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Health Highlights: Dec. 29, 2008

Medicare Open Enrollment Ends Dec. 31 George Francis, U.S.'s Oldest Man, Dies at 112 Premature Birth Can Lead to Sensory Damage First Drug for Longer, Darker Lashes Unveiled

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of HealthDay:

Medicare Open Enrollment Ends Dec. 31

The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is reminding beneficiaries to review their prescription drug coverage and health-plan needs for 2009 before the annual enrollment period ends on Wednesday, Dec. 31.

Kerry Weems, CMS acting administrator, said Monday that many beneficiaries will see changes in their current choices, "so it's important that people with Medicare take advantage of the enhanced tools CMS has provided to review the coverage and costs of their health or drug plans for next year."

Medicare's open enrollment period began Nov. 15 and runs through Dec. 31, according to Weems. For Medicare Advantage (MA) plans only, beneficiaries can make one change -- enrolling in a new plan, changing plans or canceling a current plan -- between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2009. However, the Medicare Advantage open enrollment period cannot be used to start or to stop Medicare drug coverage, or to enroll or "disenroll" in a Medicare Medical Savings Account plan, Weems said in an agency news release.

To help clients make the best choices, CMS urges enrollees to use the online tools available at www.medicare.gov (the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Finder or Medicare Options Compare for health coverage) to review options for the coming year. In addition, the 2009 Medicare & You handbook, mailed to beneficiaries in October, includes tips on selecting a plan and an overview of plan options, Weems said.

Those without a computer can get the information by calling 1-800-MEDICARE. Weems said callers should first prepare before dialing by writing down any questions they have, along with information about their current health or prescription drug plan; have their Medicare card handy; and a list of current medications used in front of them for reference.

More than 4,000 customer service operators will provide help in English and in Spanish from six toll-free Medicare call centers across the United States, Weems said

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George Francis, U.S.'s Oldest Man, Dies at 112

George Francis, believed to be the oldest man in the United States and whose life spanned both world wars, man's walk on the moon and the election of the nation's first black president, died of congestive heart failure Saturday at a Sacramento, Calif., nursing home. He was 112.

"He lived four years in the 19th century, 100 years in the 20th century, and eight years in the 21st century. We call him the man of three centuries," his son, Anthony Francis, 81, told the Associated Press.

Francis, who even in his prime weighed little more than 100 pounds, was born in New Orleans on June 6, 1896. His son said that Francis tried to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War I but was turned down because of his stature. "We always attributed his longevity to his mental and physical toughness," his son said.

As an African-American in the South, the elder Francis grew up under the Jim Crow-era's segregation laws. But Francis maintained a passion for politics, his family said. He voted for Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and for Barack Obama in 2008.

In an interview with the AP after Obama's victory, Francis, who used a wheelchair, said he felt like jumping up and down. "He is going to give black men a break in the world, and give them a better opportunity to live and make more money," he said. "For people who say voting doesn't matter, I think that's crazy."

Francis quit school after the sixth grade, became an amateur boxer as a young man and later worked as a chauffeur, an auto mechanic and a barber. He and his wife, Josephine Johnson Francis, had a son and three daughters. His wife died of cancer in 1964.

With Francis' death, Walter Breuning of Montana, who is 112 years, 98 days old, becomes the country's oldest living man, according to UCLA gerontologist Dr. Stephen Coles, who maintains a list of the world's oldest people. Francis, he told AP, lived 112 years and 204 days.

Gertrude Baines of Los Angeles, now 114, is the nation's oldest living person. The world's oldest person is Maria de Jesus of Portugal, who is 115 years, 109 days old. Japan's oldest person is Tomoji Tanabe at 113 years and 101 days, Coles said.

Francis is survived by 18 grandchildren, 33 great grandchildren and 16 great-great grandchildren, according to AP.

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Premature Birth Can Lead to Sensory Damage

Premature birth can result in lasting sensory damage, the BBC reported Saturday.

British researchers, who published their finding in the current issue of Pain, discovered that premature babies were less sensitive to heat and cold. They suspect that the repeated painful procedures that are necessary in neonatal intensive care units may be to blame for the dulled sensory abilities of these smallest infants, according to the BBC.

Premature infants are already at increased risk for disability and illness throughout their lives, the newspaper reported, but this latest finding adds another danger that doctors need to consider when treating newborns in intensive care units.

Given that development of the nervous system is particularly delicate at birth, the researchers noted that the problem is particularly pressing because premature births around the world are on the increase.

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First Drug for Longer, Darker Lashes Unveiled

Allergan Inc., the company that makes Botox, announced on Friday that it has staked its claim in the eyelash enhancement market.

In a news release, the Irvine, Calif.-based company said it had received the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's blessing to market Latisse, the first prescription medication that makes lashes grow longer, thicker and darker. Once it reaches the market in March, annual sales of Latisse are expected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million.

A daily treatment, Latisse is applied to the base of the upper eyelid and the full effect is seen in 16 weeks. Once treatment is stopped, lashes will slowly return to normal, the company said in the release. The primary ingredient in Latisse, bimatoprost, is a prostaglandin analog that is present in hair and is thought to help in the development and regrowth of hair follicles. The company did warn that the medication should not be applied to the lower eyelid, and that any other part of the body that was exposed to Latisse might show hair growth. Allergan also noted that the eyelashes on each lid might not grow the exact same way.

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