News Briefs – July 2010

VITAMIN D MAY PREVENT SENIOR DEMENTIA

Cognitive performance is much improved among the elderly who are not deficient in vitamin D, and vitamin D deficiency may be common among shut-in seniors due to limited access to sunshine and other factors, according to a new study. More than 1,000 study participants who were receiving home care were assessed for vitamin D status. Only 35% of participants had sufficient vitamin D levels, and this group scored higher on cognitive performance tests than those who were deficient or insufficient in vitamin D. Pathways for vitamin D have been identified in the hippocampus and cerebellum areas of the brain – regions associated with planning, processing new information, and forming new memories – suggesting vitamin D is important to the cognitive process and for independent senior living. The study was recently released by the journal titled Journals of Gerontology, Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, in summary format. But it is available in full-text with a journal subscription or payment of a fee, at: https://bit.ly/d2FtYY.

NINETY PERCENT EXCEED RECOMMENDED SALT INTAKE

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that only 10% of American adults manage to keep their dietary sodium intake below the maximum recommended daily intake level. That grim statistic is even worse in light of the sharp recent reduction in the recommended intake level from 2,300 mg daily (which was the level set in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans) to 1,500 mg, the maximum set in the 2010 version, released last week. The new study was based on those former, much higher recommendations, and adherence to the new guidelines would be even lower. Although found naturally in some foods, sodium is a key element in added salt. Excessive salt intake is linked to high blood pressure, which is linked to increased risks for stroke, coronary heart disease, heart failure and kidney disease. The new report was released June 25, and is available online at: https://bit.ly/aNqHYL.

‘CAUSE’ OF FUNGUS-RELATED ASTHMA ATTACKS FOUND

A study has found that severe asthma attacks requiring hospitalization can result from a combination of two factors: being of a specific genetic type, and being exposed to environments heavy with mould or fungus. Preventing asthma attacks is difficult without knowing the exact mechanism by which only some people become so strongly affected. But the study shows that those with certain variants of genes, known as chitinases, are most susceptible. Chitinase genes break down chitin, a compound in many fungi. These genes kick into high gear, especially in the lungs, during an allergic inflammation. If researchers can someday find some therapy that blocks the activity of these chitinase genes in those who have them, they may be able to prevent asthma attacks altogether. This study was released June 25 by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in abstract, or summary, format. The full-text version is not yet available, but will be published in a future issue of the journal, by which time it will be made available with subscription or payment of a fee.

CT SCANS MAY POSE HEALTH RISK

A study suggests that CT scans – because they are so often prescribed, sometimes unnecessary, and occasionally overdosed – may pose a greater cancer risk than previously believed. Generally, the study concludes that patients are unaware of the risks, and how often scans are ordered (or demanded by the patient) when they are not required. CT scans are basically x-rays that are super-sharp in imagery. However, they involve much higher levels of radiation than ordinary x-rays and too much radiation raises the risk of cancer over time. The American study authors believe that the best way for patients to avoid long-term radiation overdoses and potential cancer risks is for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be given the right to set limits on CT scans, as it now does with drug dosages. The study was published in the June 24 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine and can be read online at https://bit.ly/dqg3NI.

LACK OF REM SLEEP LINKED TO CHRONIC MIGRAINES

A new study suggests that a lack of sleep, as well as a lack during sleep of the dreaming phase known as REM, can trigger migraines and increase the risk of chronic migraines. The Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phases of sleep are those brief periods when we experience dreaming. Regularly losing sleep, or sleeping but without REM periods – as often occurs when alcohol, drugs or stress are involved – increases the expression, or activity, of certain proteins related to lowering our threshold of pain. The proteins are known as p38, PKA, and P2X3, and lower expression of them can cause the pain of migraine. The study was presented in Los Angeles to the attendees of the American Headache Society’s annual scientific meeting, June 24 to 26. It has not been published and details are not yet available.

