These tips are part of a handful of columns that we consider among the most important stories we covered in 2011. Happy 2012 to all our readers.
The anti-cancer shot
that saves kids’ lives
If scientists devised a vaccination that protected against colon, breast or any kind of cancer, you’d round up the family and get in line, right? Just the opposite happened in fall 2011, when a cervical cancer vaccine — which actually had been around for a few years — suddenly fired up presidential debates, scary Internet rumors and even a flurry of protests.
Behind the controversy was the usual suspect: sex. Gardasil, the vaccine, protects against human papilloma virus, which causes most cervical cancers; anal, vaginal, penile cancers; some oral and throat cancers; and genital warts. HPV is usually transmitted sexually (though it’s passed via skin), so the shots work best when they’re given before there’s any chance of sexual activity. Routine vaccinations are now recommended for girls and boys starting at age 9.
The National Cancer Institute calculates that if all females get the shots and protection lasts long-term, vaccinations would cut cervical cancer deaths alone by two-thirds and throat cancers by more than a third.
As for the scary rumors, out of at least 35 million doses of Gardasil, only .05 percent have produced what docs call "adverse events." The biggest problem? The shots hurt more than most vaccinations, so the main complaints have been pain, sore arms and fainting. Now, kids are kept seated for 15 minutes to be sure they don’t keel over. That 15 minutes could save their lives.
Healthy vegetables prevent a major cause of heart attacks
How often have you said to someone, "Great hair!" and had them grin back, "Lucky genes!" But what if they, or you, also got some unlucky genes? Most of us inherited something: grandma’s arthritis or dad’s bald spot or mom’s iffy ticker. Listen up: You have more control over your genes than you think.
Terrific new evidence of this: Let’s say there’s heart disease all over your family. Feel genetically doomed? Nope. In fact, you can say "boo" to those family-health ghosts. If you all share a very common bad heart gene called 9p21, loading your diet with fresh veggies and fruit cuts your risk of the family heart attack so much that it’s as if you didn’t get the gene.
Something in fresh produce, especially veggies, turns this genetic bully into a wimp.
Another example: Say you and your neighbor both have the 9p21 gene. You’re not a nutritional saint (dessert happens), but your diet is also stuffed with carrots and broccoli, spinach and berries, apples and artichokes. Your neighbor eats a typical American diet (meaty, sugary, salty, fatty). Your heart attack risk will plunge. Your neighbor’s? It doubles.
We have seen way too much heart disease. Dr. Oz’s first job was cardiac surgeon; Dr. Mike’s, cardiac anesthesiologist and internist. We’d love never to see a heart patient again. That’s not so far-fetched. If every American stopped smoking, started walking, managed stress, and ate a ton-o-veggies, heart disease could go extinct. Make it happen in your home.
Coffee has big cancer-fighting benefits
As far as we can tell, all of America would grind to halt without coffee. We average about 3.4 cups per coffee drinker a day. Great news! Because in the war against cancer, coffee — lots of it — has become one of the most beneficial weapons you never suspected. In 2011, coffee was linked to lower rates of:
1. Endometrial cancer. Big coffee drinkers are 25 percent less likely to develop it than women who don’t finish a cup. Dose: at least four cups a day.
2. Prostate cancer. It detests coffee. The newest data shows that even decaf repels even the most lethal type. Dose: one to six cups daily.
3. The most common skin cancer. If basal cell carcinoma gets a toehold, coffee acts to shut it down. Dose: more than three cups a day.
4. Breast cancer. Heavy coffee drinkers run a 20 to 50 percent lower risk of some breast cancers after menopause, versus women who sip less than a cup. Dose: at least five cups a day.
That’s not all. In 2011, coffee was confirmed to ward off Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as type 2 diabetes.
What if you don’t like coffee, or it doesn’t like you? Fortunately, caffeine is one of coffee’s key protective compounds, and there are plenty of other places to get it, including caffeinated water plus green and black tea. Drinking them can give you instant smarts to deal with tough tasks, like switching cell-phone services.
At last, a way to reduce the risk of having a child with autism
Prenatal vitamins aren’t just for pregnant women any more. As we wrote in "YOU: Having a Baby" and everyone will now tell you, "If you’re of childbearing age — that is, between 12 and 50 — and there’s a chance you’ll ever be pregnant any time in the future (10 months or 10 years from now), we want you to start taking prenatal vitamins that include the DHA form of omega-3s." NOW.
Why? Well, you likely remember the dramatic answer if you regularly read this column last summer: That was when a new study found that taking prenatal vitamins three months before getting pregnant (not just during pregnancy) cuts your chances of having a child with autism or an autism spectrum disorder by a whopping 40 percent.
This is wonderful news, because autism-related disorders are increasing quickly, although no one knows exactly what’s causing them. Why are DHA omega-3s so important? They’re critical to both the fetus’s rapidly developing brain and the healthy functioning of your own brain. Here’s how to help protect your future family now:
• Women, say yes to taking prenatal vitamins with 300 to 600 mg of DHA omega-3s. Ideally, do this from childbearing age on, but at least start three months before there’s even a chance you’ll get pregnant.
• Guys, start on a multivitamin with DHA long before you begin trying for a mini-you. The better your health, the better it is for your offspring.
All that family protection in a little pill!
A 2011 medical advance you’ll never, ever forget
Suppose we told you there’s a dangerous bowel infection spreading fast because it’s become resistant to antibiotics, but that (whew) scientists have found one safe, fast and remarkably effective way to treat it: fecal implants. Yep, we’re talking about stool.
We can hear your reaction now: "Yuck, YOU Docs! Are you kidding? Gross." Sounds gross, but taking stool from a perfectly healthy person and inserting it into an extremely sick one works great. Here’s why and how:
The nasty infection is known as C. difficile. It’s tough to wipe out, and next to impossible if it makes a comeback (recurrent C. difficile). The evil invaders throw the natural mix of good and bad bacteria in your bowels so out of whack that the bad guys are left totally running the show. Your body is so sick from diarrhea and other problems that it can’t restore the balance.
Enter what’s medically called fecal bacteriotherapy, already the top treatment in Scandinavia. Introducing healthy poop, usually from a family donor, like a spouse -- and often via a simple enema -- is like sending in massive reinforcements. Suddenly there are good bacteria all over the place. The effects can be dramatic: In 11 Minnesota studies, two had cure rates of 81 percent and 94 percent. The other nine had 100 percent cures. Normal bowel function was usually restored within 24 hours, to the relief of desperate patients and physicians.
What’s not to like?
The ick factor. We squeamish North Americans need to get past that. In this case, gross is great.