Health Highlights: June 22, 2008

Sleep Problems in Elderly May Be Helped by Tai Chi Chih New Threat From Bird Flu: Food Shortages VA Says It Will Improve Care For Female Veterans Blueberries May Lower Cholesterol U.S. Motorcycle Deaths More Than Doubled Since 1997 Some Artificial Turf Fields Should Be Tested For Lead: CDC

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

Sleep Problems in Elderly May Be Helped by Tai Chi Chih

For the more than half of all Americans over age 59 who complain about not being able to fall asleep easily, the answer may rest with a 2,000 year old Chinese series of movements.

Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles found that the 19 moves and one pose found in tai chi chih -- the Western version of the ancient philosophy that combines movements and poses to relieve stress and find spiritual fulfillment -- actually allowed study subjects to improve their sleep patterns.

The 112 older adults in the study who ranged in age from 59 to 86 were divided into two groups, one taking tai chi chih instruction and the other group taking classes that included stress management, diet and advice on improving sleep patterns.

According to a UCLA news release, the tai chi chih group "showed improved sleep quality and a remission of clinical impairments, such as drowsiness during the day and inability to concentrate, compared with those receiving health education."

"It's [tai chi chih] a form of exercise virtually every elderly person can do, and this study provides more across-the-board evidence of its health benefits," said lead study author Dr. Michael Irwin, the Norman Cousins Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, in the news release.

The study is available in the online edition of the journal Sleep.


New Threat From Bird Flu: Food Shortages

A new warning has come about the deadly strain of avian flu that has caused the destruction of hundreds of millions of poultry around the world, especially in Asia.

But this time, the Associated Press reports, the threat is not so much whether the H5N1 strain will mutate into a virus that could infect millions of humans, but rather whether the destruction it has already caused will create a food shortage.

Communicable disease experts meeting at an infectious disease conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia acknowledged that H5N1 keeps erupting, even after local health officials believe they've brought an outbreak under control. "It's like a boiling pot, and we need to keep the lid on that before it gets worse," UN representative Juan Lubroth told the A.P.

Lubroth said that more than 240 million birds have been destroyed because of H5N1, and for poor people who raise their own food, the scarcity of poultry as a cheep protein source could cause hardship and hunger.

Insofar as the H5N1 strain mutating so that it can be spread from human to human, officials warned that possibility still remains, the wire service reported.

The disease is indeed deadly when humans become infected, the A.P. said, with 241 out of 385 who contracted it since 2003 dying. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Julie Gerberding warned against complacency.

"People have very short attention spans, and when something is in the news for a while, it becomes old news and then it's no news," the A.P. quotes her as saying.


VA Says It Will Improve Care For Female Veterans

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is working to eliminate disparities in care offered to female and male veterans, VA Secretary James Peake said Friday.

He was responding to last week's disclosure of a VA internal review, which found that about one-third of 139 VA facilities that offer outpatient care don't provide female veterans with the same quality of care as males.

"We are making a full-court press to ensure that women veterans receive the highest quality of care," Peake said at the National Summit on Women Veteran's Issues, the Associated Press reported.

In his speech, he said the VA recognizes that 86 percent of female veterans from recent conflicts are younger than age 40 and have health needs related to having children. The agency is spending about $32 million for equipment specific to women's health needs, Peake said.

He noted women make up about 14 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces, the AP reported.


Blueberries May Lower Cholesterol

Blueberries may significantly lower cholesterol and protect the heart, according to Canadian researchers who conducted tests on pigs fed different kinds of blueberry-supplemented diets.

All of the diets reduced overall cholesterol levels, but some were more effective than others, United Press International reported.

"In feeding trials, we found that blueberry supplementation reduced plasma cholesterol levels more effectively when the animals received a mostly plant-based diet than when they received a less heart-healthy diet," lead scientist Wilhelmina Kalt said in a prepared statement. "The soy, oats and barley contained in these diets may have functioned synergistically with the blueberries to beneficially affect plasma lipids."

The greatest reduction in cholesterol levels was seen in pigs fed a two percent blueberry diet. In people, that would be equivalent to about two one-cup servings per day.

The study appears in the British Journal of Nutrition.


U.S. Motorcycle Deaths More Than Doubled Since 1997

Between 1997 and 2006, motorcycle deaths in the United States increased from 2,110 to 4,810, a Governors Highway Safety Association study found.

From 2005 to 2006, motorcycle deaths increased in 27 states and Puerto Rico. The study also said that 15 states accounted for 67 percent of all U.S. motorcycle deaths in 2006 and that in 2004, 2005, and 2006, nearly one-third of all fatalities occurred in California, Texas and Florida, United Press International reported.

Despite clear evidence that proper helmet use saves lives, there is a patchwork of helmet laws in the country, poor enforcement, and a lack of helmet promotion, the study found. In states with partial or no helmet laws, most riders who died weren't wearing helmets.

In 2006, 25 percent of riders killed in motorcycle crashes didn't have a valid license, compared with 13 percent of drivers of passenger vehicles, UPI reported.


Some Artificial Turf Fields Should Be Tested For Lead: CDC

Some artificial turf athletic fields should be tested for the lead, says a health advisory posted on the Web site of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency said any field containing worn or faded turf blades that are made of nylon or nylon-blend fibers should be tested, as well as nylon fields with visible dust, the Associated Press reported.

Testing doesn't need to be done on artificial fields made from polyethylene or nylon fields that aren't visibly worn, the CDC said.

The advisory was issued two months after health officials in New Jersey found high lead levels in artificial turf fibers from three athletic fields. They also determined that lead in the turf can be absorbed by people.

While the lead levels weren't high enough to cause poisoning in people who play on the fields, these levels could cause additional health damage to children already exposed to lead, said New Jersey epidemiologist Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, the AP reported.


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