Don't let the scary — and flawed — headline-grabbing new study about hormone therapy and breast cancer come between you and the pills that are cooling your hot flashes, helping you sleep and lighting up your sex life again. Before you freak out, take a deep breath and consider three crucial facts that much of the media overlooked:
1. The study used unsafe (and we think outmoded) hormones. The Women's Health Initiative tracked women who took Prempro, a mix of conjugated equine estrogens and medroxyprogesterone acetate. This form of estrogen, by itself, seemed to slightly lower breast cancer risk in related WHI research. (You read that right: Estrogen alone turned down the risk.) But adding this type of progesterone canceled the apparent benefit and screwed up other things, too.
2. You can do better. Check your Rx label. We recommend bioidentical estradiol and micronized progesterone (available together) plus 162 milligrams of aspirin (half a regular aspirin or two low-dose tablets, with a half glass of water before and after). With the right progesterone, this combo may reduce breast-cancer risk. So, incidentally, may aspirin.
3. The right hormones for the right woman can be lifesaving. Hormones aren't for you if you're at increased risk for breast cancer or heart disease. Otherwise, we believe good hormone therapy, which includes aspirin, can lower your risk for heart disease and breast cancer, keep your bones strong and your brain sharp.
Benefits of brushing your teeth
What's better than walking out of the dentist's office with a mega-watt smile and a free toothbrush? How about a 33 percent drop in your risk for a heart attack or stroke?
You read that right. Dentists and cardiologists have long known that neglecting your pearly whites leads to more than a tight-lipped grin in your high school reunion photo. It also kicks up trouble in your arteries. The same gunky dental plaque that sticks to your teeth, causing gum disease, also ratchets up body-wide inflammation. And that encourages a different kind of plaque, the artery-clogging kind that can hurl a blood clot at your heart or your brain.
Now there's finally pretty dramatic proof that battling dental plaque protects your ticker and little gray cells. In a new study, women who'd seen a dentist in the previous two years were at least one-third less likely to have a heart attack, stroke, chest pain or congestive heart failure. (Dental care didn't seem to protect men's hearts, which leads researchers to think that either gum disease is especially risky for women or that men were just too far gone.)
The tooth plan that's best for your arteries? Brush for at least two minutes and floss daily to keep dental plaque from moving in. Be on the lookout for early signs of gum disease (gingivitis): puffy, red, tender gums. And date your dentist regularly, every six months or so.
When to stretch
If you're a guilt-ridden exerciser who never stretches before popping that vintage Richard Simmons tape into your player, go to the head of the class. You'll get more out of your workout if you skip the pre-exercise stretches your high-school gym teacher always insisted you do.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't warm up. Warm up means doing a lightweight or slow version of the same exercises you are about to do, so that the muscles and joints are made warmer and more pliable. Just don't stretch (yet). Latest reason: Runners who didn't stretch ran nearly a half-mile farther in 30 minutes than those who did. Stretching before you work out seems to rob muscles of strength and power. A better idea?
Warm up beforehand. Start your brisk walk, bike ride or Argentine tango practice by doing it slowly for the first five minutes and involving all the muscles you are likely to use.
Wait till you're hot and sweaty, then stretch. That's when your body wants it. Never stretch a cold muscle! It could tear, which will put a major hurt on you. Well-warmed muscles lengthen more easily and joints move through their full range, improving total flexibility.
Take it easy. Relax your muscles before each stretch and move in slo-mo, breathing deeply and rhythmically. Hold each position for 10 to 30 seconds. Don't bounce.
Forget about "no pain, no gain." If a stretch hurts, back off till it doesn't, then hold it, staying relaxed. You're trying to improve your flexibility, not turn into Gumby, though we do love the little green guy.
Why we snack on blueberries
The latest news about one of our favorite superfoods has us singing "Blueberries for Breakfast" along with the Mamas & the Papas. True, we've been touting the healthy virtues of the tiny blue fruit for more than a decade. Now there's new reason to break into song: For the first time, a USDA study proves that blueberries help prevent plaque in your arteries from becoming bigger. Ultimately, if everyone starts snacking on them, we may see less atherosclerosis, the major cause of heart attack and stroke.
Researchers don't know how blueberries work their wonders but they found that when mice ate diets spiked with a dried berry powder, tiny plaques in their main arteries grew to only half the size of similar ones in mice who didn't eat the powder. That's good news because large plaques are a hallmark of cardiovascular disease. The scientists now want to find out if it's best to start a lifelong blueberry habit as a baby.
Blueberries also are linked to skin, eye and urinary health, as well as a lower risk of cancer and diabetes. As they go out of season and become too pricey to eat by the handful, go for frozen ones. Look for organic, too. Sprinkle a few in your hot cereal, toss some in a salad 15 minutes before serving, add half a cup to your smoothie ingredients. A cup a day is joy forever, for your heart and skin.
Power boost for your brain
Your feet have more in common with your brain than being on opposite ends of the same body. New research shows that if you step lively and cover about 6 miles a week — easy to do if you walk 30 minutes a day — you'll help keep your brain from shrinking as you grow older. The bonus: Boosting the chances that you'll hold onto your memories.
That's what researchers learned when they looked at the brain scans and test results of 299 regular walkers. Those who covered roughly 6 to 9 miles a week lost less gray matter through the years than those who walked less. Plus, the walkers cut their memory loss by half.
It's no surprise that exercise acts like Miracle-Gro for your mind, clearing the plaque that gunks up your brain's power lines. Along with walking, though, we suggest doing an exercise once or twice a week that also requires using your brain. Playing singles tennis or practicing yoga — both of which keep you engaged in the moment — can really help clear your head at the same time as you work your body.
And here's more good news about your aging brain: Another study of 1,616 adults found that the decline in mental abilities — from reasoning ability to vocabulary — isn't as steep after 60 as experts thought.