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Health Highlights: Feb. 19, 2007

U.S. to Beef Up Some Inspections of Poultry, Meat Cocoa May Help Retain Brain Power: Researchers Chronic Back Pain Linked to Changes in Brain Process Hearing Loss a Big Problem Facing the Next Generation 18,000 Kids Die of Hunger Daily, U.N. Exec Says

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

U.S. to Beef Up Some Inspections of Poultry, Meat

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is implementing the first changes to its meat and poultry plant inspections program in a decade, the Associated Press reported Monday.

Plants with a history of problems will receive greater scrutiny, and conversely, plants that have better records of meat and poultry handling will see fewer inspections for contamination from E. coli, salmonella, and other germs.

The new "risk-based" system will evaluate the type of product produced and the plant's record of food and safety violations, Agriculture Department officials told the AP.

"There are certain food products that carry a higher inherent risk than others," said the department's top food safety official, Richard Raymond. "And there are certain plants that do a better job of controlling risk than others," he added.

For now, the new system is to be implemented in processing plants, not those that actually slaughter the animals, the AP said. An implementation schedule is expected shortly.

Raymond dismissed suggestions that budget cutbacks could be driving changes in the inspection program. "We're not going to be saving any money on this part of risk-based inspections," he said.

The department's 7,500 safety inspectors conducted some 9.2 million inspections at 6,000 plants last year, the AP said.

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Cocoa May Help Retain Brain Power: Researchers

Some types of cocoa products that are high in antioxidants known as flavonols may increase blood flow to the brain and help prevent loss of brain function and some types of dementia, researchers said.

Scientists from England's University of Nottingham announced their findings Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in San Francisco, the Associated Press reported.

In MRI studies, women who drank cocoa that was high in flavonols had a significant increase in blood flow to the brain, compared to women who didn't drink the cocoa, researcher Ian MacDonald and his colleagues told attendees. This could help people with early signs of dementia, which has been linked to a drop in blood flow to the brain, the wire service said.

But experts told the AP that commercially sold cocoa often has much of the flavonols removed, since they impart a bitter taste. They also noted that because many chocolate products are high in fat, people shouldn't rush out to consume large amounts.

"[Chocolate] can never be a health food, because we have a calorie problem," Harvard Medical School's Norman Hollenberg said.

Still, Hollenberg noted that manufacturers could strive to create cocoa products in which much of the fat is removed, but the flavonols are preserved. "I see a bright future for cocoa," he said.

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Chronic Back Pain Linked to Changes in Brain Process

Chronic pack pain has been linked to changes in the way the brain processes pain, according to BBC News.

The research, done by scientists from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, found a connection between those whose back pain is continuous and microstructural changes in the way the brain translated pain, the news service reports. The research was presented at the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting, in Chicago.

But the primary issue hasn't yet been resolved: Is the change in the brain -- a more complex and active microstructure -- caused by the back pain, or is the back pain caused by the change in the brain?

According to the BBC News report, that question is key in determining how a chronic back patient will be treated.

Co-author Gustav Schelling is quoted as saying "It's difficult to know whether these are pre-existing changes in the brain that predispose an individual to developing chronic pain, whether ongoing pain creates the hyperactivity that actually changes the brain organization, or if it is some mixture of both.

"DTI [diffusion tensor imaging -- the method used to find the brain changes] may help explain what's happening for some of these patients, and direct therapeutic attention from the spine to the brain."

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Hearing Loss a Big Problem Facing the Next Generation

The Baby Boomer generation and its progeny are facing a malady probably caused by their times and lifestyles -- hearing loss -- according to estimates given at a science convention over the weekend.

The Associated Press reports that members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science were told by audiologists and other scientists that by the year 2050, as many as 50 million Americans could be suffering from some degree of hearing loss.

Steven Greenberg of Silicon Speech in Santa Venetia, Calif., is quoted by the wire service as saying that research already shows young people with an impaired hearing rate 2 1/2 times that of their parents and grandparents.

The reason? Loud music and a noisy environment are two main factors, the AP quotes Stanford University scientist Stefan Heller as saying. Laboratory stem cell research has had some success, Heller said, but there hasn't been an absolute breakthrough. Restoration of damaged hearing cells is very much at the beginning and "it's still a long, long road," he is quoted as saying.

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18,000 Kids Die of Hunger Daily, U.N. Exec Says

Hunger and malnutrition kill 18,000 children daily around the world and 850 million people go to bed every night with empty stomachs, according to the leader of the U.N. food agency.

James Morris, executive director of the Rome-based World Food Program, said that while the percentage of people who are hungry and malnourished has decreased from a fifth of the world's population to a sixth of the population, the actual number of hungry people is growing by about 5 million people a year because of the rising population.

"Today, 850 million people are hungry and malnourished. Over half of them are children. 18,000 children die every single day because of hunger and malnutrition," Morris told the Associated Press. "This is a shameful fact -- a terrible indictment of the world in 2007, and it's an issue that needs to be solved."

Morris said the largest number of malnourished children are in India -- more than 100 million -- followed by almost 40 million in China. Elsewhere, there are probably 100 million hungry children in the rest of Asia, another 100 million in Africa where countries have fewer resources to help, and 30 million in Latin America, he added.

Morris, an American businessman who is leaving the agency in April, called for students and young people, faith-based groups, the business community and governments to join forces in a global movement to alleviate and eliminate hunger -- especially among children.

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