Thursday, February 28, 2008


Actor’s drug overdose can serve as a lesson for all

With the death of actor Heath Ledger in February due to a cocktail of pain killers, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medications, the topic of medication interactions is on many minds.

And we see its implications at Backus Hospital all the time.

About 28 percent of all emergency department visits and 10 percent of all hospitalizations are due to problems with medications.

It is also estimated that 1 in 4 hospitalizations of senior citizens are related to medication issues. The culprit is often multiple drugs prescribed by multiple physicians who are unaware of a patient’s other medications.

Ledger’s autopsy revealed the actor was taking six drugs that all could suppress the respiratory system. The cocktail of drugs created a perfect storm to kill the 28-year-old, the autopsy showed.

It is unclear if Ledger used more then one pharmacy for his prescriptions, which can be a problem. A pharmacy can only check for drug interactions between the prescriptions they fill. There is no way to track a patient’s prescriptions outside their own store or chain.

Even when the same pharmacy is used, patients often forget to tell the pharmacist of any over-the-counter drugs or supplements they are taking. A lot of people think because it’s a natural supplement it’s completely safe and it’s the same thing with over-the-counter drugs.

That is not the case. The two most popular over-the-counter drugs, acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can cause serious problems, such as liver failure with acetaminophen and intestinal bleeding with ibuprofen, if taken inappropriately. Many natural or herbal products have powerful drug interactions.

Patients should also never assume because medications are for very different ailments that they cannot affect one another. Drug interactions occur between all kinds of medications. It is not just side effects and drug interactions that cause trouble, taking multiple drugs without alerting a pharmacist can cause other problems, too.

There can be a lot of waste and duplication of therapies. Having multiple doctors prescribe multiple drugs for the same conditions can lead to wasted money and an increased risk of problems. Having all your prescriptions filled at a single pharmacy allows the pharmacist to evaluate all your prescriptions and supplements for duplication of therapy and drug interactions.

People who are on multiple medications should carry a list with them of what medications they are on, the dosage, how many times a day they take it and why they were prescribed it. This list should be shared with all healthcare providers whenever a medication is prescribed or filled.

Backus Hospital offers a pocket medication card you can use to help you with this at Simply scroll down the left side of the page and click on “personal pocket medication card.”

Michael Smith is a pharmacist and Clinical Coordinator in the Department of Pharmacy Services at The William W. Backus Hospital. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Smith and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

Monday, February 18, 2008


Obesity and cancer are linked

The word “obese” is an uncomfortable word to hear.

It often carries with it the connotation of being lazy, sloppy, or unhealthy. While these characterizations may be untrue, obesity has definitely been linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and a variety of orthopedic problems. A study published this week in the British medical journal, The Lancet, associates obesity with many common and rare malignancies.

Previously, there was a connection between obesity and cancers of the breast and colon. This more recent study demonstrates an association between excessive weight and tumors of the kidney, esophagus, thyroid, uterus and gall bladder.

Body mass index (BMI) was the measurement used to evaluate almost 300,000 patients used in this study. BMI is based on height and weight with a BMI above 30 considered obese. This is the equivalent of a five foot ten inch person weighing 210 pounds. A BMI of 25 (five foot ten inch person weighing 178 pounds) is considered overweight.

It is believed that half the adult population in all developed nations is overweight or obese. This study should serve as a call to action.

In the current presidential race, each candidate has touted the “best program” for a more effective health care system. By addressing the obesity problem, we will also be reducing the frequency and severity of many other health conditions.

Some basic ways to tackle this problem:

1. Keep it simple. Body weight is based on calories taken in and calories expended. If more calories are taken in than expended, weight gain occurs.

2. Moderation not deprivation. While some people don’t mind measuring, counting, and weighing what they eat, many don’t have the time or inclination. Make an effort to eat from a plate, not a container. Eat reasonable portions of protein, starch, and vegetable, then stop. No second portions.

3. Exercise. This is where you burn the calories. Even moderate exercise can burn significant calories. Poor health is not an excuse. Consult your physician; even those who are disabled can have an exercise regimen developed.

Despite this national debate over what has become an international problem, all health care is local and any effective national health policy will have to begin in our homes and communities.

Let’s get the conversation started about how we can change the health of our community. You can comment and discuss the matter with me on our Healthy Living blog at

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital with a private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC in Norwich. You can email Alessi and all the Healthy Living columnists at

Monday, February 11, 2008


Be good to your heart, try some flaxseed

Since 1963, February has been appointed National Heart Month. This month has been designated to urge Americans to join in on the battle against the No. 1 killer, heart disease. By now, most us know that not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, as well as reducing the saturated and trans fatty acids in our diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease.

