AFTER re-examining last year’s health news, the Johns Hopkins medical letter staff members have come up with five key pieces of research that you can act upon to help make 2011 a little healthier and happier, says the January 2011 issue of the Johns Hopkins’ Health After 50.

Thus, the health letter offers the following important developments from 2010 which can help ring in a more healthful 2011:

1) Still consider a yearly mammogram — In late 2009, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended less frequent breast cancer screening for many women.

Does this mean women should go to an every-other-year schedule?

Although women have long been urged to get yearly mammograms beginning at age 40, the USPSTF (an independent advisory body whose purpose is to look at medical evidence and make recommendations) now says that women do not need regular mammograms until age 50 and, between ages 50 and 74, women can opt for a mammogram every other year.

These recommendations were based in large part on two major studies which showed that mammograms do indeed save lives...just too few lives, the USPSTF concluded, to justify the potential harms of annual screening, such as false-positive results that lead to unnecessary biopsies.

However, critics, including experts at the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center and elsewhere, contend that it is unwise to recommend less frequent screening for all, since it’s impossible to know which patient’s life might have been saved if she’d received a mammogram at 40 instead of 50 or an annual mammogram instead of a biennial test.

What this means for you:

Speak with your doctor about which mammogram schedule is appropriate for you but, in case you want to continue with annual screenings, be aware that yearly mammograms are still covered for women over the age of 40, without a copayment, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the healthcare reform law), which took effect last September.

2) Use caution with heartburn meds — Last June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about a class of potent medications called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which are meant to treat serious gastrointestinal conditions but are often used for everyday heartburn.

The FDA warning is about a possible increased risk of wrist, hip and spine fractures with high-dose or long-term PPI use.

Other serious concerns raised by the FDA about PPIs include:

(a) In late 2009, the FDA issued a black-box warning about taking PPIs with the blood thinner clopidogrel (Plavix), after research strongly suggested that PPIs blunt clopidogrel’s ability to prevent blood clots and;

(b) More recently, studies have also linked PPIs to an increased risk of Clostridium difficile infections.

However, for some individuals with serious gastrointestinal conditions, such as stomach ulcers, such risks may be justified because the power of PPIs may be needed to prevent serious complications.

What this means for you: For heartburn, the FDA now recommends first:

(a) trying acid-lowering therapies that are potentially less dangerous, including antacids, such as calcium carbonate (TUMS) or histamine blockers, such as rantidine (Zantac);

(b) eating smaller, less fatty meals;

(c) avoiding meals at least two hours before bedtime; and

(d) sleeping with your head raised slightly higher than your feet to help prevent acid from flowing backward.

If you fail to find relief after having tried these therapies, talk to your doctor who may prescribe a PPI to be used judiciously for the occasional treatment of heartburn or indigestion.

3) Diabetes: set moderate heart goals — Heart disease is the leading killer of individuals with diabetes but, based on two sets of findings released last year, experts feel that aggressively controlling the risk factors for heart disease is not the best course of treatment.

Although the landmark diabetes study Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes (ACCORD) confirmed last year that lowering blood pressure prevents heart attacks and strokes, ACCORD also found that intensive therapy to reduce systolic blood pressure to less than 120 mm Hg was no more effective than lowering blood pressure to the standard target of less than 140 mm Hg.

Also, aggressive treatment was associated with more serious side effects, says the letter.

Moreover, another arm of the study that examined cholesterol showed that combining a statin (to lower cholesterol levels) and a fibrate (to reduce triglycerides) did not lower the risk of cardiovascular events significantly more than the use of a statin alone.

What this means for you:

These findings suggest that overly aggressive measures to lower blood pressure and cholesterol may do more harm than good.

It may be more beneficial to focus on lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, than to take more medications to reach blood pressure targets below 120 mm Hg, the letter advises.

4) Cut salt: steady your blood pressure — Startling evidence concerning the potential benefits of cutting back on salt was witnessed last year.

One major study estimated that if we all lowered our salt consumption by about 30 percent daily we could save up to 92,000 lives annually, as well as prevent 120,000 new cases of coronary heart disease each year.

(Most Americans consume between 3,400 and 4,000 milligrams [mg] of sodium each day, far above the recommended daily allowance of 1,500 mg for all adults over 40.)

Another key finding: Research increasingly shows that simply lowering your blood pressure might not be enough to prevent a stroke, even though cutting back on salt and following other lifestyle measures, including exercise and weight loss, can help lower your blood pressure.

Based on one analysis of more than one million blood pressure measurements, results revealed that individuals whose blood pressure varied the most from one reading to the next were up to six times more likely to suffer a stroke than those with more stable blood pressure.

Thus, participants whose average blood pressure was high but stable were actually less likely to have a stroke than those with lower but highly variable blood pressure.

What this means for you:

Smart steps to take if you suspect your sodium consumption is higher than it should be include:

(a) check labels and choose foods with less than 150 mg of sodium per serving;

(b) rinse canned foods prior to preparing them;

(c) choose fresh foods whenever possible; and

(d) when dining out, ask about low-salt options.

Ask your doctor to analyze your blood pressure variability.

If results suggest your blood pressure is unstable, ask your doctor about taking a calcium channel blocker and a diuretic (a combination that seems to stabilize blood pressure) instead of a beta-blocker (beta-blockers lower blood pressure effectively but tend to increase variability).

5) Ask about light sedation — Surgery can pose risks for the aging brain because older individuals simply don’t metabolize anesthetic agents as efficiently as do younger ones, making the drugs more potent.

Also, with age, individuals have less brain power in reserve to mitigate the potential harms of anesthesia on memory.

General anesthesia may also cause previously undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease to emerge, adds the health letter.

Light sedation may help protect memory by keeping patients in a semi-conscious state using lower doses of anesthesia.

Pain is controlled with a regional anesthesia, such as an epidural or nerve block.

A study from Johns Hopkins Medicine last year found that rates of postoperative delirium were 50 percent lower using light sedation than with general anesthesia for hip fracture repair.

What this means for you: While you cannot put off a potentially life-saving procedure just because it involves general anesthesia, if you are concerned about protecting your memory, ask your doctor if light sedation is a viable alternative.

For many elective surgical procedures, such as knee repair surgery, it usually is, says the letter.

Thus, when making your New Year’s resolution, it will be worth your while to keep in mind last year’s health news about important developments, follow the recommended measures and, hopefully, make the year ahead happier and more healthful for you and your loved ones!