News Briefs – February 2006

VITAMIN D LINKED TO HEALTHY LUNGS

A study by researchers from the University of Auckland has shown that vitamin D may play a role in keeping lungs healthy. The exact connection between the vitamin and lung health is unclear. For that reason, more study is needed to draw hard conclusions. However, over 14,000 subjects were included in the research making it a sound study.

The difference in how well the lungs worked between those with the highest and lowest levels of vitamin D was substantial — more pronounced than the difference in lung function between former smokers and non-smokers, according to a report in the December 2006 issue of the journal, Chest.

Previously, low levels of vitamin D had been associated with other diseases such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. The new findings show the vitamin increases the amount of air inhaled and exhaled. It could prove an easy way for smokers, asthmatics and other people with respiratory problems to improve their airflow.

Pale-skinned people need about 10 minutes each day of sun without sunscreen in order that the body can manufacture its daily requirement for vitamin D. People with darker complexions need at least 20 minutes to absorb sufficient sun. Canadians need vitamin D supplements in winter to make up for the loss of direct sunlight in winter.

In another study, reported in the December 2005 edition of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, vitamin D3 showed promise as a future way to help treat asthma patients who do not respond to standard steroid drugs, which have serious side effects and which do not work for all patients.

FDA APPROVES BARLEY HEART CLAIM

Roll over oats: Breakfast cereals and other foods that contain barley will soon be able to start claiming they can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The disease kills 550,000 North Americans a year. Labels on whole barley and dry milled barley products, including flakes, grits, flour and meal, are expected to start making the claim, the Food and Drug Administration said in announcing its ruling on December 23. The claim is identical to that already made on many oat products. The FDA estimates a quarter of the hot breakfast cereals, and another 5% of the cold cereals, sold in the U.S. will start boasting their health benefits.

HIGH-VEG DIET WARDS OFF CANCER

Eating at least five portions a day of certain fruit and vegetables could cut the risk of developing pancreatic cancer by 50%, US researchers believe. Onions, garlic, beans, carrots, corn, dark leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes and citrus fruits were among the most protective foods, according to the study.

A University of California team compared the diets of 2,200 people. Cancer experts said previous studies had revealed similar findings, but more research was still needed.
Pancreatic cancer remains largely untreatable, with the five-year survival rate at under 3%. The report, published in the January 2006 issue of Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Preventionjournal, concluded that eating five portions daily of the most protective vegetables cuts the risk in half.

Alternatively, the research found, eating any nine fruit or vegetables could have the same effect. Raw vegetables were found to be more protective than cooked ones, the study suggested after conducting interviews with 532 people with the cancer, and 1,700 people who did not have the disease.

AVIAN FLU UPDATE

Bird flu may be spread by using chicken dung as food in fish farms, a practice now routine in Asia, according to the world’s leading bird conservation organization. Fertilizing fish ponds with poultry feces, which can dramatically improve fish growth, may set up major new reservoirs of avian influenza infection if the chickens providing the manure are infected themselves, according to BirdLife International, the Cambridge-based umbrella body for bird protection groups in 100 countries.

The suggestion raises questions about a technique firmly backed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a primary means of providing protein for mushrooming populations in developing countries. Known as integrated livestock-fish farming, the technique involves transferring the wastes from raising pigs, ducks or chickens directly to fish farms. At the right dosage, the nutrients in the manure give an enormous boost to the growth of plankton in the ponds, which are the main food of fish such as carp and tilapia.

BirdLife International is now calling for an investigation into the possibility that thousands of manure-fed ponds across Asia may be the means by which the new potentially deadly strain of avian influenza, H5N1, is being spread. BirdLife stresses that outbreaks of H5N1 have occurred this year at locations in China, Romania, Croatia and recently in Turkey — all areas that harbour major fish farms.

Also, a new study in the January 2006 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that many bird flu cases are going undiagnosed and unreported. The deadly H5N1 flu, the new study concludes, may have infected about 10 times the number actually diagnosed.

VITAMIN-RICH DIET HELPS AMD & BLOOD PRESSURE

A vitamin-rich diet lowers the risk of contracting age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness among the elderly in developed countries, researchers said on Tuesday.

The antioxidant properties of vitamins C, E, beta-carotene and zinc were found to ward off AMD, in which abnormal blood cells grow in the eye and leak blood and fluid that damage the centre of the retina and blur central vision. Sufferers are often debilitated and unable to read, recognize faces or drive, and the condition worsens with age. It affects more than one out of 10 white adults over age 80 and is the leading cause of severe vision loss in Canadians aged 60 and older. There is no cure, although an earlier study found taking high doses of vitamin supplements could slow the condition’s progression.

The eight-year study involved more than 4,000 older Dutch residents. Those whose diets included more than the median levels of vitamins C and E, beta carotene and zinc had a 35% lower risk of developing AMD compared with those whose diet provided a low level of any of these four nutrients.

“This study suggests that the risk of age-related macular degeneration can be modified by diet — in particular, by dietary vitamin E and zinc,” wrote lead author Redmer van Leeuwen, PhD, of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.

