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Health Highlights: Jan. 2, 2007

Trauma of War Boosts Heart-Attack Risk for Aging Veterans: Study Competitive Surfing Safer Than Soccer, Basketball: Study Genetically Engineered Cattle Without Mad-Cow Prion Developed Obstetrics Group Recommends Expanding Down Syndrome Tests Heart Disease Still Plagues Southern States

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

Trauma of War Boosts Heart-Attack Risk for Aging Veterans: Study

Two new studies on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show that veterans from World War II through the conflict in Iraq likely have a greater risk of heart attack as they age and also report worse physical health, more doctor visits and more missed workdays, the Associated Press reported.

The first study, by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Boston University and published in the Jan. 1 Archives of General Psychiatry, joins existing evidence that veterans with PTSD also have more autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and psoriasis. "The burden of war may be even greater than people think,'' said lead author Laura Kubzansky of Harvard, who studies anxiety, depression and anger as risk factors for heart disease.

The second study, funded by the U.S. Army, was based on a survey of 2,863 soldiers one year after returning from combat in Iraq. The findings were published in the Jan. 1 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The groundbreaking Harvard study examined 1,946 male veterans from World War II and Korea, gleaned through data from the Veterans Administration Normative Aging Study, a long-term research project tracking Boston-area vets. Although the men had different levels of PTSD symptoms, very few had enough symptoms for a true diagnosis, Kubzansky said. The study needs to be repeated to see if the findings hold true for PTSD-diagnosed veterans, and for women, she added.

Dr. Gary J. Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, called the Harvard study "impressive." Kennedy, who was not involved in the research, said, "We've got a whole generation of veterans coming back [from Iraq and Afghanistan] and their health needs are just going to be tremendous." He added that one symptom of PTSD is avoiding activity, which could account for some of the effect on the heart.

Medical authorities first accepted post-traumatic stress disorder as a psychiatric condition in 1980 at the urging of Vietnam veterans, the AP reported. In PTSD, the body's normal hormonal response to stress becomes trigger-happy, scientists believe. Long after traumatic events, people remain edgy and prone to nightmares and flashbacks. The continual release of adrenaline prompted by these symptoms may wear down the cardiovascular system, Kubzansky said.

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Competitive Surfing Safer Than Soccer, Basketball: Study

New research shows that the rate of injury among competitive surfers is less than that found among collegiate soccer or basketball players.

Collecting injury data from 32 surfing contests worldwide, both professional and amateur, researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I., found a relatively low risk of injury -- 6.6 significant injuries per 1,000 hours of surfing -- compared to other sports for which comparable data was available. "Significant" injuries were defined as those that prevented the surfer from surfing for one or more days, resulted in a hospital visit, or required on-site suturing, lead author Dr. Andrew Nathanson, an emergency medicine physician at Rhode Island Hospital's Injury Prevention Center, said in a prepared statement on Tuesday.

"Sprains and strains to the lower extremities, particularly the knees, were found to be the most common injuries reported. This is likely due to the aggressive turning and aerial maneuvers, which score highly in competitions, but also appear to place high stress on a surfer's knee," Nathanson said. "However, the risk of injury more than doubled when surfing in large waves or over an area with a hard bottom."

Establishing an injury rate for surfing was not just of academic or general interest, the study noted, but has implications for the insurance industry and for schools that may want to start a surfing team, the researchers said.

The findings are published in the January issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

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Genetically Engineered Cattle Without Mad-Cow Prion Developed

Scientists have used genetic engineering techniques to produce the first cattle biologically incapable of getting mad cow disease.

The breakthrough, published online in the journal Nature Biotechnology Sunday, was done by Hematech Inc., a unit of Japan's Kirin Brewery Co., and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bloomberg News reported.

Researchers found that cows bred without the so-called prion protein were healthy at age 20 months and their tissue showed signs of resistance to mad-cow disease, a brain-wasting illness that has been linked to almost 200 human deaths in the past decade.

The findings suggest that genetic modifications can protect cattle from mad-cow disease, potentially eradicating the threat to livestock and the people who eat them or use products made from them. James Robl, president of Hematech, told Bloomberg that the company hopes to sell its research to agriculture or industry groups.

Knocking out the gene for mad-cow disease, also called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a "side project'' for Hematech's efforts to develop human medicines in cows, Robl said. Kirin, Japan's largest beverage maker, announced in May 2004 that it planned to produce drugs based on human antibodies grown in cattle.

For the study, scientists bred a dozen prion-free bulls and then tested a sample of their tissue at age 20 months by mixing it in a lab with tissue from an animal that had died of mad-cow disease. The altered cows' tissue didn't become contaminated, while tissue from conventional cows did.

Robl said the final verdict on mad-cow immunity will come in the next year after scientists complete a study injecting contaminated tissue directly into the brains of live animals.

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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."

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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.

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