine relief, but simply using acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) is a good option, according to a review in The American Journal of Medicine. The evidence so far suggests that taking a high dose (900 to 1,300 milligrams) when symptoms begin can relieve migraines, while a low daily dose (81 to 325 milligrams) can help prevent them from recurring. ASA is cheaper and more easily accessible than the prescription medications, and some patients experience fewer side effects. However, a doctor should supervise any drug you’re taking for the long term—even over-the-counter ones.

Here’s what you need to know about ocular migraines.

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Cute little girl holding an apple in a supermarketPhoto: Shutterstock

How to interest kids in fruits and veggies

Media exposure can help familiarize kids with nutritious foods, which is part of setting them up for healthy teeth, body weight, growth, development and beneficial lifelong habits. In a British study from 2018, reading picture books about particular fruits and vegetables to toddlers helped them to eat and enjoy those foods. And recently, school-aged children in the Netherlands were more likely to choose an apple or cucumbers over chips or pretzels if they had watched a kids’ cooking show featuring healthy dishes rather than an episode that featured junk food. Children’s preferences around food are also influenced by their parents’ example, of course, and by helping prepare meals.

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Supporting wind power is one way to help stop climate change.Photo: Shutterstock

The fast-acting benefits of cleaner air

Air pollution affects nearly everyone in the world. Children, seniors and lower-income people (who often live in places with poorer air quality) tend to suffer the most. Although it’s hardly news that reducing air contamination improves public health, the size and speed of those improvements can be surprisingly dramatic. Analysts based in Germany, Korea, South Africa and elsewhere recently reviewed what’s happened in cases where pollution has decreased.

For instance, when Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympic Games, parts of the city were closed to private cars for 17 days, and 24-hour public transportation was made available instead. The goal was to help athletes and spectators get to events on time, but the air quality improved during that period, as well. In the next four weeks, kids’ medical visits for asthma decreased by over 40 per cent. A similar effect was recorded during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Another example: in 1990, Hong Kong passed stricter regulations for the content of fuel oil used for power plants and cars. The annual rates of respiratory and cardiovascular deaths then dropped by two and four per cent, respectively. Overall life expectancy lengthened. The economic benefits of an air-quality intervention usually outweigh the costs, the authors said, whether it’s banning public smoking, reducing traffic, expanding green spaces or generating clean energy. “Air pollution is largely an avoidable health risk,” they emphasized.

Learn more ways climate change is making you sick.

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Sudden hearing loss: Don’t delay going to the doctor

It’s not unusual for hearing to decline gradually with age. But if you notice a change in one ear over less than three days, get it checked as soon as possible. It could be something temporary, such as an earwax buildup, but there’s a chance it’s sudden sensorineural hearing loss, which can become permanent. “Sensorineural” means that something has gone wrong with the inner ear, and it occurs most among people in their 50s and 60s. Many cases don’t have a clear cause but can be treated with steroids. “The earlier a treatment is begun, the better your chances that your hearing comes back,” says a newly updated guideline from the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation.

Speak to your doctor if you notice these signs of hearing loss.

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Can’t stand bitter veggies? It might be genetic

Compounds found in certain vegetables taste exceptionally harsh to people with particular gene variants. The same people, an estimated 15 to 25 per cent of humanity, also sometimes dislike coffee or dark chocolate. In a study conducted by Jennifer L. Smith of the University of Kentucky, participants with the identified variants were likely to consume fewer veggies. “The problem vegetables tend to be in the cruciferous family, which includes cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, among others,” she says. Instead of giving up on produce altogether, and missing the health benefits, be adventurous. Try other, sweeter veggies like carrots and beets.

Don’t miss these signs you’re not eating enough vegetables.

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Taken together, “rare” diseases not so rare

Chances are you’ve never heard of Marfan syndrome or eosinophilic fasciitis. They’re among the diseases that are considered “rare” because they affect no more than five in 10,000 people. Such ailments are often hard to diagnose and treat, partly because they haven’t received much scientific attention. But when you combine them, they actually affect around 300 million people worldwide (not including rare cancers or infections). This new estimate is based on Orphanet, an online database that gathers knowledge of rare diseases. “It can be searched by disease to find patient organizations, expert centres, research projects and registries in Europe, Japan and Canada,” says Charlotte Rodwell, a Paris-based spokesperson for the project.

