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Health Highlights: March 17, 2003

Medicare Moves Toward Insolvency: Trustees Moynihan in Stable Condition Mouth Stem Cells May Help Treat Damaged Eyes Ground Zero Air Quality Disputed 1.7 Billion People Are Obese: Global Group Not Enough U.S. Adult Day Care Centers: Survey

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

Medicare Moves Toward Insolvency: Trustees

The Medicare insurance program for the elderly has moved four years closer to insolvency, its trustees reported Monday.

As the baby boomer generation matures toward age 65 and prepares to begin tapping the program, it is now due to become insolvent in 2026. That projection is moved up by four years from last year's estimate, reports the Associated Press. The trustees cite factors including lower tax receipts, rising unemployment, and higher costs for inpatient hospital care.

The trustees of the Social Security program say it is actually slightly healthier than it was a year ago. They've extended the projected insolvency date a year to 2042 from the estimate made last year.

But the trustees, warning that "inaction is not an option," say the longer the government waits to find a solution to both crises, the more difficult the challenge becomes.

In response to the report, President Bush issued a statement saying that Congress needs to follow his suggestions for revamping both programs. Bush has proposed turning much of the Medicare program over to private insurers to keep costs down through competition. As for Social Security, Bush's plan includes allowing workers to invest their contributions in self-managed retirement accounts, the AP reports.

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Moynihan in Stable Condition

Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who developed an infection after an emergency appendectomy, was reported in critical but stable condition Monday.

Moynihan, 76, had the appendectomy March 11 at the Washington Hospital Center and was recovering well until last Thursday, when an infection set in, the Associated Press reports.

Doctors believe they have the infection stabilized and say Moynihan hasn't suffered any irreversible damage.

Moynihan was hospitalized in January for an intestinal disorder and then again for a back injury. He was first elected to the Senate in 1976 and completed his fourth and final term in 2000.

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Mouth Stem Cells May Help Treat Damaged Eyes

Stem cells from the mouth may be used to repair damaged eyes, Japanese scientists say.

Researchers at the Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine say they've found a way to encourage stem cells taken from a patient's mouth to grow into corneal cells that can be transplanted into the eye, BBC News Online reports.

Since the cells come from the patient's own body, the immune system doesn't try to reject them. That eliminates the need for anti-rejection drugs.

The treatment is only in the early stages of human trials but shows some promising success, the Japanese scientists say.

Their research was presented at a recent meeting of the Japanese Society for Regenerative Medicine in Kobe.

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Ground Zero Air Quality Disputed

Air quality tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Ground Zero in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did not support the agency's own contention that the air was safe to breathe, according to documents obtained by the Sacramento Bee newspaper.

The EPA's inspector general says the agency used air quality standards that were as much as 100 times more lax than what it normally considers acceptable in announcing that the air was safe, the Bee says. The inspector general's report is expected to be published in May.

Studies of 3,500 Ground Zero rescue workers a year after the attacks showed more than half continued to suffer from respiratory problems of the lungs, nose and throat. The rescue effort involved 40,000 workers, including firefighters, demolition experts and volunteers.

The Office of the Inspector General is an independent body that reports directly to Congress.

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1.7 Billion People Are Obese, Global Group Says

As many as 1.7 billion people worldwide are obese or grossly overweight, according to the London-based International Obesity Taskforce.

The number is about 50 percent larger than previous estimates, concedes IOTF chairman Prof. Phillip James. He says the common statistics ignore his group's contention that Asian people should be judged by a lower standard, because they are more susceptible than other groups to weight-related disorders.

Speaking at a meeting of international obesity specialists in Monte Carlo, James said appropriate medical treatment is rarely offered to manage obesity. But even modest weight reduction and healthy diet steps could make a significant impact on a person's risk of contracting illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.

The World Health Report 2002 estimates that more than 2.5 million deaths annually are weight-related, a figure that could double to 5 million by 2020, it warns.

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Not Enough U.S. Adult Day Care Centers, Survey Finds

More than half of the 3,000 counties in the United States don't have enough adult day care centers, the author of a new survey tells HealthDay.

Though there are 3,407 centers that offer the elderly daily cultural activities, health care and other benefits, about 5,000 more are needed, says study leader Nancy J. Cox, director of a adult day care resource center at Wake Forest University. And many of the existing centers are underutilized, she says.

Daily adult care centers are very popular with both the elderly and their families, experts tell HealthDay, as they provide daily care while letting older people stay at home or with their grown children. "They are viable, cost-effective, community-based facilities that keep people at home with family and friends for as long as possible," Cox says.

Her survey finds that most center attendees live with an adult child (35 percent) or a spouse (20 percent), and the average usage is three visits per week.

"People don't realize the level of sophistication at the centers. They are not babysitting services," Cox says.

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