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Health Headlines - October 26

Posted Oct 23 2008 2:24pm
Obesity May Contribute to Liver Trouble

A diet high in fat and sugar triggered immune system abnormalities -- including reduced levels of natural killer T (NKT) cells -- in the livers of mice, says a study led by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The study authors said these diet-related changes may contribute to obesity-related liver disease. The findings appear in the October issue of the journal Hepatology.

Natural killer T (NKT) cells in the liver regulate production of cytokines, which are cell proteins.

The study found that the mice on the high-fat diet gained much more weight than mice fed a normal diet. The mice on the high-fat diet also developed fatty livers and had increased production of IL-12, a cytokine that reduces NKT cell viability, and had increased NKT cell death.

The high-fat diet also promoted production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. When the researchers induced liver injury in the mice, they found that those on the high-fat diet experienced more liver inflammation and damage than mice on the normal diet.

The findings show that high-fat diets are associated with a chronic inflammatory state in the liver, which promotes chronic liver disease, the study authors said. They said this may be the result of diet-induced depletion of NKT cells that normally balance production of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines.

"Further evaluation of other mouse strains, different age groups and genders will be necessary to clarify if any of these factors modulate susceptibility to diet-related changes in hepatic NKT cells," the authors said. "Nevertheless, our findings are important because they clearly demonstrate significant dietary effects on 'classic' NKT cells and cytokine production by other liver mononuclear cells."

Chewing Gum Speeds Surgery Recovery

New research has given doctors and their patients something to chew on: Patients who use chewing gum have shorter hospital stays after laparoscopic colon surgery than those who don't.

In laparascopic surgery, surgeons use video-equipped tools inserted through a tiny incision to operate in a specific area.

"We know that patients who undergo laparoscopic surgery have a faster recovery and less pain than with traditional techniques. We wanted to see if we could do even better. People today want to get home as soon as possible, back to their lives and families," Dr. James McCormick, a laparoscopic surgeon at The Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Pittsburgh and a lead investigator in this study, explained in a prepared statement.

"Something as simple as chewing gum can help make that a reality," he said.

In the study, 102 patients undergoing elective colon resection surgery were divided into two groups. Those in the control group received the standard fare after abdominal surgery -- sips of clear liquid. The patients in the study group were also given gum to chew at mealtimes.

Patients who chewed gum went home, on average, one day sooner than those who didn't receive gum, the researchers found.

The study authors said chewing gum after surgery can prevent or reduce postoperative ileus, a condition where the digestive system remains inactive for a period of time following surgery. Ileus is a major cause of postoperative problems and prolonged hospital stays, and costs up to $1 billion a year in the United States, the researchers said.

"There are a few scientific theories which attempt to explain why this approach works. Most prevalent is the concept of 'sham feeding,' " McCormick said.

"It is normal to sit down at meal time and chew and swallow for 15 minutes," he explained. "Gum chewing stimulates that activity nicely. The sooner the body thinks it is normal, the sooner it will act normally. And the sooner you get to go home."

The study was presented this week at the annual meeting of the American College of Surgeons, in San Francisco.

On-Campus Suicide a Hidden Killer

Back in 1998, Ron Gibori was a fraternity brother to bright, popular Jed Satow, a 20-year-old University of Arizona sophomore whose suicide that year shocked his family and friends.

"I made a promise at his memorial service that I would try and do something to make sure other students like myself would never have to lose a friend," Gibori said.

Then, less than six months later, another of Gibori's fraternity brothers took his own life. "I realized then that the promise I had made at Jed's memorial service couldn't go unfulfilled," he said.

Joining forces with Jed's parents Phillip and Donna Satow, Gibori helped create The Jed Foundation, a New York City-based nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the problem of suicide on America's college campuses.

According to Gibori, approximately 1,100 U.S. college students take their own lives each year. Nobody's sure if that number is rising or falling -- according to Gibori, a steep increase in on-campus suicides has been charted over the past 40 years, but that could simply reflect a more honest reporting of an event that's been too long cloaked in shame.

"Suicide is still an unexplored social taboo in our society today," Gibori said. Breaking that taboo is the key goal of The Jed Foundation and its Web-based help service,

Students in trouble who head to the site can get youth-friendly, anonymous mental health information, as well as links to on-campus mental health centers at more than 530 U.S. colleges. "Right now, over 5 million students have access to the program," Gibori said.