FLAME RETARDANT AFFECTS THYROID IN PREGNANCY

A new study has suggested that there are risks to the fetus from a mother’s higher blood levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a family of compounds commonly found in flame retardants. Mothers with the highest levels of these compounds showed as much as 18.7% lower thyroid hormone levels (THS), which may have serious health impacts on newborn babies, as well as the mothers’ health. (PBDEs are a class of organobromine compounds found in common household items such as new carpets, textiles, foam furnishings, electronics, and plastics. U.S. fire safety standards implemented in the 1970s led to increased use of PBDEs, which can leach out into the environment and accumulate in human fat cells.) The exact pathway by which flame retardants influence thyroid hormones is unclear, although they do mimic human hormones. New “safer” brominated and chlorinated retardants are being phased in by 2013, but even their health impact has not been fully tested, suggested the researchers. The study was released by Environmental Health Perspectives in abstract form on June 21, ahead of its publication in print. The full-text version will not be available until the study is published.

TEA MAY RAISE RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS RISK IN WOMEN

A very preliminary study suggests women who drink any amount of tea daily – men were not tested – incur a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But coffee was not found to be linked to any higher risk of RA, whether the coffee was filtered or unfiltered, caffeinated, or decaffeinated. Researchers stressed that the tea-RA effect is not necessarily one of cause-and-effect and were unaware of any specific ingredient in the tea that could affect the onset of RA, which is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s own immune system attacks joints and tissue. Further study is needed because a different study in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, confirming prior research on tea’s health benefits, found a 36% reduced risk of heart disease in those consuming six cups of tea a day and a 20% reduced risk of heart disease in those consuming less than two cups, or more than four cups of coffee daily. The RA-tea study was presented June 18 in Rome at EULAR 2010, the Annual Congress of the European League Against Rheumatism.

LONELINESS AND POOR HEALTH OFTEN GO HAND IN HAND

Two studies by the same team have found that true loneliness is caused by a lack of depth in communication and connection, and it can often be an underlying health problem in people who hoard friends and have a busy social life. Meeting up with numerous friends, following them on Twitter, or staying in touch with former coworkers does not carry much clout in combating true loneliness, which is a lack of depth of one-to-one communication. And lacking this underlying deeper connection affects health in ways that are becoming clearer: it reduces the regenerative effect of sleep, the ability to cope with stress, and individuals’ attention to health. The mere presence of a relationship, even a “close” one, did not affect this tendency towards loneliness and diminished health. One study appears in summary form in the June issue of the journal Health Communication, and the second will appear in a future issue. The first study is now available in full-text format, with subscription or a fee at: https://bit.ly/coSuiC.

VITAMIN D LEVELS REMAIN LOW IN RHEUMATIC PATIENTS

Three separate studies paint a worrisome picture of vitamin D deficiencies among patients of rheumatic diseases. Rheumatic disorders are those of the joints and connective tissue, and include rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and lupus, among others. Two new studies found deficient vitamin D levels in these patients. But a third new study found that deficiencies of vitamin D still remained in most patients even after supplementation for six months with 800 to 1000 IU. This suggests that vitamin D deficiency is a common finding in rheumatic patients, and that supplementation with 800 to 1000 IU is insufficient to normalize levels. Would higher levels of supplementation work? The researchers report that the answer is not yet clear. All three studies were separately presented June 18 at EULAR 2010, the Annual Congress of the European League Against Rheumatism, in Rome. They have not been published yet.

PRESCRIPTION DRUG EMERGENCIES NOW EQUAL ILLEGAL DRUG CASES

A new study shows that for the first time, abuse of prescription or over-the-counter medications results in as many cases of emergency room (ER) visits as those resulting from cocaine, heroin, or other illegal drugs. In 2008, there were one million ER cases of legal drug abuses, mostly painkillers and sedatives – and that was about the same number of cases of ER visits from illegal drugs. Just five years ago, statistics show, illegal drug ER incidents were double that of prescription drug cases. Some of the increase in legal drug problems may come from mixing several prescription drugs, or from combining them with alcohol. The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy released a statement suggesting that, “the abuse of prescription drugs is our nation’s fastest-growing drug problem.” The report was released on June 18 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can be read online at https://bit.ly/d7giwz.

