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Health Highlights: Oct. 31, 2006

Americans' Spending on Rx Drugs Doubles: Report Divorce Affects Rural Women's Health Canadian Female-Male MS Ratio Widens Levels of Hormone Cortisol Can Affect Morning Mood Scientists Use Stem Cells to Grow Tiny Livers in Lab Vaccine Protects Mice Against 'Superbug'

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

Americans' Spending on Rx Drugs Doubles: Report

The amount that Americans spend on outpatient prescription drugs almost doubled between 1999 and 2003, from $94 billion to $178 billion a year, according to statistics released Tuesday by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The overall $178 billion spent in 2003 was boosted in part by the increased percentage of Americans buying brand-name prescription drugs, the federal government report said. In 1999, 47.5 percent of Americans bought brand-name drugs, compared to about 53 percent in 2003.

Over the same period, there was little change in the proportion of Americans buying generic prescription drugs.

Between 1999 and 2003, purchases of brand-name prescription drugs increased from $75.5 billion to $141 billion, while spending on generic drugs rose from $19 billion to $37 billion.

The report also noted an increase between 1999 and 2003 in the average amount per prescription drug purchase: from $59.49 to $82.53 (39 percent increase) for brand-name drugs; and from $23.48 to $33.53 (43 percent increase) for generic drugs.

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Divorce Affects Rural Women's Health

Divorce can have a negative long-term impact on rural women's health, says an Iowa State University study.

The 10-year study included 416 rural Iowa women, including 102 who were recently divorced when the study began in the early 1990s.

"What we found was that the act of getting a divorce produced no immediate effects on (physical health), but it did have effects on mental health," study co-author Fred Lorenz told the Associated Press. "Ten years later, those effects on mental health led to effects in physical health."

In the years immediately after divorce, the divorced women reported 7 percent higher levels of psychological distress than married women, but did not report any higher levels of physical health problems at that time.

However, a decade later, the divorced women reported 37 percent more physical health problems -- ranging from colds and sore throats to cancer and heart conditions -- than the married women, the AP reported.

The findings suggest a connection between physical illness and divorce-associated stresses such as financial and parenting problems, Lorenz said. The study was published last summer in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

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Canadian Female-Male MS Ratio Widens

There's a growing gap in the ratio of Canadian women and men being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and environmental factors may be the reason, says a study in the November issue of The Lancet Neurology journal.

Among Canadians born in the 1930s, the ratio of women to men developing MS was about 2:1, the study said. For those born around 1980, there were more than three women with MS for every man, CBC News reported.

"This rapid change must have environmental origins, even if it is associated with a gene-environment interaction, and implies that a large proportion of multiple sclerosis cases may be preventable," the study authors wrote.

Canada has one of the highest rates of MS. About 1,000 Canadians are diagnosed with the disease each year and more than 75,000 are living with the disease, CBC News reported.

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Levels of Hormone Cortisol Can Affect Morning Mood

If you go to bed feeling lonely and sad but wake up the next morning full of positive energy, it could be due to hormonal changes in your body while you sleep, say researchers at Northwestern University.

They studied levels of the stress hormone cortisol in 156 people, ages 54 to 71. Cortisol increases blood sugar levels and blood pressure in response to stress and can also cause changes in mood and memory.

The study found that cortisol levels tend to fall at bedtime but are usually high when people wake up and increase during the first 30 minutes after getting out of bed, BBC News reported.

"You've gone to bed with loneliness, sadness, feelings of being overwhelmed, then along comes a boost of hormones in the morning to give you the energy you need to meet the demands of the day," said lead researcher Emma Adam.

The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Scientists Use Stem Cells to Grow Tiny Livers in Lab

British scientists used umbilical-cord stem cells to grow small artificial livers in the laboratory, a breakthrough that could be the first step in being able to grow full-sized livers for human transplants.

These tiny livers -- smaller than a penny -- can already be used for drug testing, reducing the need to conduct such tests on humans and animals, The Times of London reported.

The Newcastle University scientists placed the umbilical-cord stem cells in a bioreactor, a device developed by NASA to mimic the effects of weightlessness. In this gravity-free environment, the stem cells were able to multiple more quickly than normal. The scientists added hormones and chemicals to instruct the stem cells to turn into liver tissue.

"We cannot build a full-sized [liver] yet -- that will take about 10 years -- but this is the first important step," researcher Nico Forraz told The Times. "And we have excellent facilities... to be able to make this happen. We expect this to really take off within the next 18 months or so."

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Vaccine Protects Mice Against 'Superbug'

A vaccine being developed to guard against the dangerous hospital "superbug" MRSA shows promise, U.S. researchers say.

They found that the vaccine protected mice against four potentially lethal strains of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). The vaccine provided between 60 percent and 100 percent immunity, depending on the strain of MRSA, BBC News reported.

The results appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers said this success could lead to a human vaccine against MRSA, but added that more work is needed before that happens, BBC News reported.

MRSA outbreaks often occur in hospitals because many patients have weakened immune systems. The superbug is difficult to fight because it has developed a resistance to a number of antibiotics.

This experimental vaccine uses four MRSA proteins that prompt a strong immune response from the body. More research needs to be done to better understand the mechanism of the vaccine and to determine if it would be effective in humans, BBC News reported.

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