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Health Highlights: Dec. 5, 2006

New York City Bans Trans Fats at Restaurants VA Fails to Track Spending on Mental Health Services: Report Minnesota Tops State Health Rankings U.S. Government Scientist Charged with Taking Drug Company Perks U.S. Must Prepare for Hispanic Aging Boom

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

New York City Bans Trans Fats at Restaurants

New York City's Board of Health voted unanimously Tuesday to make the city the first in the United States to ban trans fats at restaurants.

As of July 2007, restaurants will not be permitted to use most frying oils that contain artery-clogging trans fats and by July 2008 they won't be allowed to serve any foods that contain trans fats, the Associated Press reported.

It's believed that trans fats increase the risk of heart disease by increasing bad cholesterol while lowering good cholesterol. The average American eats 4.7 pounds of trans fats per year, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dismissed critics who say the city crossed a line by trying to legislate what people eat, the AP reported.

"Nobody wants to take away your french fries and hamburgers -- I love those things too. But if you can make them with something that is less damaging to your health, we should do that," Bloomberg said recently.

Chicago is considering a law to severely limit the amount of trans fats that can be used in restaurants. Many food makers and fast food chains have already stopped using trans fats or plan to stop using them.

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VA Fails to Track Spending on Mental Health Services: Report

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs didn't spend the entire $300 million it budgeted in recent years to increase mental health services for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders and substance abuse problems, and it also failed to keep tabs on how some of that money was spent, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report contends.

To improve mental health services for veterans, the VA added $100 million in 2005 and another $200 million this year. The money was to be given to the VA's regional network of medical center, hospitals, and clinics, the Associated Press reported.

But the GAO report said that VA's spending on new mental health services fell short by $12 million in 2005 and by about $42 million in fiscal 2006. The VA provided $35 million to its 21 health care networks in 2005, but failed to tell the networks that the money was to be used for mental health services.

The GAO report also said that VA medical centers returned $46 million to VA headquarters because they were unable to spend the money in fiscal 2006, the AP reported.

The VA is also unable to ascertain how much of $112 million was spent on new or improved mental health services in fiscal 2006, the GAO said.

In September, the VA said that more than one third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought medical treatment from the VA in the previous 18 months reported symptoms of mental health problems, the AP said.

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Minnesota Tops State Health Rankings

For the fourth straight year, Minnesota has taken first place in state health rankings in the annual United Health Foundation report, which also found Americans 0.3 percent healthier in 2006 than they were last year.

Minnesota has taken top spot in 11 of the 17 years of the survey by the United Health Foundation, an independent, not-for-profit foundation funded by the UnitedHealth Group health care company.

The report's rankings are based on a number of factors including access to care, incidence of preventable disease, smoking rates, child poverty rates, and motor vehicle deaths, the Associated Press reported.

Minnesota took top spot due to its low rates of: uninsured (8.4 percent); children in poverty (10 percent); infant mortality (5.1 deaths per 1,000 live births). The other states in the top five were Vermont, New Hampshire, Hawaii and Connecticut.

Louisiana was rated the least-healthy state. Others in the bottom five were Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, the AP said.

The report also listed states with the largest improvements and declines in overall health since last year. The states with the most improvement were Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Kansas. Those with the worst declines were New Mexico, Idaho and West Virginia.

From 1990 to 2006, the percentage of uninsured Americans increased from 13.4 percent to 15.9 percent, the report said.

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U.S. Government Scientist Charged with Taking Drug Company Perks

A senior scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMN) was charged Monday with accepting $285,000 in consulting fees and travel expenses from drug maker Pfizer Inc. without first getting authorization from his superiors and ethics watchdogs, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Federal prosecutors charged 55-year-old Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, chief of NIMN's geriatric psychiatry branch, with conflict of interest. If convicted, Sunderland could be sentenced to up to one year in prison and fined up to $100,000. He's scheduled to make his first court appearance Friday.

Sunderland is still an employee of the NIMH, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

This is the latest in a series of cases involving federal government researchers and officials with financial ties to the drug industry, the Sun reported.

In October, former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester M. Crawford pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges. He admitted he lied about owning stock and options in companies regulated by the FDA.

On Monday, NIH officials confirmed to the Sun that more than 40 of the agency's scientists are believed to have had outside, fee-based relationships with private companies. Almost none of them were charged with crimes. Most were disciplined internally or retired from the NIH.

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U.S. Must Prepare for Hispanic Aging Boom

The number of older Hispanics in the United States will triple over the next two decades and a national approach to dealing with Hispanic aging issues will be needed to cope with that growth, warns a report released Tuesday by the National Alliance for Hispanic Health and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

This aging boom is partly due to the fact that Hispanics live longer than blacks and whites. But the report, released at a meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, also noted that longer lives mean Hispanics live more years with health problems.

By 2030, Hispanics aged 65 and older will outnumber elderly black Americans by one million people, the report said. The number of elderly Hispanics in the United States is expected to reach 13.8 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the U.S. health care and long term care systems have not yet adapted to the needs of Hispanics, said the report, which is based on information presented at the Second Conference on Aging in the Americas held in September at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

In health terms, Hispanics tend to do best when they're connected to their culture and community, the report noted. This is an important clue about the positive role that connectedness and family, faith and culture can play in dealing with the Hispanic aging boom in the U.S.

In related news, a study from the nonprofit RAND Corporation found that rates of healthy habits among U.S. Hispanics -- such as exercise and good nutrition --- stay stagnant over succeeding generations, or even decline.

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