Archive for February, 2011

Screen-Based Entertainment and Cardiovascular Risk

February 28th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Source: JACC, MedPageToday

Scientists have confirmed that regular physical activity is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, all-cause disability and other health problems. However, few studies have looked at the possible association between time spent sitting and mortality. The two are not exact opposites, since a person who gets a good 30-minute work-out every day and then sits in front of a computer screen for 8 hours has high levels of both physical activity and sedentary behavior.

A new study by Emmanuel Stamatakis and colleagues at University College London has addressed the gap, and the results suggest that too much time spent in front of a computer or the TV increases the risk cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality, even in people also happen to engage in regular exercise.

To reach these troubling conclusions, Stamatakis’ group reviewed data from 4,500 respondents to the Scottish Health Survey of 2003. Participants were 35 years old or older, and were followed for at least 4 years.

Respondents were asked describe the time spent per day engaged in screen-based entertainment (like watching TV or surfing the Internet).

After adjusting for age, gender, BMI, ethnicity, social class, cigarette smoking and other factors, Stamatakis’ group determined that cardiovascular risk was about 50% higher among respondents who engaged in screen-based entertainment for two or more hours per day. They also found that all-cause mortality was more than twice as high among those who engaged in four or more hours of the same.

Importantly, when the scientists adjusted their analysis to account for physical activity, they found no appreciable reduction of the risk associated with sedentary behavior.

In an effort to study physiological mechanisms underlying the link between excessive sedentary behavior and cardiovascular risk, Stamatakis’ team looked at a subset of respondents for whom blood test results were available. (more…)



Lexapro Cools Hot Flashes

February 25th, 2011 | No Comments | Source: JAMA, MedPageToday

Hot flashes are a common symptom of menopause. Lasting from two to 30 minutes per episode, they usually begin with a sensation of intense heat on the face or chest which then spreads to other parts of the body. This sensation is often associated with sweating and tachycardia.

Not all women experience hot flashes, and for many others the symptoms amount to little more than a minor annoyance. But for some, hot flashes are down right debilitating. They have been known to precipitate fainting, for example. Some women experience several dozen hot flashes per day, and each one is severe enough to interrupt sleep or force them to cease normal activities until it subsides.
Hormone replacement therapy works like a charm for nearly all affected women, but it has fallen out of favor in the last decade or so, after scientists showed the therapy increased the risk of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer, among other things.

Women who suffer debilitating hot flashes, and the physicians who treat them will thus be heartened to learn that the antidepressant Lexapro reduces the frequency and severity of hot flash symptoms.

That’s the conclusion reached by Ellen Freeman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, who recently published their findings in JAMA.

To reach this conclusion, Freeman’s team randomized 205 healthy menopausal women to receive either Lexapro or a placebo. Each volunteer reported experiencing at least 28 hot flashes per week. As a group, they averaged 9.8 hot flashes per day before the study began. (more…)



Super-Chickens in Fight Against Avian Flu

February 24th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Source: BurrillReport, Science

In 2003 and 2004, bird flu outbreaks devastated the economies of several Southeast Asian countries. More than 140 million birds either succumbed to the virus or were culled by humans in an attempt to control the epidemic. Poultry producers lost more than $10 billion.

Thankfully, those strains of avian flu weren’t adept at infecting humans. If a future strain manages to do so in a big way, the resulting pandemic could cost the global economy $1.25 trillion.

Those predictions have ruffled feathers among politicians and scientists alike, and a serious effort has begun to prevent such an occurrence. Unfortunately, research on anti-viral drugs and vaccines is going nowhere fast.

Now however, scientists at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh have chosen to attack the problem in a different way: they’ve created a better chicken.

In a paper published in Science, Laurence Tiley and colleagues report having genetically re-engineered the standard chicken into a version that doesn’t transmit avian flu to its coop-mates. The scientists assert their super-chicken may prevent outbreaks of avian flu among birds and yes, reduce the chances that the virus could jump to humans, who have no immunity to bird flu.

“Preventing virus transmission in chickens should reduce the economic impact of the disease and reduce the risk posed to people exposed to the infected birds,” Tiley said in an interview. “The genetic modification we describe is a significant first step along the path to developing chickens that are completely resistant to avian flu.”

