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Health Highlights: Sept. 30, 2008

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

No Link Between Statins and Lou Gehrig's Disease: FDA

The widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, which include Lipitor and Crestor, don't increase the risk of the neurodegenerative disease often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's disease," U.S. regulators said Monday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it based its conclusion on analysis of 41 long-term studies of statins as treatment for high cholesterol.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the formal name for Lou Gehrig's disease, affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death. Patients in the later stages of the disease may become totally paralyzed, according to the ALS Association.

The FDA said it began the review after receiving a higher-than-expected number of reports of ALS in patients on statins. The results showed no increased incidence of the disease in patients treated with a statin compared with a placebo, the agency said.

"While the FDA finds the lack of an increase in the incidence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in patients treated with statins in clinical trials reassuring, given the extensive use of this class of drugs and the serious nature of ALS, continued study of this issue is warranted," Dr. Mark Avigan, head of the FDA's division of pharmacovigilance I, said in a news release.

The agency's findings were published in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, Bloomberg News reported.


More Than 90% of Nursing Homes Violate U.S. Standards: Report

More than 90 percent of U.S. nursing homes were cited last year for violating at least one federal health and safety standard, The New York Times reported Monday.

About 17 percent of nursing homes had violations that led to "actual harm or immediate jeopardy" to residents, according to the report by the inspector general to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Citations were issued for violations including infected bedsores, drug errors, resident malnutrition, and patient abuse or neglect, the newspaper reported.

About 37,150 complaints were sent to inspectors last year about nursing home conditions, of which 39 percent were validated, the report said. Some 20 percent of the verified complaints involved patient abuse or neglect.

Two-thirds of nursing homes are owned by companies that make a profit, 27 percent are owned by nonprofit corporations, and 6 percent are owned by government entities.

Some 94 percent of for-profit homes were cited last year, as were 88 percent of nonprofit homes, and 91 percent of government-owned homes, according to the report by HHS Inspector General Daniel R. Levinson.

Levinson said Medicaid was sometimes charged for services that "were not provided, or were so wholly deficient that they amounted to no care at all."

More than 1.5 million people live in 15,000 U.S. nursing homes. Violation rates ranged from 76 percent in Rhode Island to 100 percent in Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming and the District of Columbia, the newspaper reported.

In related news, state Medicaid organizations will spend an estimated $1.6 trillion on long-term care over the next two decades, a study by America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) found.

When federal matching funds are added to the tab, total government expenditures for long-term care will burgeon to $3.7 trillion, the analysis predicted.

It would mean that Medicaid spending for long-term care would rise faster than overall health care spending, Medicare, or the Gross Domestic Product, according to an AHIP media release.

While 15 states are expected to spend $1 billion or more this year on long-term care services, that number is expected to rise to 25 states by 2027, the release said.


FDA Approves New Test for 'Superbug'

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new test that can detect skin infections, including antibiotic-resistant infections such as the so-called "superbug" MRSA, in less than an hour, the test's manufacturer said Monday

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Cepheid said its Xpert test should help doctors to quickly determine which antibiotic would be most effective in treating the infections.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, is becoming more prevalent in hospitals, long-term care facilities and community settings. Existing tests for the bacterium can take up to three days, extending hospital stays and costing more money, the Associated Press reported.

"The ability to detect MRSA or SA (Staphylococcus aureus) in less than one hour, versus two to three days with current culture methods, will enable clinicians to make real-time decisions as to the best course of treatment or management," Cepheid Chief Executive John Bishop said in a news release.

In the release, Cepheid said the Institute of Healthcare Improvement reported that about 800,000 surgeries are complicated by infections annually, with a $9.5 billion cost to the U.S. health care system. According to a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, the increased length of stay following a MRSA infection is 18 days.


Light Cigarettes Still Pack a Nicotine Punch, Study Says

Apparently, just about the only thing "light" about cigarettes that are advertised that way is the wording in the ad itself.

According to a news release from the University of California, Los Angeles, the latest research indicates that so-called light cigarettes deliver nearly as much nicotine to the brain as regular cigarettes.

UCLA psychiatry professor Dr. Arthur L. Brody and his colleagues found that even the smallest amount of nicotine in a person's system will activate a significant percentage of the brain's nicotine receptors. It is the receptors in the brain that lead to nicotine addiction.

Brody and his colleagues looked at the effect on the brain of a type of cigarette called a de-nicotized cigarette, which contains only a fraction of nicotine (0.05 milligrams) in both light and regular cigarettes.

They found that even that low a nicotine level is enough to occupy a sizable percentage of receptors. "The two take-home messages are that very little nicotine is needed to occupy a substantial portion of brain nicotine receptors," Brody said in the news release, "and cigarettes with less nicotine than regular cigarettes, such as 'light' cigarettes, still occupy most brain nicotine receptors."

And even though de-nicotinized cigarettes activate about 66 percent fewer receptors in the brain than light cigarettes, it's still enough to "light up" almost 25 percent of them, Brody said. "Researchers, clinicians and smokers themselves should consider that fact when trying to quit," he concluded.

The UCLA study is in the current online edition of the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

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Posted: September 2008