Monthly Archives: October 2010

Controversial chemical may decrease sperm count

Exposure to bisphenol-A (BPA), a controversial chemical found in hard, clear plastics, is thought to increase the risk of birth defects, early puberty, obesity, brain damage, and some forms of cancer, according to the website www.health.com.

Add another potential problem to the list: A new study of Chinese factory workers suggests that very high levels of BPA exposure may decrease sperm count and contribute to other sperm-related problems in men.

The findings aren’t surprising. BPA — which can be found in some baby bottles and water bottles, as well the linings of food and beverage cans — is known to be a so-called endocrine disruptor that functions “like a weak estrogen” and blocks male sex hormones (including testosterone), said the lead author of the study, Dr. De-Kun Li, a reproductive and perinatal epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente’s division of research, in Oakland, Cal.

But the study is notable because it’s one of the first in humans to link BPA with reproductive problems. Until very recently, most of the evidence implicating BPA in health problems has come from animal or laboratory studies. (BPA has been associated with reduced sperm count in mice and rats, for instance.)

In the new study, which appears in the journal Fertility and Sterility, Li and his colleagues collected urine and semen samples from 218 factory workers, some of whom worked in facilities that make BPA or epoxy resin and were therefore regularly exposed to very high levels of the chemical.

Compared to men whose urine was BPA-free, those who had detectable levels of BPA were four times more likely to have a below-average sperm count, three times more likely to have fewer “live” sperm than average, and two times more likely to have below-average sperm quality.

In previous studies conducted in the same population, Li’s team found a similar association between BPA exposure and erectile dysfunction, among other sexual problems.

The findings don’t prove cause and effect, however, and it’s not clear how relevant they are for men in the U.S. who aren’t exposed to unusually high levels of BPA. Although the researchers found a connection between BPA levels and sperm problems in men who were exposed to BPA only in the general environment (rather than the workplace), it’s possible that the study population differs from the U.S. population in key ways.

Still, the study seems likely to serve as ammunition for advocates and public health officials who favor restrictions on BPA.

Infectious diseases are good business for drug companies

Look no further than Bristol-Myers Squibb’s third-quarter earnings results for the reasons why it and its rivals are keen on infectious diseases, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

At a time when cash-strapped U.S. patients are deserting their prescriptions due to sticker shock, and debt-laden European governments are trying to control price increases, antiviral agents are giving pharmaceutical executives hope of serious revenue increases.

Last week, Johnson & Johnson signaled an intention to expand in infectious diseases. Gilead, a company built on HIV agents, reported higher sales for its key therapies.

Bristol’s profit fell slightly in the quarter and total sales were flat, but sales of virology drugs like HIV fighter Reyataz and Hepatitis B therapy Baraclude grew eight percent worldwide.

What’s more, Bristol CEO Lamberto Andreotti singled out therapies in the company’s pipeline that target Hepatitis C.

There a couple of reasons why Andreotti and his peers view infectious diseases as a solid business prospect: the numbers of people infected by viruses like HIV don’t fluctuate with the economy, and there’s no questioning their need for effective treatments. Governments and health insurers are inclined to cover the cost.

It’s why we’re likely to hear more about how many companies like Bristol are counting on Hepatitis C, for instance, to replace sales lost when antipsychotics and drugs that lower blood pressure shortly go off patent.

Study: Alzheimer’s linked to heavy smoking in middle age

Heavy smoking in middle age more than doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia later in life, according to one of the first long-term studies to examine the issue and reported in the Chicago Tribune.

Smoking has a clear effect on the heart and lungs, but whether it also damages the brain has been controversial. The study, published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, overcomes some of the obstacles that have made it difficult to assess such a link. For example, some previous research suggesting that smoking doesn’t cause dementia mostly examined elderly people only for a short period of time.

To get a more complete look, researchers in Finland, Sweden and the Oakland-based research division of the health plan Kaiser Permanente followed 21,123 middle-aged Kaiser members who participated in a survey between 1978 and 1985, and then studied the participants for an average of 23 years.

After controlling for other factors that can contribute to dementia — such as education level, race, age, diabetes, heart disease and substance abuse — the study found a significant link with heavy smoking in middle age.

Compared to nonsmokers, people who smoked two packs a day or more had a 114 percent increased risk of dementia (more than double) while people who smoked one to two packs a day had a 44 percent increased risk. Those who smoked half to one pack a day had a 37 percent increased risk.

Middle-aged people who described themselves as former smokers did not appear to have an increased risk of later dementia.

One way that smoking might increase the risk of dementia would be via the narrowing of blood vessels in the brain, a process that leads to the well-established increased risk of stroke, said Rachel A. Whitmer, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research and the principal investigator in the study.

