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Health Headlines - August 1

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Kerry calls for universal health insurance by 2012

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts on Monday proposed that all Americans be required to have health insurance by 2012, and that the government should take steps to make sure anyone uninsured at that point receives coverage.

Kerry, a potential presidential contender in 2008, unveiled a health care plan that would cover every child in America, give Americans access to the same type of health care members of Congress receive and lower costs for employers.

The proposal, the latest in a series of policy speeches by Kerry as he prepares for another possible White House bid, includes many of the same health care elements he proposed during his 2004 presidential campaign.

Kerry said health care was "not only the great unfinished business of half a century, but a matter of fundamental moral values," and he set a goal of health coverage for everyone by 2012.

"Experts -- some of them here today -- believe that my plan will provide coverage for all Americans by 2012," Kerry told several hundred people at historic Faneuil Hall, where he launched and ended his 2004 presidential campaign.

"But if we're not there by 2012, we will require that all Americans have health insurance, with the federal government guaranteeing they have the means to pay for it," Kerry said.

He said his plan could be financed by repealing the Bush administration's tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 a year. He did not say how he would enforce the proposal to have all Americans insured if his plan is not implemented by 2012.

Roughly 46 million Americans have no health insurance, and Kerry said "it is time to jump-start a debate around the country that can shake Washington into action before the health care crisis devastates millions more of America's families -- and hollows out America's economy."

This year, Kerry's home state of Massachusetts became the first in the nation to require residents to have health insurance.

In April, Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another potential White House candidate in 2008, signed a bill to provide health care to about 95 percent of the state's half-million uninsured residents by 2009. Romney signed the bill in the same hall where Kerry spoke on Monday.

Castro's new health problem more serious

The intestinal bleeding that forced Fidel Castro to temporarily relinquish his presidential powers appeared to be the most serious of a number of recent health problems that have plagued the Cuban leader as he approaches his 80th birthday.

Cubans were reminded of Castro's advancing age when he fell on Oct. 20, 2004, after a public speech, shattering a kneecap and breaking an arm. But the Cuban leader was back on his feet less than two months later, attending to visiting leaders and making public appearances.

Castro, who turns 80 on Aug. 13, laughed off persistent rumors that his health was failing. Most recently, a 2005 report said he had Parkinson's disease.

On June 23, 2001, Castro fainted briefly while giving a speech in the searing sun, stunning Cubans.

Castro gave up cigars for health reasons decades ago, but still champions one of Cuba's most important exports, worth about $300 million annually.

On rare occasions, Castro did acknowledge his mortality, especially as he grew older.

"I promise that I will be with you, if you so wish, for as long as I feel that I can be useful -— and if it is not decided by nature before. Not a minute less and not a second more," Castro said in March 2003, accepting a sixth term as president of Cuba's governing body.

"Now I understand that it was not my destiny to rest at the end of my life."

Watermelons Are Healthier When Served Warm

For many Americans, nothing is better on a hot day than biting into an ice-cold slice of watermelon.

But scientists now say the juicy summer fruit is most nutritious when stored and served at room temperature.

Reporting in the Aug. 9 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, the researchers based their premise on a tally that compared the levels of key antioxidants in whole watermelons that were either refrigerated or stored at room temperature for two weeks.

"What we found was very surprising," said study author Penelope Perkins-Veazie, a plant physiologist at the South Central Agricultural Research Laboratory with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Lane, Okla.

"The amount of lycopene in watermelons went up about an average of 20 percent when we left them out uncut at room temperature, while beta carotene actually doubled," she said.

Perkins-Veazie noted that, like tomatoes, the red flesh of watermelons owes its coloring to an abundance of lycopene, an organic pigment from the carotenoid family that ranges in shade from pale yellow to deep red.

Beta carotene -- another carotenoid -- is also a nutritional feature of watermelons, although at far lower levels.

Antioxidants gobble up cancer-causing free radical molecules that can damage cells.

