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Health Headlines - July 26

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Cholesterol-Lowering Meds Fight Pneumonia

Cholesterol-busting drugs called statins can also reduce the risk of death by pneumonia in hospitalized patients, according to a study in the journal Respiratory Research.

Researchers found that pneumonia patients who were taking a statin (which include drugs such as Lipitor, Pravachol, and Zocor) when they entered the hospital were 2.8 times less likely to die than patients who were not on these drugs.

Statins are known to affect the immune system, and that could explain their effect on pneumonia patients, speculate researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Pneumonia is the leading cause of death from infection in the United States, killing up to 40,000 people every year.

Rare Children's Disease Unlocks Aging's Secrets

Five years ago, Dr. Leslie Gordon was a resident doctor specializing in pediatric ophthalmology. That's when her son Sam, now 8 years old, was first diagnosed with an extremely rare genetic condition called progeria, characterized by accelerated aging.

Besides experiencing joint, skin and other problems, children with progeria develop an accelerated form of cardiovascular disease, with most dying from heart-related complications before the age of 20.

Gordon said she and her husband, Scott Berns, also a doctor, "quickly discovered that there wasn't anything out there" on the disease -- no information on its cause, no reliable diagnostic test, and almost no research into a condition that affects just one in every 4 million people.

Fast-forward to 2005: Thanks largely to the efforts of the Progeria Research Foundation (PRF) -- a group Gordon helped found -- scientists have already identified the cause of progeria (mutations in a single gene), set up a tissue bank necessary for ongoing research, and organized regular scientific meetings to exchange ideas. PRF is also working with the National Institutes of Health to collect data on children with progeria worldwide, as a baseline dataset for their ultimate goal: clinical trials aimed at a cure.

But the implications of progeria research may go far beyond helping children like Sam Berns.

"Studying progeria results in a 'double whammy' for researchers," his mother said. "First, of course, you get to try and save the lives of children who are all going to die from this disorder. But you also get to learn something very important about key elements behind heart disease and aging."

Dr. Samer Najjar is head of the Human Cardiovascular Studies Unit at the National Institute on Aging. He agreed with Gordon that progeria kids can teach researchers a lot about the nation's number one killer.

"These children get heart disease at an incredibly accelerated pace, usually by the time they are 12, 13 or 14," he pointed out. "In the general community, the prevalence of cardiovascular disease starts appearing in the 60s and 70s. Obviously, there's some process that's accelerated."

In the case of progeria, that acceleration starts with a mutation in a gene producing a cellular protein called lamin-A.

"In kids with progeria, that protein goes awry and you create an abnormal protein that we call 'progerin,' " Gordon said. Unlike lamin-A, progerin fails to degrade properly and instead attaches itself to healthy lamin-A and structures in the cell's nucleus. This "spider-like" effect also affects the "downstream expression" of many other genes, Gordon said.

The result is accelerated aging at both the cellular and physiologic level, including the early onset of cardiovascular disease.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Pediatrics, Gordon lead a team of researchers that discovered key differences between the atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries") seen in progeria children and that displayed by aging adults.

"In these kids," Gordon said, "heart disease isn't caused by high cholesterol, at least not high levels of LDL ['bad'] cholesterol." Instead, progeria seems to weaken cellular resistance to daily damage brought about by cell division and blood flow. That added vulnerability to metabolic stress makes children "more susceptible to damage-formed plaques along artery walls," she explained.

But doctors have long known that some adults are more susceptible to atherosclerosis than others, Gordon pointed out.

"Heart disease depends, in large part, on your genetic disposition -- it's not all about cholesterol," she said. "In the last couple of years, progeria research has been teaching us that damage-driven plaque formation is something that we all need to pay attention to in the general population."

Then there's the question of aging itself.

"It's amazing how much progeria resembles the normal aging process," said Dr. Vilhelm Bohr, chairman of molecular gerontology at the National Institute on Aging. "I think these proteins linked to progeria play a very profound role in the aging process, and I think we've already seen some pretty big findings in terms of what these proteins do. Lamin-A, for example, appears to have many roles."

Gordon stressed that progeria doesn't exactly mimic the human aging process -- progeria children aren't especially susceptible to cataracts or cancer, for example. But the disorder "is providing insight into mechanisms that we can study," Bohr said.

In the meantime, the group Gordon founded is busy helping parents of children with progeria better understand the challenges facing their child.

"The first question I get from brand-new parents isn't, 'Are we going to have a cure?' " she said. "It's, 'What is my child going to go through? How can I help their joints, their skin?' It's about the happiness of the child today."

To help parents -- many of whom contact the Progeria Research Foundation from developing countries -- the organization facilitates free Internet and phone hook-ups between families in the same country or region. "We put families together. That's crucial, because they are so lost -- this disease is so rare," Gordon said.

