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Health Headlines

Cloudy With A Chance of Headache?

Many severe headache sufferers blame the weather for their pain, and now there's some actual scientific evidence to back them up. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center studied more than 7,000 patients who came to the emergency room complaining of headaches. Using meteorological and pollutant monitors, they compared environmental factors such as air temperature, barometric pressure and fine particulate matter during the three days prior to patients' hospital visits and then again at corresponding dates to determine if any of the factors trigger severe headaches.

The study found high air temperature in the 24 hours prior to a hospital visit was most associated with headache symptoms. With every 9-degree increase in temperature, a patient's risk of severe headache increased by 7.5 percent. In some cases, lower barometric pressure also triggered headaches. There was no evidence of air pollutants acting as a trigger, but researchers could not rule out a smaller effect similar to one previously seen for stroke.

"Certainly our results are consistent with the idea that severe headaches can be triggered by external factors," says Kenneth Mukamal, MD, MPH, the study's first author and a physician in the Division of General Medicine and Primary Care at BIDMC. "These findings help tell us that the environment around us does affect our health and, in terms of headaches, may be impacting many, many people on a daily basis."

Dr. Mukamal recommends that headache patients sit down with their doctors to identify the triggers that lead to their headache symptoms, adding that even though the weather can't be altered, doctors might be able to prescribe medication that can be administered on a preventative basis to help avert the onset of weather-related headaches.

Neck Fat May Signal Heart Risk

A tight collar may be a sign of future heart trouble, according to a new study. Researchers at the Framingham Heart Study measured the neck circumference and cholesterol levels of 3,300 men and women. They found that participants with bigger necks had lower levels of good cholesterol or HDL, and higher blood glucose levels, both known factors for heart trouble.

Heart risk in the study was greater regardless of the size of a person's waistline, but researchers did find a higher risk of heart trouble for those with both fat necks and waistlines.

"The findings of this study are important," says Dr. Murray Mittleman, PhD, Director of the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at the Cardiovascular Institute at BIDMC. "They reinforce the importance of maintaining a healthy weight to help reduce the risk of heart disease and other serious chronic diseases including diabetes."

Slight Cutback in Salt Can Bring Big Health Benefits

Americans are enamored with salt. According to the American Heart Association, we eat on average 9 to 12 grams per person per day - twice the recommended daily amount. Much of that salt comes hidden in processed foods and is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. But new research shows if we cut our salt intake by half, as many as 150,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year.

Researchers at the University of California used a computer simulation to estimate the impact of reducing salt on heart disease and deaths related to it. They found if each person lowered salt intake by 6 grams per day, there would be 1.4 million fewer cases of heart disease and 1.1 million fewer heart-related deaths. Even small changes could have dramatic effects. The study found cutting even 1 gram of salt per person per day could prevent 30,000 cases of coronary heart disease by 2019.

While the study found eating less salt would improve the overall population's health, the study's authors say African-Americans and women would benefit most. Research shows African-Americans tend to have higher blood pressure than the general population and may be more sensitive to salt. The salt reduction study found cutting back to 3 grams of salt per day would reduce heart attacks by 10 percent among African Americans and 8 percent among women.

"African-Americans certainly have a higher prevalence of hypertension than white Americans," says Dr. Jacques Carter, a primary care physician at BIDMC. "I believe small decreases in salt intake may lead to clinically significant benefits, especially in persons who are thought to be salt-sensitive."