To produce their super-chickens, Tiley’s group introduced a so-called RNA-expression cassette into their DNA. The cassette prompted the chickens to produce a hairpin-shaped piece of RNA that essentially tricks a viral enzyme known as polymerase into biding with it, rather than the native viral genome. This renders the enzyme useless and prevents the virus from replicating itself. (more…)



Screening for Alzheimer’s Disease: Some Progress

February 23rd, 2011 | 2 Comments | Source: CNN, JAMA, NY Times

In developed nations, human life expectancy has increased steadily for over a century. One of the few negative consequences of this trend has been a marked increase in the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, an age-related untreatable condition that has driven enormous health spending on a national scale and wrecked the finances of millions of families in the US alone. Now, with the oldest Baby Boomers just reaching age 65, Alzheimer’s disease seems destined to become a true national health crisis.

Two of the most vexing problems with this nasty disease are determining who has it and diagnosing it early enough (so scientists can understand how it progresses and someday, intervene to either cure it or halt its progression).

With current technology, the only way to accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s disease is at autopsy. Special tests of the deceased’s brain reveal the sine qua non of Alzheimer’s disease: amyloid plaques.

But last week, 2 studies appearing in JAMA provided rays of hope in this otherwise dismal state of affairs. We review them both below:

Brain Scan Detects Plaques
In the first study, scientists injected a radioactive dye known as Flobetapir F 18 into the blood of elderly volunteers, and then used PET scans to image their brains.  Florbetapir F 18 had been designed by Christopher Clark and colleagues at Avid Radiopharmaceuticals to bind to amyloid proteins—which are the main constituents of amyloid plaques—and thus make them visible in vivo using the PET scan.

The PET scans correctly identified amyloid plaques in 97% of the volunteers that actually had them, as proven at autopsy. In addition, PET scans performed after the dye had been injected into young, healthy volunteers revealed no plaques.

Scientists believe the Florbetapir F 18 PET scans could be helpful as a means to exclude the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. If no plaques are found in a patient with symptoms of dementia, physicians would be compelled to consider other causes of the symptom complex. The PET scans could also potentially be used to test drugs designed to remove amyloid from the brain.

A Blood Test for Alzheimer’s
The second study showed that blood levels of amyloid protein, as detected by a new blood test, were correlated with memory problems.

The study was directed by Kristine Yaffe at UCSF. Her group recruited 997 elderly volunteers and followed them with memory tests and amyloid blood tests for 9 years. (more…)



Obesity Counseling: Is Race a Factor?

February 22nd, 2011 | 2 Comments | Source: LA Times, Obesity

Most people know that the US is struggling to contain a surging epidemic of obesity, and that the problem is most acute among African-Americans. Whereas about 27% of all adult Americans are obese (defined as having a body mass index of 30 or more), fully 37% of African-American adults are obese, and that number jumps to an appalling 42% among African-American women.

Over the years, public health officials have provided evidence that socioeconomic and cultural factors drive this racial disparity. Now, a new study suggests there is another reason as well: obese African-Americans receive less obesity-related counseling than their white counterparts, and it matters not whether the physicians they see are African-American or white.

To reach these conclusions, Sara Bleich and colleagues from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health used clinical encounter data from the 2005–2007 National Ambulatory Medical Care Surveys (NAMCS). The sample included 2,231 visits involving African-American and white obese people who were at least 20 years old and who visited family practitioners and internists that were either African-American or white. Asian and Hispanic patients and physicians were excluded from the study because their numbers were too small to permit hypothesis testing.

For each encounter in the study, the scientists determined whether the patient received guidance on weight reduction, diet and nutrition, or exercise from his or her physician.

It turned out that African-American patients received weight-loss counseling about half as often as white patients did, regardless of whether the physician was African-American or white. Worse yet, African-Americans were only about one-third as likely as their white counterparts to receive advice about exercise from their physicians—once again, regardless of the physicians’ race. (more…)



Nutrition Labels for Booze Bottles?

February 18th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Source: MSNBC

Virtually all bottled beverages you can buy have handy-dandy nutrition labels from which you can access information about calories, carbs and so forth. All beverages except the ones containing alcohol, that is.

Why is that?

Maybe it’s because alcoholic beverages contain little to no protein, sodium, cholesterol, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron (remember, alcohol is metabolized as a fat, not a carbohydrate), so why bother?

Then again, alcohol does contain calories, a lot of them. Would people drink less if they knew how many calories they were consuming? Would they drink less if they knew how many “servings” of alcohol were contained in the bottle they just purchased?

Maybe it’s because of the cost of performing nutritional analyses on each vintage of wine, each and every year, would turn profitable vineyards into money losers? Then again, plenty of niche beverage producers who run reasonably narrow margin businesses have never complained about the requirement to provide nutritional information.