While it is known that light, temperature and moisture changes which occur during harvesting and packaging can alter a watermelon's lycopene content by 10 percent to 20 percent, the researchers realized that little was known about the impact storage can have once the heavy fruit is in the kitchen.

To fill in the blanks, Perkins-Veazie and her USDA colleague Julie K. Collins focused on three popular seeded and seedless varieties of watermelon.

All were described by their Oklahoma harvesters as "fully ripe" when acquired. Whole, uncut samples of each of the melons were kept in a cooler for one night at 68 degrees Fahrenheit (F) before being cut up and sampled for color, condition and carotenoid content.

Twenty samples of each melon variety were then weighed and stored in coolers set at either 41, 55, or 70 degrees F.

After two weeks, the researchers found that lycopene levels were dependent on storage temperature.

Compared to measurements taken at picking, carotenoid levels in melons stored at room temperature were up between 11 percent and 40 percent, depending on the variety.

As visual proof of this biochemical development, the authors observed that, after the 14 days of storage, the flesh of all three varieties of watermelons kept at room temperature was darker than they had been when they were freshly picked -- a sign of increased pigmentation from the lycopene boost.

These room-temperature melons also had thinner rinds, a sign of continued ripening.

The flesh of melons stored at either of the below-room temperature levels, by contrast, had not experienced any gains in carotenoids.

Such melons either lost color or maintained the same color as when picked, with no change in rind thickness.

The researchers posited that a drop in carotenoid enzyme activity at the colder temperatures might have halted a ripening process that continues the build-up of beneficial antioxidants.

"But we don't want people to think they can take cut watermelon and just leave it out in room temperature, because that's a safety issue," cautioned Perkins-Veazie.

"If it's cut, you want to leave it in the fridge," she advised. "If it's uncut, it's perfectly alright to leave it on the counter for a day or two, and if you like cold watermelon -- which a lot of people do -- it's perfectly alright to put it in the fridge to let it cool down a little before eating it."

Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, agreed that food safety takes precedence over antioxidant concerns.

"But you can leave certain fruits sitting out," she added. "If you're not going to eat it right away, they don't have to be taking up space in your fridge. In fact, there are several fruits that ripen better when left out -- peaches, bananas -- that not only end up having better nutrient quality but also perhaps better taste."

Connie Diekman, director of nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, did not think the study considered all the nutritional factors related to the temperature issue.

"I could not find where they looked at some of the water-soluble nutrients in the melon which we know are very sensitive to light and air," Diekman said. "So, I would be curious to know if there were changes to any of those on a negative side that might have offset this positive."

Health Tip: Prevent Periodontitis

Periodontitis is a gum disease in which plaque, a bacteria-ridden film that covers the teeth, moves below the gum line. The bacteria cause inflammation of the gums, which ultimately causes damage to dental tissue and the bones supporting the teeth. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, this can lead to permanent damage, including tooth loss.

Regular dental cleanings, brushing, and flossing are the best ways to reduce plaque on your teeth and prevent periodontitis. Some people are genetically predisposed to periodontitis, even with proper dental care. Genetic testing can identify people at greater risk, and early preventive measures can help improve their dental health.

Some lifestyle factors can raise a person's risk of periodontitis, including smoking, stress, diabetes, and improper diet. Teeth grinding and clenching of the teeth may also promote destruction of the gums and surrounding tissues.

Health Tip: Worried About Warts?

Warts are infections caused by a virus in the human papillomavirus family. The small bumps may appear anywhere on the body, including on the skin, genitals, or even in the mouth.

Warts are very contagious and can be passed on by skin-to-skin contact, says the American Academy of Family Physicians. Warts on the genitals are especially contagious and can be transmitted to another person during sex.

While warts often disappear on their own, many people need treatment. Over-the-counter topical solutions should never be used on the face or the genitals, the AAFP says, recommending instead that you speak with your doctor about how to treat warts in those areas.
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