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Fish oil doesn’t prevent depression or anxiety

A meta-analysis commissioned by the World Health Organization concluded that, despite popular belief and anecdotal reports, fish oil and other omega-3 supplements probably don’t stave off depression or anxiety. It looked at only the highest-quality evidence available: randomized controlled trials that lasted at least six months. Your body needs small amounts of omega-3 fats, and there’s no doubt that oily fish, such as salmon, herring or sardines, are good for your general health, as are other omega-3-rich foods such as nuts and seeds. But given that the fish-oil industry fishes heavily for species that are key to ocean food webs, you might want to think twice about taking such supplements for unproven benefits.

Discover more unexpected benefits of fish oil.

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Wellness and the arts

Artistic activities are making inroads as treatments for medical conditions—including tango for Parkinson’s and choral singing for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In a comprehensive review, the World Health Organ­ization’s regional office for Europe found that the arts can not only reduce risks and improve conditions, they help with complex problems that conventional health care alone struggles to address, such as obesity and mental illness. That’s because participating in the arts promotes wellness on several fronts at once, including social support, cognitive stimulation and stress reduction.

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Rheumatoid arthritis’s links to other conditions

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes chronic inflammation in the joints but sometimes also in other parts of the body, including the blood vessels. Because of this, the likelihood of heart attack and stroke are roughly doubled for sufferers, a fact that was recently confirmed by a Mayo Clinic study. The RA patients also ran a higher risk of blood clots both before and after their diagnoses, suggesting that the inflammation may actually start before the arthritis becomes apparent. Symptoms of a clot can include pain, redness and warmth in a leg, an arm or the groin. If it travels to your lungs, you could notice sudden, unexplained shortness of breath. Blood clots are medical emergencies, and people with RA should keep an extra-vigilant eye out for them.

Suffering from arthritis aches and pains? Try these home remedies.

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Penicillin allergies can be outgrown

If you believe you’re allergic to penicillin, there’s a good chance it isn’t true—even if your health record indicates otherwise. Several European and North American studies now back this up, including one that recently examined inpatients at Candler Hospital in Savannah, Georgia. “About a fifth of the time, we could figure out that there was no allergy just by talking to the patient,” says Dr. Christopher Bland, a researcher and pharmacist at the University of Georgia. They often learned during these discussions that the allergy assumptions were based on common non-allergic, non-life-threatening side effects of antibiotics, such as nausea or short-term diarrhea.

In other cases, the patient did once have an allergy—which can cause a rash, hives, swelling in the throat or even anaphylaxis. “But five years after the event, 50 per cent of people will no longer have a reaction. They’ll grow out of it,” says Bland. “After 10 years, that number goes up to 80 per cent.” A skin test can indicate whether you likely still have an allergy; if it’s positive, you’ll get an itchy red bump.

If not, you may be in luck, since penicillin often costs less money, causes fewer side effects and fights infections better than alternatives. For some conditions, such as strep throat, it’s the antibiotic of choice. “Patients should feel free to proactively bring up this topic with their doctors,” says Bland. “Because there’s a very good chance they’re not allergic.”

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Strength training: It’s never too late to start

With age, we all experience a decline in skeletal muscle mass. “That loss poses serious functional consequences,” says James McKendry, an exercise researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton. Resistance exercises can combat this problem—even for seniors who are new to working out. McKendry and his colleagues recruited 15 men over 60 years of age—seven were long-time endurance athletes, and the rest were untrained. Surprisingly, both groups had a similar capacity to build muscle in response to performing knee extensions. If you want to start a new training habit, “first seek the advice of medical and strength-training professionals,” says McKen­dry. Whether you’re frail or hale, they can help you select beneficial exercises.

Life expectancy is on the rise, but a long life isn’t always a full one. From finding a roommate to jogging up stairs, these tips will help you stay both healthy and happy.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada