October 2009 Mayo Clinic Health Letter Highlights Iron Overload, Radiation Risk and Better Health with Yoga and Tai Chi

Saturday, October 24, 2009 General News
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ROCHESTER, Minn., Oct. 23 Here are highlights from the October issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter. You may cite this publication as often as you wish. Reprinting is allowed for a fee. Mayo Clinic Health Letter attribution is required. Include the following subscription information as your editorial policies permit: Visit www.HealthLetter.MayoClinic.com or call toll-free for subscription information, 800-333-9037, extension 9771.

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Iron Overload: Straightforward Treatment for Common Genetic Disorder

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Absorbing and storing too much iron can cause an array of health problems -- for starters, joint pain, fatigue, weakness and loss of interest in sex. This condition, called hemochromatosis, is the most common genetic disorder in the United States, most frequently occurring in people of Northern European descent.

The October issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter provides an overview of hemochromatosis, including its genetic cause, subtle early symptoms, potential health risks and treatment.

When people have hemochromatosis, their bodies absorb and store too much iron from their normal diet. Over decades, the iron levels can build up in various organs, most often the liver and heart. Without treatment, iron levels accumulate to 20 times that of a person without the disorder. The result can be irreversible scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver cancer, diabetes, heart failure, heart rhythm problems, arthritis, impotence or darkening of the skin.

Because of routine blood tests and follow-up genetic testing, nearly three-fourths of those with hemochromatosis are diagnosed before symptoms even begin. Usually, iron levels can be returned to normal without lasting health problems.

The most common treatment is as straightforward as the process of donating blood. About 1 pint of blood is removed from the patient every one to two weeks until iron markers in the blood reach normal levels. Once normal levels are reached, which can take from several weeks to a year or more, blood is drawn two to four times a year.

When iron levels return to normal, patients see marked improvements in weakness, fatigue, darkening of the skin and possibly even early-stage liver and heart disease. However, if cirrhosis occurs, damage to the liver may be permanent. The increased risk of liver cancer associated with cirrhosis will remain, too.

Radiation: Potential Risk from Medical Procedures is Small

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- There's no reason to forgo a needed radiation-based medical procedure because of concerns about cancer risk, according to the October issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter. While the volume of radiation-based tests and procedures has increased in the past three decades, scientists haven't proven that the low doses of radiation used in medical settings actually increase cancer risk.

Everyone is exposed to radiation -- from the sun, rocks and minerals. Radiation is naturally present in air, water, food and the human body. On average, annual exposure from natural radiation is estimated to be about 3 millisieverts (mSv).

Until the early 1980s, patients were exposed to minuscule amounts of radiation from basic X-rays, for example, mammograms (0.4 mSv), chest X-rays (two views, 0.1 mSv) and dental X-rays (0.005 mSv).

Since then, it's estimated that the total amount of radiation from medical exams and procedures in the United States has increased almost six times. Consider that a CT scan of the heart (CT angiogram) is 5 to 15 mSv. Angioplasty, a procedure to open clogged arteries, uses 7 to 57 mSv, depending on the complexity of the procedure. A virtual colonoscopy uses 5 mSv.

Scientists haven't determined exactly at what level radiation begins to significantly increase cancer risk. Some evidence shows that below about 100 mSv, there's no increase in risk -- or that the increased risk is so small that it's not possible to accurately estimate risk.

Radiation safety organizations contend that the risk increases whenever radiation dose increases. If that's true, even the smallest doses of radiation could cause cancer, although the risk would be very low.

Consider that a CT scan of the abdomen or pelvis exposes a patient to an estimated 10 mSv of radiation, increasing the lifetime risk of dying of cancer by 0.05 percent. That increase would be added to the 21 percent lifetime chance of dying from a cancer of natural causes, changing the risk of dying of cancer from 21 percent to 21.05 percent.

To put the 0.05 percent risk increase in perspective, compare it to other lifetime risk statistics: dying from drowning (0.09 percent), from a pedestrian accident (0.16 percent) or from a bicycling accident (0.02 percent). If, in fact, the cancer risk is slightly increased by radiation-based medical tests and procedures, that risk needs to be considered against the benefit resulting from those tests and procedures.

Yoga and Tai Chi as Pathways to Better Health

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- For an investment of 20 minutes each morning, the payback is reduced stress, a sense of calm and peace, improved strength, limberness, better immune function and lower blood pressure.

It's not too good to be true. The investment is practicing yoga or tai chi, which were developed and revised over many centuries. The October issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter includes an in-depth Special Report on Yoga and Tai Chi, covering health benefits, differences between yoga and tai chi, tips for learning postures and poses, simple stretches, how breathing enhances energy, and resources to learn more.

An important advantage of yoga and tai chi is that they combine key elements of exercise -- aerobic, strength training, core stability, flexibility and balance -- into unified approaches. Certain benefits, particularly stress reduction, can be seen in as little as one day. People report better sleep and improvements in digestive health within the first few days. Better digestive health can mean better bowel function and decreased constipation. Practiced regularly, yoga and tai chi may help reverse some effects of aging, such as restricted and narrowed movements.

After 10 to 12 weeks of regular sessions, practitioners often notice significant health benefits in other areas. For example, a study of yoga and people who experience migraines found that those doing yoga had less frequent and less intense headaches than did those taking medication.

In addition, those who practiced yoga saw improvements in anxiety and depression. Yoga and tai chi can improve bone density and cardiovascular health and decrease blood pressure.

The best way to learn yoga or tai chi is by taking a class or working with a qualified instructor. These classes, which teach the art of breathing, meditation and posing, are offered at many health clubs and senior centers and through community education.

Mayo Clinic Health Letter is an eight-page monthly newsletter of reliable, accurate and practical information on today's health and medical news. To subscribe, please call 800-333-9037 (toll-free), extension 9771, or visit www.HealthLetter.MayoClinic.com.

SOURCE Mayo Clinic

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