Collaborating with the National Institutes of Health, the foundation is also flying children and their parents from sites around the world to NIH facilities in Bethesda, Md., so that kids can receive a full clinical assessment.

"That's to get a baseline dataset -- you need that data to understand if any drug is working or not," Gordon explained. "That's a great leap of faith, of course -- we don't know for sure that we'll find a cure, but we do know we won't be able to find a cure without doing this study."

Still, the speed of discovery occurring since Gordon started PRF five years is encouraging.

"I'm told all the time, 'Wow, you're moving so fast,' and I do feel that speed," she said. "But I also know that we always need to feel like we can do better. Even if I wasn't the mother of a child with progeria, I still see the faces of other children with progeria every day. So nothing can go fast enough for me."

Candy good for you? Mars to probe cocoa benefits

Mars, the company that made its fortune satisfying chocolate cravings, unveiled plans on Monday to develop medications that use a component of cocoa to help treat diabetes, strokes and vascular disease.

The privately held U.S. company that produces M&Ms and Mars bars said it hoped to make medications based on flavanols -- plant chemicals with health benefits found in cocoa, as well as red wine and green tea.

Mars said it is in talks with large pharmaceutical companies for a licensing or joint venture agreement to reproduce the compounds in cocoa shown to improve blood flow.

"The mounting scientific evidence is extraordinary," said Dr Norm Hollenberg, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, which has collaborated with Mars on cocoa research.

"This is a scientific breakthrough that could well lead to a medical breakthrough."

Hollenberg was chairing a two-day seminar with 20 science and medical experts in Switzerland to discuss the newest research on cocoa's potential health benefits.

The specific cocoa flavanol molecules responsible for a blood-thinning aspirin-like effect have been identified for the first time, Mars said.

Two clinical trials have also found that cocoa flavanols can boost the flow of blood to key areas of the brain, raising the possibility of treatments for dementia and strokes.

A new clinical study has shown flavanols' ability to improve synthesis of nitric oxide by blood vessels could aid treatment of vascular complications associated with long-term diabetes.

Mars has already launched CocoaVia, a nutrition bar containing 80 calories and specially preserved flavanols, which usually get destroyed in usual cocoa processing.

The chocolate industry had to rid its products of a junk food image and highlight cocoa's healthier qualities to encourage demand for a produce mainly grown by poor African farmers, industry experts said at a conference in Malaysia last week.

Health Tip: If You've Got a Nosebleed

Nosebleeds are common injuries and can be easily treated, according to Canada's St. John Ambulance.

Here's how to stop a bloody nose:

* Sit down with your head leaning slightly forward.
* Pinch the soft part of your nose for about 10 minutes.
* Loosen the clothing around your neck and breathe through your mouth.
* Don't sniff or blow your nose for a couple of hours.

If a head injury caused your nosebleed, get medical help immediately.

Health Tip: Bathing Your Newborn

Giving your newborn a tub bath for the first time can be daunting. Ease your anxiety by preparing properly for the event.

The Cincinnati Children's Hospital offers these guidelines:

* Select a bath site. Good places include the bathtub, kitchen sink, or bathroom sink.
* If you're using a portable baby bathtub, make sure it's on a sturdy table, and never carry the bathtub with your baby in it.
* Gather all your supplies before filling the tub and undressing your baby.
* Fill the tub with three inches of water. Don't add soap or bubble bath to the water. This can dry your infant's skin.
* As you slowly place your baby into the tub, use a calm, reassuring voice to soothe your child. Support your child's head with your hand.
* Use your other hand to gently wash and rinse your infant.

Food Fact:
The perfect food?

Here are five good reasons it just might be lentils. 1) Lentils, a fine source of plant protein, don't take hours to cook, unlike other dried beans. 2) Lentils are rich in soluble fiber, which helps control blood cholesterol. 3) Lentils provide some calcium, iron and other trace minerals. 4) Lentils are one of the best sources for folic acid, a B vitamin critical for preventing neural tube defects. 5) Lentils may protect against some types of cancers and lower heart disease risk.

Fitness Tip of the day:
Buddy up!

Struggling to stick to your exercise program? Try working out with a partner. Adding a social aspect to your workout helps keep you both motivated and makes sessions more fun. Training with a friend provides mutual support for keeping a regular schedule and pushes you harder to meet your goals.

FAQ of the day:
Why are my hips and thighs so big?

The hormones that maintain a woman's fat reserves for pregnancy and lactation also help determine where fat is stored. Despite what you see in magazines, a so-called "pear" shape is perfectly normal for a healthy woman. In fact, the female distribution of body fat in the hips and thighs has been associated with lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and breast cancer. Women who tend to have more of a male distribution of body fat, with fat stored around the waist, are at higher risk for these diseases.
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