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Health Highlights: Jan. 23, 2009

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

Obama to Overturn International Abortion Funding Ban, Reports Say

President Barack Obama was expected to sign an executive order Friday overturning the ban on using federal funds for international groups promoting or performing abortion, the Associated Press is reporting.

The "Mexico City Policy" bans U.S. taxpayer money from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion. It is also known as the "global gag rule," because it prohibits taxpayer funding for groups that even talk about abortion if there is an unplanned pregnancy, AP reports.

The policy was instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, overturned by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and re-instituted by President George W. Bush in 2001, according to ABC News.

Most presidents acted on the ban on January 22, the anniversary of Roe v Wade, but Obama held off on that move, thinking it too combative, ABC reported.


More Americans Unable to Afford Prescription Drugs

The number of Americans under age 65 who went without prescribed medicines because they couldn't afford them increased from one in 10 in 2003 to one in seven in 2007, according to a study released Thursday by the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change.

Three in 10 low-income Americans, almost one in four adults on Medicaid or state insurance programs, and one in 10 working-age people with employer-sponsored coverage said they had problems affording drugs in 2007, The New York Times reported.

Overall, about 36.1 million children and adults under age 65 didn't have prescriptions filled in 2007 due to cost.

The current number of people who can't afford prescription drugs may be even higher due to the economic meltdown, according to study lead author Laurie E. Felland, a senior health researcher at the center.

"Our findings are particularly troublesome given the increased reliance on prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions," she told The Times. "People who go without their prescriptions experience worsening health and complications."

The study findings are based on an analysis of data from 10,400 adults under age 65 who took part in the 2007 national Health Tracking Household Survey.


Vitamin D May Help Maintain Seniors' Brain Health

Vitamin D may help fight age-related mental decline, according to a study that included 2,000 people aged 65 and older. Those with the lowest vitamin D levels were more than twice as likely to have cognitive problems than those with the highest levels of the vitamin, BBC News reported.

People with impaired cognitive function are more likely to develop dementia, noted the U.K. and U.S. authors of the study, which will be published in the Journal of Geriatric Psychology and Neurology.

Sources of vitamin D include fish and exposure to sunlight. But older people absorb less vitamin D from sunlight than younger people, said study co-author Dr. Iain Lang, of the Peninsula Medical School in the U.K., BBC News reported.

"One way to address this might be to provide older adults with vitamin D supplements," Lang said. "This has been proposed in the past as a way of improving bone health in older people, but our results suggest it might also have other benefits."


Kentucky Has Highest Smoking Death Rate: CDC Report

Kentucky has the country's highest death rates from smoking, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study released this week.

Smoking death rates were tallied using death certificate data from 2000 through 2004, focusing on lung cancer and 18 other diseases caused by cigarette smoking, according to the report, published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the Associated Press said Thursday.

West Virginia and Nevada ranked second and third among U.S. states with the highest smoking mortality rates, with Utah and Hawaii showing the lowest smoking death rates.

Kentucky had about 371 deaths out of every 100,000 adults age 35 and older, almost one-and-a-half times higher than the national median of 263 per 100,000, and almost three times the rate for Utah, which was 138 per 100,000.

Smoking deaths among males were higher than among females, the report said, but smoking rates dropped for men in 49 states since the late 1990s, while they declined for women in only 32 states.

Terry Pechacek, a CDC senior scientist for tobacco-related issues, told AP that smoking, especially when combined with obesity and another risk factors for heart disease, "is like gasoline on the fire." Kentucky and West Virginia also had the highest smoking rates in 2004 as well, according to the CDC report.


Short-Term Hormone Therapy Safe: Canadian Experts

Women have been needlessly scared away from using hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) during menopause, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada says.

The society, which is changing its advice about the use of HRT, says evidence shows that fears about short-term use of HRT drugs were unfounded, the Canadian Press reported. The drugs are a viable and safe option for women experiencing troublesome menopause symptoms, according to a panel of experts that developed the revised guidelines for the society.

However, the experts recommended that the use of HRT drugs should start early in menopause and only be used short term.

In 2002, a large U.S. study found that the use of HRT drugs increased the risk of heart attack and stroke. But that study incorrectly concluded that the increased risk seen in older women applied to all women who use the drugs, said the Canadian expert panel, the CP reported.

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Posted: January 2009