“Foods high in these nutrients appear to be more important than nutritional supplements,” he added in the report, published in the December 27, 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Foods rich in vitamin E include whole grains, vegetable oil, eggs and nuts, the report said. High concentrations of zinc can be found in meat, poultry, fish, whole grains and dairy products. Carrots, kale, and spinach are the main suppliers of beta carotene, while vitamin C is found in citrus fruits and juices, green peppers, broccoli and potatoes.

In a separate study, a report found that people who get their dietary protein from vegetables rather than meat have lower blood pressure — and the more plant protein consumed the better. Researchers wrote in the January 2006 edition of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine that vegetarians tend to be lighter, and that the amino acids and magnesium found in vegetable protein may play roles in lowering blood pressure.

CURRY — AND CERTAIN VEGETABLES

Researchers have found that the curry spice turmeric holds potential for the treatment and prevention of prostate cancer — particularly when combined with certain vegetables.

The scientists tested turmeric — also known as curcumin — taken in conjunction with phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), a naturally occurring substance abundant in a group of vegetables that includes watercress, cabbage, winter cress, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower, kohlrabi and turnips.

PEITC and curcumin — separately but especially in combination — demonstrate significant cancer prevention power in mice. The PEITC-curcumin combination could also be effective in treating established prostate cancers.

The incidence and mortality of prostate cancer have not decreased in past decades despite tremendous efforts and resources devoted to treatment. This is because advanced prostate cancer cells are barely responsive even to high concentrations of chemotherapeutic agents or radiotherapy. The authors noted that in contrast to the high incidence of prostate cancer in the United States and Canada, the incidence of this disease is very low in India, where most people eat a great amount of vegetables as well as curry.

The findings were announced in the Jan 15, 2006 issue of the journal Cancer Research by scientists at Rutgers University.

RED WINE COMBATS INFLAMMATION

Adding Sicilian red wine to the diet of 48 non-drinkers for four weeks decreases inflammation. It also reduces oxidative stress and raises the levels of antioxidants in the blood.

Researchers from the University of Palermo randomly divided the participants to consume 250 ml of Sicilian red wine during meals for four weeks, followed by four weeks of non-consumption. At the end of the red wine intake period, the researchers found significantly decreased levels of C-reactive protein — a marker that indicates the level of body inflammation. They also found lower levels of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the bad cholesterol, after the red wine consumption period.

In addition, red wine consumption increased total antioxidant capacity in the blood and total levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the good cholesterol.

Inflammation is increasingly being seen as a trigger or contributing cause for a host of diseases.

The wine study was published in the January 2006 issue of European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

LOW-CALORIE DIET SLOWS HEART AGING

A very low-calorie diet can help the heart age more slowly, according to researchers who released what they call the first-ever human study on the subject. The findings confirmed earlier studies on mice, rats and other species that demonstrate the cardiac, anti-aging and longevity benefits of a calorie restricted — or CR — diet.

The study looked at the heart function of 25 members of the Caloric Restriction Society, aged 41 to 64, who consume 1,400 to 2,000 nutritionally balanced calories per day. They were compared to 25 people who eat a typical Western diet, consuming 2,000 to 3,000 daily calories on average.

The result? Those on the CR diet had the heart functions of much younger people — typically about 15 years younger than their age. Ultrasound exams showed group members had hearts that appeared more elastic than most people their age. Their hearts were also able to relax between beats in a way similar to hearts in younger people.

“This is the first study to demonstrate that long-term calorie restriction with optimal nutrition has cardiac-specific effects that (delay or reverse) age-associated declines in heart function,” said lead author Luigi Fontana, answering questions posed by Vitality from his office at Washington University in St. Louis where he is assistant professor of medicine.

The study was published January 10, 2006 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

But simply consuming less food is not the answer. Members of the study group eat food resembling a traditional Mediterranean diet, focusing on vegetables, olive oil, beans, whole grains, fish and fruit. They avoid refined and processed foods, soft drinks, desserts, white bread and other sources of “empty” calories.

Research on mice and rats indicated that life span can be stretched by about 30% with stringent and consistent caloric restriction. That research also suggested that restricting calories can help prevent cancer.

While it has long been known that a healthy diet and exercise can reduce risks, the study suggests that caloric restriction combined with optimal nutrition can do even more. And the underlying factor may be a heart that — thanks to a very limited intake of calories — ages very slowly.

WEIGHTY RISK

Middle-age people who have healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels — even though they are overweight — are just kidding themselves if they think their health is good, according to a new study. Northwestern University researchers tracked 17,643 patients for three decades and found that being overweight in mid-life substantially increased the risk of dying of heart disease later in life — even in people who began the study with healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

High blood pressure and cholesterol are strong risk factors for heart disease. Both are common in people who are too fat, and often are thought to explain why overweight people are more prone to heart disease.

But aside from its effect on cholesterol and blood pressure, there is a growing body of science suggesting that excess weight itself is an independent risk factor for heart attacks, strokes and diabetes.