The Tax and Trade Bureau is the federal agency that decides what information must appear on the labels of alcoholic beverages. Currently, it does not require manufacturers of wine, beer and the hard stuff to list ingredients. It does require them to list chemicals that folks might have an adverse reaction to…things like sulfites, aspartame and dyes.

The Bureau also mandates that wines containing 14% or more alcohol by volume must state this fact on a label. Wines containing less than 14% can either specify the alcohol content or affix the words “light wine” or “table wine” to their labels. In addition, “light” beer bottlers must state calorie and carbohydrate content, and distilled liquor bottlers must specify the alcohol content by volume.

Since 2003 however, consumer and public health advocates have lobbied the Tax and Trade bureau to require that labels on alcoholic beverages include more information than this. They want things like calories, carbohydrates and alcohol per serving, as well as the number of servings contained in the bottle to be included as well. (more…)



Should the US Destroy its Cache of Smallpox Virus?

February 17th, 2011 | No Comments | Source: Wall Street Journal

Smallpox killed between 300–500 million people during the 20th century. As recently as 1967, 15 million people were infected and 2 million died from smallpox. Amazingly however, a massive, global vaccine-based effort to eradicate the disease was declared a complete success in 1979. That feat stands among the greatest achievements in the history of medicine. In fact to this day, smallpox remains the only human disease to have been completely eliminated from the face of the earth.

End of story, right?

Well, not exactly. Today, officials believe that the only samples of the virus in existence are stored in refrigerators at the CDC and in a Russian government lab in Siberia. At these tightly guarded facilities, scientists use the specimens to develop treatments which would be used in the event that very bad people somehow found a way to release the virus into a world containing billions of unvaccinated people.

For this to happen, bioterrorists would have to secure unsanctioned samples of the virus (none of which are known to exist), steal it from the above-mentioned facilities, or genetically engineer it (a task believed to be extremely difficult using current technology, since the virus’ genome is long and complex). It’s also possible that the above-mentioned facilities could release the virus accidentally.

The probability that any of these events will happen is exceedingly small, so public officials have debated for decades whether the known, remaining samples of smallpox virus should be destroyed.

The debate now appears headed for a resolution. Representatives of 34 countries including the US and Russia are meeting to decide the matter. The group will make recommendations to a governing body, the World Health Assembly, in March. The Assembly plans to decide the matter in May. (more…)



Those Blueberries in your Cereal may be Fakes

February 16th, 2011 | No Comments | Source: LA Times

In recent years, scientists discovered that blueberries were loaded with anthocyanins, resveratrol, flavonoids and other chemicals that slowed aging and cut cancer risk in mice.

Blueberries have never been shown to have these effects in humans, but the discoveries have nevertheless triggered quite a renaissance for the tasty fruit. In fact nowadays, you can find blueberries in nearly every aisle at the grocery store. You can buy blueberry bagels, blueberry ice cream and blueberry salad dressing for example, in addition their old-time hang-outs in muffins and cereal…and that’s not even counting the fresh, natural berries themselves.

But consumers need to exercise caution when purchasing these products. While many feature enticing pictures of blueberries on their labels, some don’t contain real blueberries at all, according to a recent report by the Consumer Wellness Center.

Take Blueberry Muffin-flavored Frosted Mini Wheats, for example. This Kellogg’s product contains not a whit of blueberries. Instead, it contains “blueberry flavored crunchlets” which are made from sugar, soybean oil, red #40 and blue #2.

Worse yet is the General Mills product, Total Blueberry Pomegranate Cereal. It contains neither blueberries nor pomegranates.

Many other products contain a trivial amount of blueberries, it’s true, but their recipes contain a host of of artificial colors, hydrogenated oils, liquid sugars and other ingredients that make their products look like they contain a lot more blueberries than they really do.

For example, Target brand blueberry bagels claims to contain “blueberry bits.”  Now, to be fair, the ingredients list does include actual blueberries, but those blueberry bits aren’t made from the real thing. Instead, they’re made from sugar, corn cereal, modified food starch, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, artificial flavor, cellulose gum, salt and artificial colors like Blue #2, Red #40, Green #3 and Blue #1. (more…)



Bioterrorism: Pentagon Goes Back to the Drawing Board

February 15th, 2011 | No Comments | Source: Boston Globe

The horrifying events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent weaponized anthrax scare shook-up every American. Officials in charge of homeland defense were particularly shocked. Among other things, it dawned on them that our nation had no good way to defend itself against future bioterrorist attacks.

