health alert
July 9, 2019

For the third year running, life expectancy in the U.S. has declined, per new data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

Children born in 2017 are expected to live an average of 78.6 years, down from 78.7 the year prior. This most recent decline makes the last three years the longest period of decreasing life expectancy since the years of 1915 to 1918, USA Today reports. Considering that time period included World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic, those factors might at least partially explain the reduced life expectancy.

But what's behind the decrease this time? The CDC has some theories, as it outlined in its report. Among the possible causes are increased deaths by drug overdose, liver disease, and suicide — all problems that have been exacerbated in the past few years across the country. In particular, the opioid epidemic may be affecting Americans' projected lifespans; in 2017, 70,000 people died of drug overdoses, and about two-thirds of those deaths were tied to opioids in some way.

The U.S. isn't the only nation dealing with a decrease in life expectancy: The U.K.'s average life expectancy is projected to decline by about five months. And while life expectancy is still increasing in France, Germany, and other European countries, the rates of those increases have gone down in recent years as well.

Whatever the underlying causes are for the life expectancy numbers, we can all hope they turn around soon. Read more at USA Today. Shivani Ishwar

June 24, 2019

Certain commonly-prescribed medications have been linked with an increased risk of dementia among older adults, new research has found.

A study, published on Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, discovered a strong association between a high risk of dementia and a type of medication known as "anticholinergic" drugs, CNN reported. This describes any drug that blocks the chemical acetylcholine from its function in the nervous system — and anticholinergic drugs can be used to treat a variety of conditions, from dizziness and insomnia to epilepsy and mental disorders.

In particular, the study found that certain types of anticholinergics — including antidepressants, antipsychotics, and antiepileptics — were associated with a particularly high risk of dementia when taken by adults over the age of 55 for long periods of time. In some cases, the risk increased by as much as 50 percent when patients were exposed to a daily dose of anticholinergic drugs for three years or more.

While the association has been noticed before, it's still far from confirmed that these drugs actually cause the increased dementia risk, rather than just being linked with it. "No firm conclusions can be drawn about whether these drugs cause dementia," said Carol Coupland, the study's lead author and a professor at the University of Nottingham.

More research will be required before determining whether or not there is a causal link between anticholinergics and dementia — so patients shouldn't stop taking "critical and important" medications, said Douglas Scharre, a neurologist at Ohio State University. Instead, "have a conversation with your doctor" about the risks involved with your medications, he recommended.

Read more at CNN. Shivani Ishwar

June 12, 2019

On Wednesday, the Commonwealth Fund released a report billed as a "scorecard" for the U.S.'s health systems. And it doesn't look good.

Among the most troubling parts of the report is the fact that based off of data from 2017, deaths caused by drug overdose, alcohol, and suicide have reached an "all-time high," NBC News reported. These so-called "deaths of despair" have risen nationally, but they affect different states in vastly different ways. For example, drug overdose deaths predictably hit hardest in areas affected by the opioid epidemic, mainly concentrated in the northeastern states. Midwestern states, meanwhile, have a higher rate of deaths by suicide or alcohol.

West Virginia and Ohio had the two highest rates of death by drug overdose — both states have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. And comparing between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia's rate went up by 450 percent, while Ohio's went up by 320.

The Commonwealth Fund states in their report that these dramatic rises in death rates are "another marker of complex socioeconomic and behavioral health problems across the nation." They recommend increasing access to a drug that can save lives during an overdose, naloxone, and better legislating the prescription of opioids.

As a result of suicide, alcohol, and drugs becoming more prevalent problems, some states even have a decreasing life expectancy. As health care becomes more expensive, the report states, this presents an increasing problem for people who have trouble accessing health care because of their insurance. All in all, it paints a dire picture of our country's health.

Read more at NBC News. Shivani Ishwar

June 4, 2019

Will you be having the chicken or the beef?

Either way, you could be endangering your heart health, suggests a new study. The research has found that white and red meats can be equally bad for cholesterol levels, contradicting the common knowledge that white meat is more healthy.

The study, published on Tuesday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined people who shifted between eating diets high in red meat, white meat, and plant-based proteins. While plant-based protein was less likely to cause high blood cholesterol levels than meat-based protein, the difference in effect between white and red meats was insignificant.

That's not to say that you should stop eating meat altogether, though: "A combination of poultry, fish, vegetable proteins, and lean red meat" is still a good approach to nutrition, NBC News explained. It's more about how much saturated fat is in your food — whether white or red, meats high in saturated fat present the greatest danger to your cholesterol levels. As long as you're eating leaner cuts, white and red meat can both be parts of a healthy diet; in fact, red meat can even be an important source of vitamins like B12.

As always, "demonizing any food based on one study" is a dangerous route to take. "I don't want people to get too focused on an all-or-nothing approach," said Ronald Krauss, the study's lead author.

