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Health Highlights: Jan. 24, 2007

Heart Meds Costliest Class of Drugs in 2004: U.S. Report New Generation Birth-Control Pills Highly Effective: FDAFetal Nicotine Exposure Causes Brain Changes Linked to Addiction High-Fiber Diet May Cut Breast Cancer Risk: Study Many High School Football Players Overweight: Study Zoo Reports 'Virgin Birth' of 5 Komodo Dragons

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

Heart Meds Costliest Class of Drugs in 2004: U.S. Report

American adults spent $32 billion on cardiovascular drugs in 2004, making them the costliest class of prescription drugs for people age 18 and over, according to a U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) report released Wednesday.

The other classes of drugs in the top five were: hormones ($25 billion); central nervous system drugs used to treat pain and control seizures ($24 billion); cholesterol-lowering medications ($22 billion); antidepressants and other psychotherapeutic drugs ($18 billion).

In total, these five classes of drugs accounted for two-thirds of the $181 billion spent by American adults on outpatient prescription drugs in 2004.

The AHRQ also found that the top five classes of drugs prescribed for Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older in 2004 were: cardiovascular drugs ($17 billion); cholesterol-lowering drugs ($10 billion); hormones ($8 billion); central nervous system drugs ($7 billion); gastrointestinal drugs ($6 billion).

Spending on these drugs accounted for about 75 percent of the $65 billion spent on all prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older in 2004.


New Generation Birth-Control Pills Highly Effective: FDA

Recent news stories have created misconceptions about the effectiveness of newer generation birth-control pills, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The agency said the stories inaccurately reported that the newer birth-control pills are much less effective at preventing pregnancy than pills that were approved decades ago. In fact, the newer products are highly effective at preventing pregnancy, the FDA said in a news release issued Tuesday.

The agency also said the news stories mistakenly reported that a meeting this week of the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee was called to discuss the need for higher standards of effectiveness for newer generation birth-control pills.

In fact, the two-day meeting was called to discuss clinical trial designs that reflect the diversity of birth-control pill users, expectations for effectiveness and safety, and user acceptability of newer generation products, the FDA said.

The advisers concluded Wednesday that birth-control pills sometimes fail, but setting limits on how often that could happen would put newer, low-dose contraceptives off limits to women, the Associated Press reported.


Fetal Nicotine Exposure Causes Brain Changes Linked to Addiction

Smokers who are trying to quit may find it especially difficult if their mother smoked during pregnancy, say researchers at Duke University Medical Center.

It's known that exposure to nicotine in the womb alters areas of the brain that play important roles in learning, memory and reward. This new study suggests that these changes may program the brain for relapse to nicotine addiction.

The Duke team found that rodents that were exposed to nicotine while in the womb self-administered more nicotine after periods without the drug than rodents that had no prenatal exposure to nicotine. The findings were published online this week in the journal Pharmacology.

The study results suggest that pregnant women should not smoke or use nicotine products such as patches or gums, the researchers said.

"Smoking during pregnancy can harm the baby in ways that extend far beyond preterm delivery or low birth weight. It causes changes in the brain development of the baby that can last a lifetime," lead investigator Edward Levin, professor of biological psychiatry, said in a prepared statement.


High-Fiber Diet May Cut Breast Cancer Risk: Study

Eating large amounts of fiber could help premenopausal women reduce their risk of breast cancer by half, suggests a British study in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The University of Leeds study of 35,000 pre- and postmenopausal women found that those who ate 30 grams of fiber a day were half as likely to develop breast cancer as women who ate less than 20 grams of fiber a day, BBC News reported.

A high-fiber diet did not reduce breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women.

The women were ages 35 to 69 at the start of the study and were followed for seven years. They ate a wide range of diets. The positive effect noted in premenopausal women may be linked to how fiber influences the activity of the female hormone estrogen, the researchers said. Premenopausal women have higher estrogen levels than postmenopausal women, BBC News reported.

In order to consume 30 grams of fiber a day, a person needs to have high-fiber cereal for breakfast, have five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and switch from white or brown bread to wholegrain bread.


Many High School Football Players Overweight: Study

Overweight linemen are common on U.S. pro and college football teams, and that trend is showing up on high school teams, according to an Iowa State University study.

The researchers collected data on the height and weight of 3,686 high school varsity linemen in Iowa and calculated the players' body mass index, BMI, a ratio of weight to height. The study found that nearly half of the offensive and defensive linemen were overweight, and one in 10 was severely obese, the Associated Press reported.

The findings were published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"These are 15- and 16-year-old boys that have a weight and body mass... that as they enter adulthood puts many at a very adverse health condition," study co-author Dr. Joe Eisenmann, professor of pediatric exercise physiology, told the AP.

The researchers said they don't believe the issue of overweight high school football players is unique to Iowa.

"I suspect that states with an even richer high school football tradition, like Florida and Texas, may have an even bigger problem," said study co-author Kelly Laurson, a graduate assistant.


Zoo Reports 'Virgin Birth' of 5 Komodo Dragons

The "virgin birth" of five offspring to a Komodo dragon in a British zoo offers new hope for captive breeding of the endangered species, the Associated Press reported.

The mother, Flora, became pregnant without mating with a male. Instead, she used an asexual process called pathenogenesis to fertilize her own eggs. After an eight-month gestation period, the eggs began cracking last week. The hatching of the eggs was completed Tuesday with the emergence of the fifth baby dragon, said staff at Chester Zoo in northern England.

All the young dragons are in good health, and are between 15.5 and 17.5 inches, the AP reported.

The only other recorded case of pathogenesis in a Komodo dragon occurred in a female named Sungai, who lives at London Zoo. She had offspring in April 2006.

This birthing ability could improve the chances of survival for the species. There are fewer than 4,000 Komodo dragons left in the wild.


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