Dark chocolate protects arteries

A recent study in the journal BMJ found consuming dark chocolate can help prevent cardiovascular disease over the long term, and may even be a cost-effective way to do it (about $42 per year).

"It's the flavonoids," explains Dr. Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Specific flavonoid compounds in dark chocolate keep the lining of the arteries more reactive to stress and to change in blood flow."

Research has already shown one or two ounces of dark chocolate daily can have beneficial effects in the short term, such as lowering blood pressure. However, the tasty treat is also high in calories and saturated fat.

"You need to be conscious of other desserts or high-caloric foods. Just adding dark chocolate to your diet without taking out other foods can lead to weight gain," says Dr. Rimm. Bottom line: a little dark chocolate is safe and may be good for you, but it's no replacement for meaningful cardiovascular disease prevention.

Inactivity could be fatal

Lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for heart attack, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers.

Because so much of the population in the developed world is inactive, this single factor contributes to a significant public health problem. Harvard researchers wondered what the impact on public health would be if physical inactivity were eliminated or reduced.

Using data for different geographical areas, they determined physical inactivity is responsible for 6 percent of the burden of coronary artery disease, 7 percent of diabetes, and 10 percent of breast and colon cancers, and it caused 9 percent of premature deaths (5.3 million) worldwide in 2008. Improving physical activity by only 10 percent to 25 percent could prevent 533,000 to 1.3 million deaths every year, the researchers calculated.

No co-pay boosts

colorectal screening

Eliminating co-pays may convince more people to seek colorectal cancer screening. Under the Affordable Care Act insurers can't always charge co-pays for certain preventive procedures. In a study in Clinical Gastroenterology, and in 2009, the first year the ACA's co-pay limit went into effect, the percentage of people who underwent colonoscopy increased by 18 percent.

People often avoid colonoscopy because of the bowel-purging "prep" it requires. However, under the ACA anyone ages 50 to 75 can get colonoscopy paid for every 10 years. Although a preventive service may be fully covered, the visit to the doctor's office could still carry a co-pay.

Lower odds of getting breast cancer

Whether you walk, dance or Zumba, doing it every day might reduce your risk of getting breast cancer, according to a study published online in the journal Cancer.

According to the study's authors, 10 to 19 hours per week (about two hours per day) of exercise had the greatest benefit. Women who worked out that much had a breast cancer risk about 30 percent lower than that of inactive women. The intensity of the workout didn't matter in this study.

Age also didn't seem to matter. Physical activity reduced breast cancer risk in women both during their reproductive years and after menopause. What did make a difference in the study was the women's weight--especially after menopause. Gaining a significant amount of weight essentially wiped out the benefits of exercise on breast cancer risk in older women.

Because this study didn't assign women to different interventions (exercising vs. staying sedentary) - it merely asked women about their exercise habits - it couldn't confirm exercise reduces breast cancer risk. What this study does do is give women of every age another reason to lace up their sneakers and get moving.

Even if you have to squeeze 10-minute bursts of exercise into your day, try to get moving for a total of 30 to 60 minutes on most, if not all days of the week. -- Harvard Women's Health Watch

App to ID your pill

Ever wondered if you've popped the right pill? Now there's an app to help. There are thousands of prescription pills but few colors and shapes to choose from, which can lead to dangerous mix-ups, especially in hospitals.

To help prevent such errors, Jesus Caban at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and colleagues have developed software that can identify a pill from a phone camera image. Websites such as Drugs.com and WebMD have tools to help distinguish between pills, but you have to type in a description, making these services too time-consuming to use in a clinical setting.

Caban's software extracts the shape, color and imprint of a pill from its image and identifies the drug with 91 percent accuracy in less than a second. Future accuracy will be improved when the system learns to recognize a pill from a wider range of angles. The technique is also simple enough to work as a smartphone app so could be used at home.

Salmonella threat grows

A nastier kind of salmonella infection has emerged alongside the HIV epidemic in Africa. The finding is the first evidence HIV might be allowing new human pathogens to evolve in immunosuppressed people.

Most people who contract salmonella get it from eating contaminated meat, leading to an unpleasant but brief gut upset. But the bacteria can escape into the blood of people with suppressed immune systems, causing a disease called invasive, non-typhoidal salmonella that kills in up to 45 percent of cases. It usually affects malnourished or malarial children, but is also a complication of HIV.