Read more at NBC News. Shivani Ishwar

May 29, 2019

Sure, Red Bull doesn't actually give you wings — but it might be doing something else to your body.

Researchers have found that caffeine and other ingredients common in many energy drinks can have adverse health effects, including sleep disruption, high blood pressure, and even cardiac arrest, CNN reports. And a study, published on Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that consuming too many energy drinks can actually change the electrical activity in your heart in potentially life-threatening ways.

While the American Beverage Association still maintains that energy drinks aren't more dangerous than other foods, health experts have long thought differently. Besides caffeine, many energy drinks include other stimulants — including "guarana, a plant that grows in the Amazon; taurine, an amino acid that's naturally found in meat and fish; and L-carnitine, a substance in our bodies that helps turn fat into energy," CNN explained — which may interact with each other, enhancing their potency to a dangerous level.

These interactions could be especially dangerous for children, pregnant women, or even people who just don't regularly consume caffeine, said John Higgins, a cardiologist at the University of Texas. With the study's new information, "people need to be aware of" the potential health risks associated with energy drinks, Higgins said. Read more at CNN. Shivani Ishwar

May 23, 2019

Kids who are the victims of racially-motivated bullying may be at risk in more ways than one, a new report has found.

The report analyzed data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, a voluntary survey administered to children through their schools. The results point to a worrying link between bullying and drugs and alcohol for children in California high schools from 2013 to 2018, U.S. News reported on Thursday. The data suggests that children who were bullied for their race, ethnicity, or origin were 11 percent more likely to drink alcohol, 9 percent more likely to use marijuana, and 8 percent more likely to use opioids or other medication not as prescribed.

The study found that black and Asian students were the most targeted for bullying, with 22 percent and 20 percent of each group reporting having been bullied at least once in the 2017-2018 school year. White students were the least affected by bullying, but that figure was still at 11 percent.

Being under stress can lead to risky or unhealthy habits even in adults. So the fact that it's affecting adolescents in schools is concerning, given that the still-developing brains of teenagers are already "more likely to engage in risky behavior," explained Virginia Huynh, a professor in child and adolescent development.

Read more about the survey and its results U.S. News. Shivani Ishwar

May 9, 2019

Buprenorphine, a drug that curbs the craving for opioid drugs, has been instrumental in the fight against the addiction epidemic our country faces. Reducing the cravings a drug user feels can help people on the path to recovery and reduce the chances of a fatal overdose. But as it turns out, this treatment isn't being offered equally to everyone who needs it.

A study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that an overwhelming majority of the patients who receive buprenorphine treatment are white. Between 2012 and 2015, the study showed, while the number of prescriptions written for buprenorphine surged, there was little to no change in the number of prescriptions for patients of racial minorities. This, worryingly, happened at the same time that deaths by opioid overdose were "rising faster" for black people than for white people, NPR reported.

The opioid epidemic has been framed "as largely a white epidemic," said Pooja Lagisetty, one of the study's authors, "but we know now that's not true." And yet white Americans are "almost 35 times as likely" to discuss buprenorphine as a treatment option as black Americans.

The problem may be partly due to funding. Because very few physicians have the special training required to prescribe buprenorphine, some doctors have resorted to taking direct cash payments for the drug. Only 25 percent of buprenorphine treatments that the study examined were funded by Medicare or Medicaid — which means that low-income patients might have a tough time affording the potentially life-saving medicine.

Whatever the cause, specialists are calling for racial parity in the treatment for opioid addiction. This study "demands for us to be looking at equitable treatment for addiction for African Americans," said Michael Botticelli, director of the Grayken Center for Addiction. Learn more at NPR. Shivani Ishwar

May 8, 2019

All over the world, technology is improving. Cars, running water, electricity, and other modern conveniences are spreading to more and more communities — and these changes bring a lot of benefits. But there are also some disadvantages, as one new study found.

The study, published in Nature on Wednesday, showed that people in rural areas contribute significantly to the global rise in obesity. While "the prevailing belief" is that urban areas are hotbeds for weight gain and sedentary habits, The Verge reported, the truth is that more than 55 percent of the rise in obesity from 1985 to 2017 came from rural areas.

Much of the rise has come from places with "emerging economies," The Verge explained, such as Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. While rural communities in developed countries have long had high obesity rates, the rest of the world is, unfortunately, catching up.

This data supports the changing of initiatives for global health. In addition to addressing issues like malnutrition, scientists are calling for a shift in attention to high-quality of food and the importance of exercise. "We have to think outside the box a little," said Sherry Pagoto, a professor of health sciences at the University of Connecticut. Obesity initiatives, instead of trying to apply the same methods worldwide, should be tailored to the needs of the community, whether urban or rural, she argues. Learn more at The Verge. Shivani Ishwar

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