A study from Boston University School of Public Health says that women who get mammograms regularly can expect occasional false-positive test results. In fact, only one in 20 positive mammograms are due to cancer. False alarms are highest among younger women, those taking estrogen, with a history of cancer, or those who have had a previous biopsy. The chance of a positive finding due to artifacts, interpretation variances, and other nonpathological causes is multiplied by the number of exams, so each woman that gets a yearly exam will probably be alarmed by a positive test eventually. The researchers recommend that, if possible, women should try using the same clinic or taking previous x-rays for comparison purposes.1
1. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, October 17, 2000.
Shift Work Nonadaptation
Research from Italy2 suggests that people who work varying shifts do not adapt as well as has been thought. This work looked closely at cardiac nerve function using EKG readings gathered over 24-hour periods. They found that internal organs such as the heart did not appear to change their activity cycles, even though sleep patterns changed dramatically. Cardiac stimulation was lower in workers during the night shift, suggesting that the heart might be less prepared for stressful situations. Other studies suggest that shift workers are less alert and make more mistakes.
2. Circulation, October 2000.
Birth Control Pills and Breast CancerA new study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association3 reinforces previous studies that suggest an association between birth control pills and breast cancer. This study finds a threefold increase in the cancer among users who have a family history of the disease. If at least five family members have had breast or ovarian cancer, the risk rises to 11 times the normal rate. The study included nearly 3,400 women.
3. JAMA, October 11, 2000.
Depression and Heart Disease
Another study has linked heart disease and depression. A 10-year work published in Circulation4 of almost 4,500 volunteers finds a significant correlation between depression and the incidence of stroke, heart attacks, and cardiac arrhythmia. The researchers don't have conclusive evidence of the mechanism of the relationship, but note that depressed patients don't exercise and eat properly. Or, it could be that subclinical heart disease makes patients feel so poorly that depression results.
4. Circulation, October 2000.
Folic Acid in Pregnancy
A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms the significance of folic acid in preventing birth defects. This study focused on medications that interact with the nutrient. Among pregnant women who took such medications, the incidence of cleft palate, heart defects, or urinary defects were two to three times higher than normal. Drugs that block folic acid include certain antibiotics, blood pressure medications, and epilepsy treatments.5
5. NEJM, November 30, 2000.
Blood Supply Problems
The Food and Drug Administration is filing suit against the American Red Cross, charging serious and ongoing problems in handling blood reserves over the past 15 years. According to the FDA, the Red Cross has "a long-standing and ongoing failure to comply with good manufacturing practices"6 relating to its collection and distribution of blood. This suit is the next step in a long series of escalated warnings, citations, and court-ordered decrees that the FDA contends have resulted in little success in their attempt to encourage the Red Cross to bring its procedures up to current standards.
6. Blood problems. Associated Press, December 1, 2000.
The FDA is taking some strong steps in an attempt to warn patients of possible side effects of the anti-acne drug Accutane. Warnings will be attached to each bottle sold that reference side effects that include severe birth defects when taken by pregnant mothers and mood changes that may lead to suicide. Patients will be required to sign a paper certifying that they understand the risks. The FDA decided the action was warranted after hearing testimony from patients and their families. One such patient was a 14-year-old girl who went from being a happy, straight-A student before the drug treatment to spells of crying and depression shortly afterward. She attempted suicide two months into the therapy. Her doctors insisted that Accutane couldn't be blamed, even though depression has been listed as a side effect since 1987. The girl's mother threw the medication away after learning from a friend, not her doctor, that the FDA had issued a suicide warning for the drug; the girl made a "miraculous"7 recovery.
7. Accutane risks. Associated Press, December 5, 2000.
The Environmental Protection Agency has formulated a plan to phase out the use of the pesticide Diazinon over the next four years. Diazinon is a very popular ingredient in household, lawn and garden pesticides. The chemical is a type of organophosphate, related to nerve gas agents used during World War II. Last year an EPA study suggested that the compound may be more dangerous to a child's developing nervous system than previously thought. The EPA also banned another class of organophosphates, chlorpyrifos (sold under the trade name Dursban) last summer from most uses; that chemical was widely used in flea collars and lawn and garden sprays.8
8. Associated Press, December 5, 2000, "Pesticide Ban."
Adolescent Trouble Signs
Researchers conducting a federally-funded study of over 10,000 high school students say that they have a fairly reliable way to determine if your teenager is likely to drink alcohol, carry weapons, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Things like level-of-affluence, race, and number of parents at home seem to matter little; much more significant is a student's grades and the company they keep. The worst indicators are when grades are low and the student spends a large amount of time hanging out with a bad crowd, especially if the other kids use alcohol. The study also reported that about one in 10 high school students drink alcoholic beverages weekly.9
9. Associated Press, November 30, 2000, reporting on an analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health by the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Cigarettes and Mental Disorders
A Harvard Medical School study10 reports that persons with diagnosable mental illnesses are twice as likely to smoke cigarettes. Extrapolating data from the study of over 4,000 people, the authors suggest that nearly half of all cigarettes smoked in the United States are consumed by people who can be considered mentally ill, using a rather broad definition. The researchers do not know if mental illness makes one susceptible to tobacco addiction, or if smoking leads to mental illness.
10. JAMA, November 22, 2000.
Stillbirths and Hemoglobin Levels
A Swedish study11 of 1,400 pregnant women concludes that high hemoglobin levels are a risk factor for stillbirths. Women with levels considered high were twice as likely to have a stillborn child in this research. The reason for the correlation is not clear; some suggest that thickened blood might actually restrict blood flow to the fetus. However, it may also be that conditions that cause high counts (such as smoking) may be responsible for the infant's death.
11. JAMA, November 22, 2000.
Heart and Humor
Researchers from the University of Maryland Medical Center report that people with a good sense of humor are less likely to have heart disease.12 The study used questionnaires to gather data on 300 people, half of whom had a history of heart disease. Those with the previous heart problems were 40 percent less likely to laugh at a humorous situation, and often did not even recognize humor. They were more likely to display anger and hostility. Unfortunately, it is still not known if humor protects from heart disease, or if heart disease merely causes one to lose his sense of humor.
12. Associated Press, November 15, 2000, reporting on a conference of the American Heart Association in New Orleans, Michael Miller, et al.
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