Chinyere Okoro of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, and colleagues sequenced the DNA of iNTS samples collected in various parts of Africa, then analysed the family trees of the bacteria. The team found they nearly all clustered in one of two closely related lineages - one that arose in Malawi in 1960 and spread across eastern and central regions in the 1980s, and a second that arose in central Africa in the late 1970s and spread in distinct waves across sub-Saharan Africa.

The timing and locations of the spread of these bacteria coincided closely with the spread of HIV across the continent, says Robert Kingsley of the Sanger Institute, one author of the study. That suggests the two events were linked.

Moo-sic to your ears

Avoiding the white stuff may soon become a thing of the past now that a New Zealand team has created a cow that produces hypoallergenic milk.

About 1.5 percent of infants are allergic to a milk protein called betalactoglobulin. So Stefan Wagner and his colleagues at AgResearch in Hamilton, New Zealand, identified the genetic code for the protein and then made a complimentary genetic structure that shut down BLG production when injected into a cell's nucleus.

They transferred a treated nucleus into a cow egg cell, which was fertilized and implanted into another cow. The cow gave birth to a healthy female calf, although curiously it was missing a tail.

The calf was given hormones to provoke early lactation and the milk analyzed to reveal it completely lacked BLG. Levels of other milk proteins were unusually high.

"I'm not sure if this would make the milk any better or healthier, but it might be useful in cheese-making," says Wagner. He doesn't know if the milk is any tastier, either, since regulations mean they can't yet try it.

Hormone therapy benefits

To mark the 10-year anniversary of the controversy surrounding the Women's Health Initiative, the North American Menopause Society and 14 other medical organizations have jointly released a statement reinforcing the benefits of hormone therapy for menopause symptoms.

In 2002, the WHI trial of estrogen plus progestin was halted early, after investigators discovered the risks of hormone therapy - which include breast cancer, strokes, and heart disease - outweighed the benefits.

The new joint statement was meant to ease some of the confusion menopausal women have faced over the last decade. The organizations jointly conclude hormone therapy is still safe - provided women take it early in menopause (up to age 59 or within 10 years after their menopause starts) and use it for the shortest possible period of time.

"We want women to know that there are options out there for relief of their menopausal symptoms. The level of risk depends on the individual, her health history, age, and the number of years since her menopause began," Dr. Janet Hall, immediate past president of the Endocrine Society, said in a statement.

'Smart pill' tells all

Figuring out who's taking their pills is about to get easier. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a "smart pill" that can tell whether a medication has been taken as prescribed.

Made by Proteus Digital Health, the small pill is made primarily of silicon and embedded with a microchip sensor no bigger than a grain of sand. When activated by stomach acid, the sensor transmits a signal to a skin patch that indicates a medication has been swallowed. The patch sends the information to a smartphone app, along with the wearer's heart rate, temperature, and activity level. The battery-operated patch must be changed weekly.

With about 50 percent of people not taking their medications properly, U.S. doctors are excited about the potential of this technology, particularly in diseases where medications are vitally important to survival or the prevention of serious side effects. It is also expected to help doctors refine dosages and measure benefits.

Build a better skin barrier

Dry skin becomes more common with aging, and problems with dry skin can be even more pronounced during the winter.

"The air is dry inside because of heating, and outside because of a lack of humidity, and that takes moisture out of your skin," explains Dr. Kenneth Arndt, a Harvard Medical School professor. Dry skin can lead to itching, flaking, and even infection in severe cases.

But you don't have to suffer. Moisturizing is a simple way to keep your skin hydrated and healthy.

"Think of it as putting a barrier between your skin and the cold, dry air," says Dr. Arndt. He advises moisturizing your skin after exposure to water. "If you soak in a tub or wash your hands, your skin gets very flexible and spongy. But afterward the water evaporates and you're worse off. So instead you should seal it in."

Dr. Arndt recommends a heavier ointment with an oil base. Look for occlusive ingredients that block the evaporation of water, such as petrolatum, cetyl alcohol, lanolin, lecithin, mineral oil, paraffin and stearic acid. And don't be confused by promises that lotions are allergy-tested (there's no government standard for that kind of claim) or full of vitamins (the amounts used are too small to have much effect).

The most important thing to know is pretty much all moisturizers work well if you use them often.