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Health Highlights: Aug. 23, 2008

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Medicare Prescription Drug Program Not Properly Monitored, Report Says

The U.S. government agency charged with overseeing the Medicare prescription drug program has done very little to check whether the insurance companies administering the plans to 24 million Americans are doing their jobs, the Associated Press reports.

In a report to be released Aug. 25, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hasn't audited insurers to see if the prescription drug plans were working within federal guidelines, the wire service reports. This could cause "significant misuse of funds in this $39 billion program," the wire service quotes the GAO as saying.

The GAO checked on five unnamed health insurance companies itself, the A.P. says, and many requirements for participation in the prescription drug program were unmet.

But a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services official countered that a Congressional cap on spending had limited his agency's ability to monitor the insurance companies. This limitation "has seriously degraded CMS' ability to meet its responsibilities in combating fraud and abuse," Kerry Weems, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the wire service.


Cancer Risk Decreases After Age 80, Study Says

The risk of most cancers decreases after age 80, according to a Harvard University study.

While previous research has linked old age with increased cancer risk, study lead author Richard Wilson and colleagues found that rates of nearly all cancers peak at age 80 and the rates drop toward zero as people approach the end of their lives, United Press International reported.

There are a number of reasons why people are less likely to develop cancer after age 80, Wilson said. They include: diet changes that result in a reduction of dietary carcinogens; decreased use of substances such as tobacco and alcohol; fewer occupational exposures to carcinogens; and less body weight, which may have an effect on several types of cancers.

The study is published in the American Association for Cancer Research journal.


Americans Not Eating Enough Tree Nuts

Too few Americans are eating the recommended 1 1/2 ounces of tree nuts per day, which can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, say U.S. researchers. Tree nuts include almonds, Brazils, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, macadamias and walnuts.

The researchers noted that the 2001-04 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 34 percent of respondents said they ate nuts, but most ate about half the recommended amount, United Press International reported.

"Most people consume as much as 25 percent of their total caloric intake from snacks," Janet King, co-chairwoman of the 2007 Nuts and Health Symposium and past chairwoman of the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, said in a news release. "If we could replace snacks high in refined carbohydrates with just 1/4 to 1/3 cup of nuts per day, we could have a positive impact on nutrient density and the risk of chronic disease."

Information from the Nuts and Health Symposium is published in the September issue of the Journal of Nutrition.


Scientists Use Wisdom Teeth to Create Stem Cells

Japanese scientists have created stem cells from the wisdom teeth of a 10-year-old girl, an achievement that offers another method of supplying stem cells for research while avoiding the controversial use of embryos to create stem cells.

"This is significant in two ways. One is that we can avoid the ethical issues of (embryo-derived) stem cells because wisdom teeth are destined to be thrown away anyway," team leader Hajime Ogushdi told Agence France Presse. "Also, we used teeth that had been extracted three years ago and had been preserved in a freezer. That means that it's easy for us to stock this source of stem cells."

The researchers at the Japanese government-backed National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science extracted cells from the wisdom teeth and found that they turned into stem cells after being allowed to develop for 35 days.

However, it will take many years of research before wisdom teeth-derived stem cells may be available for clinical use, said Ogushdi, AFP reported.

Last year, American and Japanese scientists announced they could produce stem cells from skin.


Positive Outlook May Protect Against Breast Cancer

Having a positive outlook may help prevent breast cancer, while getting divorced or losing a loved one may increase the risk, suggests an Israeli study that compared the mental outlook and life events of 255 breast cancer patients and 367 healthy women.

The researchers found that a generally positive outlook was associated with a 25 percent reduced risk of breast cancer, while experiencing one or more traumatic life events -- such as the loss of a parent or spouse -- was associated with a more than 60 percent increased risk, BBC News reported.

Women who've been exposed to a number of negative life events should be considered an "at-risk" group for breast cancer, said lead researcher Dr. Ronit Peled, of Ben-Gurion University.

"We can carefully say that experiencing more than one severe and/or moderate life event is a risk factor for breast cancer among young women. On the other hand, a general feeling of happiness and optimism can play a protective role," said Peled, BBC News reported.

The study was published in the journal BMC Cancer.


FDA Sanctions Irradiation of Lettuce, Spinach

Food producers will be allowed to irradiate fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to kill E. coli and other dangerous germs to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said. The new regulation takes effect Friday.

Irradiation of meat and spices has been permitted for years but there were concerns that exposing leafy greens to radiation would affect the quality of the produce, the Associated Press reported.

But the FDA concluded that modern irradiation techniques can kill dangerous germs without compromising the safety or nutrient value of raw lettuce and spinach.

"What this does is give producers and processors one more tool in the toolbox to make these commodities safer and protect public health," said Dr. Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, the AP reported.

The FDA also is assessing the possible use of irradiation on other types of produce.


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Posted: August 2008