More recently, the American Heart Association has updated recommendations for consumption of omega-3 fatty acids for further prevention of heart disease. Omega -3 fatty acids in the diet include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Recommendations specifically include 1 gm of EPA and DHA per day, preferably from fish oil. Currently there are no exact recommendations for ALA for heart disease prevention, although the heart association suggests that intake is beneficial.

Flaxseed is a very rich plant source of alpha-linolenic acid. We should be encouraged to replace oils such as corn oil and safflower oils with canola soybean or flaxseed as well as incorporating flaxseed and walnuts into our diets.

Flaxseed has been used in the diets of humans for thousands of years. The Babylonians cultivated flaxseed as early as 3,000 BC., and millennia later, in 650 BC., Hippocrates used flaxseed for the relief of intestinal discomfort.
Flaxseed can be purchased at many supermarkets.

Ground flaxseed provides more nutritional benefits than whole seed. That’s because the seeds are hard, making them difficult to crack, even with careful chewing, therefore they may pass undigested through the body, reducing the nutritional advantage of eating it in the first place. Ground seeds are available as well as the whole seed. The seed is easy to grind at home by using a coffee grinder, food processor or blender. Like coffee beans, you can grind flaxseed coarsely or fine, but generally recipes call for finely ground seeds.

Once the flaxseed is ground, there is greater risk of it developing an off flavor taste. That is why it is best to grind whole flaxseed as you need it. This ensures its freshness. Either after grinding or purchasing already ground, the flaxseed should be refrigerated or freezed in an airtight container and will keep for up to 90days.

Add flaxseed to your baking for a pleasant nutty taste. It not only adds flavor, it adds extra texture and good nutrition to your breads and other baked goods. Try sampling flaxseed in everything from bread, waffle, muffin and cookie recipes. Sprinkle it into your cereal or on top of yogurt or salads. You can use flaxseed as a replacement for some or all of the oil, butter, margarine or shortening in a recipe. Recommendations include 3:1 substitution ratio. For example, 3 Tbsp. of ground flaxseed added to a recipe can replace 1 Tbsp. of the fat. When flaxseed is used instead of oil, the baked good will tend to brown more rapidly.

So during this month of February, as we are reminded to be good to our heart, go ahead and indulge in some flaxseed and you can say you had a dose of alpha-linolenic acid for the day and feel good about it.

Sarah Hospod is a registered dietitian in the Food and Nutrition Department at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Hospod and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

Friday, February 08, 2008


Learn to love yourself this Valentine’s Day

Every February, it seems like we are bombarded with candy hearts, roses and visions of cupid. From elaborate greeting cards to children’s’ homemade Valentines, we receive constant reminders that February is the month of love.

Despite this, many don’t feel worthy of love. As we prepare to show our love for others, what better time to start learning to love ourselves first. By identifying the impediments on our path to the spiritual enlightenment of self-love, we can begin to heal our past pains.

Why is it easier to open our hearts to everyone except ourselves? Children are continually bombarded with messages from parents, teachers, peers, the media, and others telling them how to look and act in order to measure up to others’ expectations. Even on Valentine’s Day, the simple act of sharing Valentines can become a stressful test of popularity. As children try to sort through these mixed messages, the relentless cycle of self-judgment begins. As feelings of self-doubt are instilled, many have trouble breaking the cycle even as adults.

Each of us embarks on a different journey. As a child, I found great joy in creation through painting and drawing. Yet my enjoyment and confidence waned because I allowed myself to take to heart any “less than stellar” comments about my finished piece, which eventually led me to participate in my own cycle of self-judgment. The more I continued to allow myself to hear the voices of others through my own inner criticism, the less my goal of validation seemed attainable. Now, as I focus my healing on generating a love for myself, I am able to find love for my artwork. The happiness I feel in creating art helps me to create new cycle of self-appreciation.

So, how do we revive a wounded heart? We restore our love for ourselves by constantly recognizing the good and forgiving the past. Each time a step is taken towards self reconciliation, it helps release the vitality which we need for creative living. Finding love for oneself, in spite of, or perhaps because of the past, will initiate healing and help to release the ties that bind our hearts.
We can continue to nourish our hearts by spending time in meditative silence, in nature, and with positive people. When we can identify something that gives us a sense of joy and allow ourselves to dedicate time for that joy, our hearts will sing.
Nurture your self-healing by attending the “Renewing the Spirit for Women” workshop on April 12, or the “Renewal of a Man’s Soul” workshop on April 25, at the Backus Outpatient Care Center. For more information about these events, call 889-8331, ext. 2483.

Paula Novak, a registered nurse and certified Healing Touch practitioner, is the Clinical Coordinator for Healing Touch and Integrative Care at William. W. Backus Hospital. This column should not replace advise or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Ms. Novak and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

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