The need is real. According to Los Angeles psychologist Michael Peck, a specialist in youth suicide, college can be a dangerous time for troubled young people.

Many are emotionally immature, he said, and while their newfound independence from parents is liberating, it can be scary, too. Alcohol and drugs are readily available, and the pressure to achieve and fit in can be overwhelming, especially at prestige schools.

In fact, "a study I did years ago found that elite colleges have much higher suicide-event rates than small, local community colleges," Peck said. Much of that owes to the fact that students attending smaller, local colleges are also more likely to be living in the relative comfort and safety of the family home.

"Elite colleges also come with higher stress because there's much more pressure on succeeding," he said. "When students aren't succeeding, they feel like they're failing both themselves and their parents, who are often paying a lot of money for these schools."

And Peck pointed to another grim phenomenon: The fact that suicide can be "contagious" on campus. "Students are closely packed together, so a suicide attempt or death may trigger other suicidal behavior by other students," he said. "That's always a problem."

There are warning signs, he said:

Apathy."You'll see a drop-off in school participation, and a falling of grades and class attendance," Peck said.
Distance. Friends and family may notice a change in closeness or communication. "This might not always be in terms of frequency," Peck noted. "The student may still call his parents every Sunday like he's supposed to; but instead of the usual conversation, it's just 'Hi Mom, Dad, everything's fine, talk to you later.'"
Substance abuse. Friends, especially, should react to any abnormal increase in drinking or drug-taking behavior with concern, the psychologist said.
Unexplained gifts."This actually happens a lot," Peck said. "A student will come to you and say 'I know you're taking chemistry -- here are my books, I won't need them anymore.'" These types of acts are usually a cry for help, he said -- something friends need to be sensitive to.
"Friends are the key ingredient here," Peck said. "Usually, if the student is going to tell anybody that they are at risk, they'll tell a friend." And he believes those closest to at-risk students need to be "understanding, not dismissive," and urge them to head for mental-health counseling.

Parents can also play a key role. "They need to be open to that idea that there can always be problems," he said, and to ease up on the pressure if their child seems to be struggling at school.

If and when problems do surface, parents may need to take decisive action. "They even have to be willing, in extreme circumstances, to bring their child home," Peck said.

Colleges have done much to raise awareness of campus suicide in the past decade or two, Peck said. "Most have a hotline now, a mental-health service, specific rules about partying and hazing," he said.

And yet students like Jed Satow can still fall through the cracks.

"I think the thing people say most often is, 'This can never happen to me, or to my friend,'" Gibori said. "There's that perception out there that people who are depressed are all dressed in black, pierced and tattooed."

But even the most outwardly cheerful, wholesome students can be struggling with hidden demons.

"My two friends in the fraternity who took their lives were probably two of the most popular kids there -- the most liked and the most sociable," Gibori said. "So the key message is that if you don't want it to be you or your friend, get educated on the warning signs, and know that depression is treatable, because everyone is vulnerable."

Health Tip: What's in Your Cookware?

Before you prepare your holiday feasts, take note of how your cookware is made, advises Health Canada.

Aluminum dissolves easily from pots and pans that are worn during cooking. The longer food is cooked in the aluminum, the greater the amount that can enter the food. Vegetables and acidic foods absorb the most aluminum.

Although small amounts of copper are good for your health, large amounts can be poisonous. Most pots and pans are coated with another layer to protect the copper, but sometimes the protective layer can erode.

Iron and chromium are also good for your health, but too much also can be toxic. Plastic cookware and plastic wrap are safe, but should not be placed in the microwave unless deemed microwave-safe.

Health Tip: Vitiligo Causes White Skin Patches

Vitiligo, a skin condition causing loss of pigment and white patches, affects about two of every 100 people, the American Academy of Dermatology says.

The severity of pigment loss varies with each person, and there is no way to predict how much pigment someone will lose.

People with the condition should avoid tanning because areas of vitiligo have no protection from the sun. Sunscreen should be worn at all times to avoid the possibility of skin cancer.

Makeup and micropigmentation tattooing may be helpful in disguising the white patches, and doctors may prescribe treatment to prevent further discoloration. Other treatments include topical corticosteroids, grafting, and depigmentation therapy. However, none of these therapies is a permanent cure.
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