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Health Highlights: Dec. 31, 2006

Obstetrics Group Recommends Expanding Down Syndrome Tests Heart Disease Still Plagues Southern States Pet Owners Aren't Picture of Health: Study Bill Mandating Equal Coverage for Mental Health Could Pass Universal Studios Parks Ban Trans Fats

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

Obstetrics Group Recommends Expanding Down Syndrome Tests

Experts at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) are recommending that maternal age no longer be a major criterium for testing pregnant women for Down syndrome. Currently, doctors don't routinely order the test for women under 35, due to risks linked to invasive amniocentesis, the Associated Press reported.

However, the advent of accurate, less invasive testing technologies means that younger women should now be screened for the birth defect, experts say. The new ACOG guidelines are published in the January issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

About 1 in every 800 babies is born with Down syndrome, which is caused by an extra chromosome. Risks rise gradually with maternal age: about one in every 1,200 pregnancies in women aged 25 are affected by Down syndrome compared to one in every 300 pregnancies for women aged 35.

New non-invasive tests -- such as a combination of first-trimester blood screening and detailed ultrasound of the fetal neck -- are more than 80 percent accurate in spotting Down syndrome, with very few false-positives, the AP reported. Routine use in all pregnant women could detect more cases much earlier, the ACOG experts say.

"The new recommendation makes a lot of sense," Dr. Nancy Green of the March of Dimes told the AP. "Maternal age no longer plays such an important role because the screening is better."


Heart Disease Still Plagues Southern States

Heart disease hits Americans who live in southern states harder than residents of other regions of the country, according to the latest annual survey of cardiovascular disease in the United States.

Cardiovascular disease accounted for more than one-third of all deaths nationwide in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Mississippi had the highest fatality rate from cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease, with nearly 406 deaths per 100,000 people. Oklahoma was next, with nearly 401 deaths per 100,000 people; Alabama, with 378 deaths; Tennessee, with nearly 374 deaths per 100,000; and West Virginia, with 373 deaths per 1,000 people, the Associated Press reported.

What's more, twice as many angioplasties were performed in southern states, compared to other regions of the country. There were similar trends in bypass surgery, open-heart surgeries and pacemaker implants, the AP said.

The yearly survey is conducted by the American Heart Association, which released the findings Friday, ahead of a January publication of the survey in its journal Circulation.

Wayne Rosamond, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina and chairman of the American Heart Association's Statistics Committee, said studies are under way to determine the reasons behind the regional differences, the news service said.

"What drives those shifts is not really well understood," he said. "There are a lot of things going on that are good, particularly on the prevention side."

Some of those encouraging signs, he said, are a drop in smoking rates among young people and a growing awareness of heart disease among women.


Pet Owners Aren't Picture of Health: Study

Pet owners tend to be in pretty good shape, given all the exercise they get walking their animals, right?

Wrong, says a new Finnish study, which found that pet owners -- particularly dog owners -- are actually less healthy than people who don't own pets.

Researchers at the University of Turku studied more than 21,000 working-aged people. They found that pet owners smoked slightly more often and exercised less often than those who didn't have pets, the researchers reported in the current online issue of PloS One.

Dog owners exercised more than those without dogs, but this did not have an effect on their body mass index, the researchers found, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Pet ownership was most common among people aged 40 or older, who tend to settle down as couples in single-family homes. Pet owners were also slightly more likely to have a low social standing or education, the CBC said.

"Pet owners had a slightly higher BMI (body mass index) than the rest, which indicates that people having a pet (particularly a dog) could use some exercise," the researchers concluded.

At Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada, researchers are testing whether fitting overweight dogs with pedometers will motivate dog owners to get more exercise for their pets and themselves, the CBC said.


Bill Mandating Equal Coverage for Mental Health Could Pass

With Democrats winning both houses of Congress, health advocates say they have high hopes that legislation requiring equal insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses will finally pass in 2007.

A 1996 law already prohibits health plans that offer mental health coverage from setting lower annual and lifetime spending limits for mental treatments than for physical ailments. Backers of the new legislation want to see that expanded to co-payments, deductibles and limits on doctor visits.

"I'm very optimistic that 2007 will finally be the year that our health care system recognizes that the brain is, in fact, a part of the body," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat who sponsored the bill in the last Congress. "We've had majority support for this legislation six years in a row, and now we have a chance to bring it to the floor and pass it," the Associated Press reported on Friday.

The legislation has strong support in Congress but has run into GOP roadblocks. In the last session, 231 House members -- more than half of the members -- signed on as co-sponsors. The GOP leadership, which in the past had expressed concern that the proposal would drive up health insurance premiums, wouldn't bring it up for a vote, the AP said.


Universal Studios Parks Ban Trans Fats

Universal Parks & Resorts, home to movie-inspired thrill rides, is the latest theme park operation to ban artery-clogging trans fats in junk foods and offer healthier choices at its three U.S. attractions in California and Florida.

Walt Disney Co. announced in October that it will also serve more nutritious kids' meals and phase out the artificial fats at its resorts. Customers will now also have more healthy side options to choose from, including salads and fruit bowls.

Trans fats are made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. Although they're cheaper to produce and give food a longer shelf life, trans fats also increase the risk of heart disease by raising the level of bad cholesterol in the blood, the Associated Press reported Friday. The average American eats almost 5 pounds of trans fats a year.

Besides Disney and Universal, SeaWorld Orlando also pledged earlier this year to limit fats and calories in some meals and to create healthier menus. Earlier this month, New York City became the first U.S. city to ban artificial trans fats in restaurant foods, the AP said.


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