NEWS NOTES

• Sniffing Out Cancer Early: Dogs’ keen sense of smell might help in the early diagnosis of cancer, researchers report in the January 2006 issue of Integrative Cancer Therapies. The findings show that trained ordinary household dogs can detect early-stage lung and breast cancers by merely sniffing the breath samples of patients.

• What Does Diabetes Have to Do With Cancer? The factors that lead to diabetes may also put a person at increased risk of pancreatic cancer, suggests new research by the US National Cancer Institute. The study carries more weight because it confirms earlier findings. Exercise, weight loss and a diet low in saturated fat can cut the risk of both diseases.

• Fibre Fails Test: Despite anecdotal and limited research suggesting a high-fibre diet can lower the risk of colorectal cancer, a new report found no such link. The study was published in the December 14 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

• Omega-3 and COPD: In a small — and therefore less reliable — study of adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Japanese researchers found that supplements of omega-3 fatty acids improve patients’ breathing difficulties. The supplement might counter the airway inflammation seen in the disease. The findings were published in the December 2006 issue of the medical journal, Chest.

• Alcohol and Heart Disease: A daily glass of alcohol can prevent heart disease by thinning the blood; but moderate drinkers may also raise the risk of bleeding-type strokes, confirm researchers. Overall, a growing body of science underlines the possible protective benefits moderate drinking can have on the heart. The new study suggests there may be an offsetting risk.

• Fish Oils Ease MS Depression: Lynne Shinto, a naturopathic researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, says people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) have high levels of inflammation in their blood, which could cause depression. In a pilot study, Shinto gave fish oil to MS patients to see if it could decrease those levels and the results look promising. Fish oil has been previously linked to prevention of Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Also, researchers at the University of Montreal are about to embark on a study of the effects of omega-3 from fish oil on major depression among people who do not have MS.

• Dementia to Double: The number of people who suffer from dementia is expected to double every 20 years and may affect more than 81 million worldwide by 2040, scientists predicted in a study published in The Lancet medical journal December 16, 2005.

• Nexium Revenge: People on popular prescription heartburn drugs — prilosec, prevacid and nexium — seem three times more prone to getting a potentially dangerous diarrhea caused by the bug Clostridium difficile, new Canadian research shows. Those taking the less potent drugs pepcid and zantac are two times more likely to suffer from C-diff. This bug can cause severe diarrhea and the cramping intestinal inflammation called colitis. The acid-fighting medicine you take for relief might lead to something worse, researchers say.

• Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Passive smoking increases the risk of one of the most common causes of blindness, a study has found. A Cambridge University team looked at the impact of smoking on age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the British Journal of Ophthalmologyreported in December 2005. Living with a smoker for five years doubled the risk of the disease and regular smoking tripled it.

• Dark Chocolate Helps Smokers’ Hearts: Eating a small amount of dark chocolate improves smokers’ artery function within two hours and the effect lasts about eight hours. A few squares a day may reduce the risk of hardening of the arteries. That’s the finding of a small study by Swiss researchers published in the December issue of the journal Heart. White chocolate had no effect.

• Cough Syrup? Waste of Money, Say Doctors: Despite the billions of dollars spent every year in North America on over-the-counter cough syrups, most such medicines do little if anything to relieve coughs, chest physicians now say. Over-the-counter cough syrups generally contain drugs in too low a dose to be effective, or contain combinations of drugs that have never been proven to treat coughs, said Richard Irwin, MD, chairman of a cough guidelines committee for the American College of Chest Physicians.

• Whole Grains Prevent Metabolic Syndrome: A higher intake of whole grains appears to help prevent the development of metabolic syndrome — as well as lower the risk of death from heart disease in older adults — according to a study published in January 2006 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of health risks that increases your chance of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It affects one in five Canadians and about 40% of those over age 60.

NEWSBITES

Can This Food

Add this to your list of foods you should never eat: canned soups. They are brimming with salt. Half a can of the most popular brand contains 1,013 mg of sodium. That’s about half your ideal quota for an entire day. And they’re high in fat too. You can cut your health risk by avoiding supermarket soups and making your own.

Air Pollution May Promote Heart Disease

Breathing polluted air found in urban areas speeds up deterioration of the body’s cardiovascular system and causes atherosclerosis — especially when accompanied by a fatty diet —  according to researchers who tested the theory on mice. The work appeared December 21, 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Myth: If you want to get a good supply of potassium, reaching for a banana is your best bet.

Fact: To get ample potassium, you don’t need to eat bananas. Sure, there’s potassium in the yellow fruit. But potassium is also the predominant nutrient in almost all fruits and vegetables, from avocado—which offers twice the potassium of a banana—to zucchini.

Abs of Meal

Myth: Abdominal exercises will flatten your stomach.

Fact: Crunches are great for improving posture. They will strengthen muscles. But you didn’t really think you could exercise away that abdominal bulk, did you?

Ab exercises will do very little to get rid of the fat that covers those hard-earned stomach muscles. Want to lose the belly flab? To do that, you need to consume fewer calories than you burn.

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