SNACKING LINKED WITH REDUCED RISK OF OBESITY

A new study has concluded that adolescents who regularly snack have a lower chance of being overweight or obese, and of having excess abdominal weight. The data analyzed covered a five-year period, and assessed both the number of snacks and the percentage of overall calories ingested during snacking. Both frequency of snacks and percentage of overall calories from snacks proved to be inversely related to obesity and abdominal weight – that is, the greater the number and caloric intake of snacks, the less the risk of being overweight, obese, or having excess abdominal weight. The study abstract was released by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on June 16. The full-text version is available online, with either journal subscription or the payment of a fee, at: https://bit.ly/brx2Cq.

VITAMIN D PROTECTS AGAINST VIRUSES

A new study has found that vitamin D – long associated with good bone health – provides protection against viral respiratory tract infections, reducing their incidence and severity. One example of this type of infection would be influenza. Researchers followed 198 healthy adults during the fall and winter of 2009-2010, and measured each individual’s ongoing blood levels of vitamin D in a seasonal period when these levels tend to fall due to a lack of sunlight. Levels were weighed against the incidence and symptoms of respiratory infections – those with the highest vitamin D levels experienced less illness and significantly reduced days of symptoms. (Vitamin D is also known to support the body’s absorption of calcium to prevent osteoporosis, and has been linked to cardiovascular health.) This study was published June 15 by the open-access journal PLoS ONE. The full-text version is available online at https://bit.ly/aXsUmY.

BROWN RICE DECREASES DIABETES RISK

A new study has shown a greater risk of Type 2 diabetes in men and women who eat white rice compared to those who do not. Perhaps of surprise to some, the study also found a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes in those who eat brown rice compared to those who do not regularly eat any rice. Specifically, the risk of diabetes increased with five or more servings of white rice per week; and the risk of diabetes was reduced with consumption of two or more servings of brown rice per week. Researchers estimated that replacing just one third of a daily serving of white rice with an equal amount of brown rice would decrease Type 2 diabetes risk by 16%; replacing one-third of the white rice with other whole grains such as barley or whole wheat could decrease the risk by 36%. This abstract was released on June 14 by the Archives of Internal Medicine. The full-text version of the study is available by subscription or fee at https://bit.ly/cT5kvt.

OMEGA-3 FATS REDUCE RISK OF HEARING LOSS

A study has determined that there is an inverse association between age-related hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, and the intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and fish. In other words, greater consumption of fish, fish oil, or other omega-3 oils tended to delay or prevent age-related hearing loss. The research included 2,956 subjects who were 50 years of age or older, and showed that those consuming an average of two or more servings of fish per week experienced a 42% reduced risk of developing presbycusis, compared to those consuming less than one serving of fish a week. The study was released June 9 by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in abstract format. The full version will be published in a future issue, but is now available online by subscription or for payment of a fee at https://bit.ly/b6Y3ZL.

VITILIGO’S MYSTERIES START TO UNRAVEL

A study has found slight variations from normal in ten genes associated with the body’s immune system in people with vitiligo, confirming this mysterious disease’s autoimmune nature and pointing to a better understanding that may one day lead to more personalized treatment for vitiligo patients. Vitiligo is a complex disorder in which patches of the skin’s melanin (pigment) disappear, leaving white areas on the skin and even hair. Autoimmune disorders are those involving the body’s immune system attacking healthy cells in the body. The findings suggest vitiligo involves multiple pathways, meaning the exact triggers are complicated, involving both genetics and environmental factors together. This implies cures may be complicated and may involve treatments geared to the individual. The study is described in the June 6 issue of Nature Genetics and is available in its full-text format with subscription or a fee at https://bit.ly/ahBGup.

ANTIDEPRESSANTS POSE CATARACT RISK

The first major study on this topic has shown an increased risk among seniors of developing cataracts as a result of taking SSRIs, the most common type of antidepressant; and a higher risk of corneal damage from Amantadine, a Parkinson’s disease drug. SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, alleviate depression by raising low levels of serotonin in the brain. But the eye’s lens also contains serotonin receptors and excess serotonin can make the lens opaque and lead to cataract formation, reports the Canadian research, which included 19,000 patients who were on at least one of these drugs, and 190,000 controls (people who were not). The risk was related only to current use, meaning risk disappeared after discontinuation of antidepressants. Also, some Parkinson’s patients on long-term Amantadine therapy were found to have cornea changes that could lead to vision damage. The study appears in the June 2010 issue of Opthalmology.