However, even people who smoked heavily in midlife and did not have any subsequent strokes were at higher risk for dementia, Whitmer said.

Long distance runners are healthier, but also injury risks

 Jennifer Frighetto is not a marathoner, but it’s not for lack of trying. Had she crossed the finish line at this year’s race in Chicago, it would have been her first successful attempt at the 26.2-mile distance. But just as at the 2008 and 2009 Chicago Marathons, Frighetto was unable to finish because of injury, according to a story in the New York Times.

Frighetto, a self-described former couch potato, said that since she first decided to run a marathon in late 2006, she has seen doctors for a stress fracture in her foot, plantar fasciitis and iliotibial band syndrome. The activity that promised to make her healthier was actually increasing the frequency of her doctor visits, a fact that makes amateur athletes like her a problematic group of people for health insurance companies to insure.

And as more and more people become marathoners — the 2011 Boston Marathon sold out in eight hours — distance runners are becoming a hard group to ignore.

“Insurance companies love runners because they’re healthy people,” said Nathan Nicholas, the president of Nicholas Hill Group, a Colorado-based insurance brokerage firm that works with USA Triathlon. “Many of them are younger and have disposable incomes. They’re a great demographic.”

But, he added, because they train so hard, they have injuries and accidents that can sometimes make them difficult to insure.

Distance running, in particular, has a documented history of injury: a 2007 study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine found rates of injury to the lower extremities were as high as 79 percent in long-distance runners.

 “Athletes are going to have more injuries than a couch potato,” said Kevin Luss, the founder of New York-based insurance services company the Luss Group. “But their height-weight ratio and cholesterol will be better than a couch potato’s. Their physiological age will be younger.”

Fruits and vegetables may get marketed like junk food

Candy, chips and soda are widely available and aggressively marketed. Can doing the same with fruits and veggies change consumers’ eating habits?

Some companies and producers are betting they can, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. Carrot farmers are now advertising packaged baby carrots with the slogan, “Eat ‘em like junk food.” A Halloween promotion for the temporarily renamed “Scarrots” includes single-serving packages and “25 temporary glow-in-the-dark tattoos of masquerading baby carrot characters.”

San Francisco is mulling restrictions on the fast-food meals that include toy giveaways — including a requirement to include fruits and vegetables. (A vote on that has been delayed until next month).

The latest frontier is the vending machine, that bastion of snacking convenience. Fresh Del Monte Produce and a vending-machine maker, the Wittern Group, collaborated on a machine specially engineered to dispense fresh-cut fruits and veggies — even easily bruised bananas.

The new machine has two temperature zones to optimally preserve both fresh-cut produce and bananas. And there’s a padded lining and angled walls to prevent bruising. The next iteration of the machine will include a “fruit elevator” to carefully deliver the products.

So, will it work? Recently released CDC stats show that among adults, only 32.5 percent are eating the recommended two or more fruit servings per day, and 26.3 percent the recommended three or more servings of vegetables. The government’s Healthy People 2010 goal was for 75 percent of Americans age 2 and up to meet the fruit recommendation, and 50 percent to meet the one for veggies.

 Will kids be drawn to carrots marketed like Doritos? One study found that kids reported they preferred carrots (as well as graham crackers and gummy fruit snacks) in packages emblazoned with Dora the Explorer, Shrek and Scooby Doo to those in plain packages. But in contrast to the crackers and gummy snacks, kids didn’t report that the carrots in the cartoon-endorsed packages tasted any better.

Going outdoors can boost mood

According to a study conducted in 2009 by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the typical American spends 90 percent of his or her time indoors.

However, the editors of the Harvard Health Letter stress that there are at least five health benefits from spending more time outside.

First, vitamin D levels are increased as the skin is exposed to sunshine, reducing risk of some chronic diseases such as cancer and osteoporosis.

Second, being outside is an invitation to be more active, especially for children.

Third, research indicates that sunlight tends to elevate a person’s mood.
Fourth, time in nature appears to improve concentration particularly in those with ADHD.

And last, natural light may help the body heal faster and experience less pain and stress.

Study: Skipping breakfast a quicker path to heart disease

If you think you are doing your body a favor by skipping breakfast, think again.

People who skip breakfast have more risk factors for heart disease, found an Australian study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, according to Onlinehealthnews.

Researchers with the University of Tasmania found that both children and adults who skip their morning meal (defined as being between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.) tend to have overall worse eating behaviors and exercise less than those who do eat breakfast.

Breakfast skippers also tend to have high cholesterol, elevated insulin levels, and larger waist circumferences.