Soon thereafter, the Pentagon set aside $1 billion to develop treatments for soldiers and civilians who became infected in a bioterrorist attack. The funds went to something called the Transformational Medical Technologies program, which quickly disbursed them to more than 100 universities, drug companies and biotech companies.

The primary goal of the research spawned by these grants was to develop medicines that could neutralize bacteria and viruses that had been specially designed by terrorists to kill people and resist all known therapeutic agents. The infectious agents targeted by the scientists included Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, Sabia, Machupo and Junin.

But now, 5 years after the grants were disbursed, Pentagon officials are pretty much calling the program a bust. Just 2 experimental drugs have shown promise, and they are years away from clinical testing, let alone commercialization.

The major problem, it seems, is technical. It turns out to be easier to increase the lethality of a virus than it is to devise ways to fight it.

“The offensive capabilities outrun the defensive capabilities as the march of biology continues,’’ Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary and bioterrorism expert said in an interview. “The theory behind [the program] was these same advances should empower the defenses,’’ he explained. “That intuition is worth exploring and investing in, but it is easier to conceive than to execute.’’

A secondary problem should have been anticipated by the Pentagon in advance: for ethical reasons, experimental treatments for nasty germs like these cannot be tested in human clinical trials, yet the FDA requires data from such trials before approving them. The work-around strategy is to test the agents on animals that have been genetically engineered so as to have traits that mimic what is seen in humans, but this process is time-consuming and expensive.

So What Will the Pentagon to Do?
Of course the Pentagon cannot walk away from the effort. The threat of bioterrorism remains. So it has set aside an additional $1 billion to develop fast, inexpensive ways to identify (rather than treat) weaponized versions of the germs mentioned above. In all likelihood, many of the same contractors will play a role in the new effort. (more…)



Invasion of the Sperm Killers

February 14th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Source: MSNBC

Many folks have heard that those Preparation H requiring, obscenely narrow sprint bicycle seats are associated with erectile dysfunction, and that certain antidepressants can cause DNA damage in sperm. But in our everyday lives we encounter many more sperm slayers as well. What is more, the havoc they wreak can range from scrambling the DNA of your favorite swimmers to interfering with, well, their ability to swim.

The good news, according to a recent expose on the matter, is that you can do something about most of them. Here’s a summary of the most common “sex offenders” and the steps you can take to protect the troops:

Heated car seats-For the unfortunate souls who live in the Midwest and Northeast, few luxuries are more welcome than a heated car seat. But those contraptions are frying your sperm, plain and simple. The same goes for strategically placed heating pads and lengthy spells in a hot tub. Sperm production, it turns out, is done best at temperatures several degrees below normal body temperature…that’s why a man’s package hangs down like it does in the first place. External heat sources defeat nature’s way, guys.
What to do: Jack-up the car heater and bag the heated seat whenever possible. And don’t fall asleep in the hot tub.

Morning Ablutions-Your soap and shampoo most likely contain phthalates, which are organic compounds that interfere with male hormone synthesis and have been associated with infertility, birth defects, and other nasty things. Phthalates are also in your vinyl shower curtain and probably in the tile cleaner you’re using to clean the shower (if you clean the shower, that is). As an added bonus, the heat from your shower helps release these chemicals.
What to do: Use organic or plain, unscented soaps and shampoos. If a personal care product has a scent, it probably contains phthalates. Check the labels on the soaps and shampoos you do buy. Look for the word “phthalate” or its many aliases, which include DMP, DEP, DAP and DPP. If you can afford it, go with the glass door on the shower. It’s more aesthetically pleasing and less prone to flooding, anyway.

Sex toys-Sadly, these handy gadgets also contain phthalates. The worst offenders are those containing so-called “jelly-rubber,” or vinyl. Most dildos and vibrators are in this category. What a bummer.
What to do: Go with products made of silicone or glass. Remember, this affects your partner, too.

Cash register receipts-Nearly half of them are coated with bisphenol-A (BPA), an estrogen-like chemical that has been linked to erectile dysfunction, loss of sexual desire and ejaculation difficulties, not to mention heart disease (we have covered various BPA stories over the years, most recently here and here).
What to do: If you really need receipts, store them in an envelope rather than a pocket or your wallet, so you’re not constantly handling them. For extra credit, don’t recycle receipts, because BPA leaches from them into landfills and eventually finds its way into the water supply.  (more…)



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