BRIEF EXERCISE SPURTS OFFSET AGING

Brief spurts of exercise may offset the aging effect associated with stress, according to a study released by the journal PLoS One. Fourteen minutes of exercise per day, three days per week, may be sufficient to offset the aging effect of stress on telomeres, short pieces of DNA that shorten (or age) with time and stress. Telomeres tend to shorten over time in reaction to various forms of stress. This shortening is linked to a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and death. This recent research shows that even a modest amount of exercise – any amount of exercise, several times a week that induces sweating – can safeguard against the shortening of telomeres that is linked with stress and causes aging. Just released in summary form, this study will be published in its full-text format in a future issue of PLoS One.

HOW ACUPUNCTURE WORKS NOW CONFIRMED

Clarifying how acupuncture may work to reduce pain, a study shows that at the site applied, acupuncture needles increase levels of a molecule called adenosine, a natural compound that regulates sleep, anti-inflammatory responses – and painkilling. Research previously showed an increase in brain-signaling and painkilling endorphins when the central nervous system is affected by acupuncture. But this study found that stimulation of nerve endings not linked to the brain and spinal cord also increase levels of adenosine. Mice bred to have no adenosine received no pain benefit from acupuncture: mice whose adenosine was “turned on” received benefit without acupuncture; and mice with normal adenosine had pain reduced by two-thirds while adenosine levels at the needle site jumped to 24 times normal levels. This study will be published in a future issue of Nature Neuroscience, no sooner than the July 2010 issue and usually, full details would be available before then only with subscription or fee payment. However, this full-text study was released May 30 without cost and can be read online at: https://bit.ly/dogW0U.

YOGA HELPS CANCER SURVIVORS

As many as two-thirds of cancer patients suffer regularly from fatigue and difficulty sleeping long after their treatments have been discontinued. But a new study offers these people the promise of better sleep and improved quality of life. Researchers found that cancer survivors who perform gentle yoga twice a week report they sleep better, feel less tired, and enjoy better quality of life. The regimen included “breathing exercises, gentle Hatha and restorative yoga postures and mindfulness exercises.” The largest study of its type, this brief outline was released May 20. Full details were presented at the June 2010 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

PRENATAL EXPOSURE TO BPA AND DES MAY CAUSE BREAST CANCER

Research now released suggests that exposure in the womb to the chemicals bisphenol-A (BPA) and diethylstilbestrol (DES) can induce genetic changes that increase an offspring’s risk of developing breast cancer as an adult. BPA, DES, and similar compounds are known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which are substances in the environment that interfere with the proper functioning of hormones and affect how genes are expressed in breast tissue. Exposure to these compounds in mice before birth increased levels of a protein called EZH2, which is associated with higher breast cancer risk. It’s important to note that mouse studies do not necessarily apply to humans. But females known to be exposed pre-birth should be monitored for breast cancer as adults, the study authors recommend. The study will appear in a future issue of the journal, Hormones and Cancer but is currently available online at https://bit.ly/9fJcVU.

INFREQUENT TEETH BRUSHING LINKED TO HEART DISEASE

Research released by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) suggests that those who brush their teeth less than twice a day experience a 70% greater risk of heart disease. The eight-year study of 11,869 men and women also showed that those with generally poor dental hygiene had higher levels of certain inflammatory markers – such the C-reactive protein – often seen as heart disease risk factors. Despite the pronounced difference in risk between those brushing twice daily and once daily, the overall risk of heart disease from inadequate dental hygiene was still low for both groups. Details of the study appear in the May 29 issue of the BMJ.

FOLATE MAY PREVENT ALCOHOL DAMAGE IN FETUSES

A study on mice suggests that high levels of the B vitamin folate (folic acid) prevented heart-related birth defects caused by alcohol exposure during early pregnancy, a condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Alcohol-related congenital heart defects often develop in the embryo during a period when a woman may still be drinking because she does not yet know she is pregnant, a period of perhaps 16 to 18 days. The dose of folate required was considerably larger than the standard dietary recommendation of 400 micrograms. The researchers stressed that the protective effect was only seen when folate was taken very early in pregnancy and prior to the time of alcohol exposure. The study was released in summary, but the full version is available for a fee on the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology website, https://bit.ly/cP8J7b.

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