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Health Highlights: Sept. 12, 2006

Medicare Premium Hike for 2007 Lower Than Expected People With Disabilities Are Less Healthy: CDC Hospitalizations for Digestive Disorders Rise Airline Travel Could Hasten Flu's Spread Antidepressant Linked to Violent Behavior

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

Medicare Premium Hike for 2007 Lower Than Expected

The typical monthly premium for Medicare beneficiaries next year will rise to $93.50, a lower-than-expected increase of 5.6 percent, the Associated Press reported.

Officials had been predicting that the increase could hit double digits, the wire service said. The lower figure resulted from an unexpected recent drop in the volume of services and diagnostic tests ordered by doctors.

Wealthier beneficiaries -- the 1.5 million people who earn above $80,000 -- will see a first-ever surcharge in 2007, bringing their monthly premium to $106, the AP said. And the wealthiest seniors could see their premium shoot up to $162.

The surcharge was created as part of the 2003 law that established the landmark prescription drug benefit for Medicare participants.

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People With Disabilities Are Less Healthy: CDC

Nearly 40 percent of Americans with disabilities say they are in fair or poor health, compared with only 8.2 percent of those without disabilities who rate their health as fair or poor, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report released Tuesday.

The prevalence of disabilities varied dramatically from state to state, the agency said in releasing its first-ever report that focused on the disability issue by state. States with the highest percentages of disabled people included West Virginia (25.8 percent), Kentucky (24.7 percent) and Oregon (23.7 percent).

States with the lowest percentages of disability included Hawaii (11.4 percent), North Dakota (15.9 percent) and Illinois (15.9 percent).

The report examined five factors, including smoking, obesity, physical activity, immunizations, and access to health care for adults 18 and older in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three U.S. territories.

Smoking was highest in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana, while obesity rates were greatest in Mississippi, Indiana, and North Carolina, the report said.

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Hospitalizations for Digestive Disorders Rise

The number of people hospitalized for gastrointestinal (GI) disorders rose by more than one-third between 1994 and 2004, a new U.S. government report shows.

Some 2.5 million Americans were admitted to hospitals in 2004 for GI disorders, accounting for 7 percent of all hospital stays that year, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

The two greatest increases in hospitalizations were attributed to enteritis -- a bacterial inflammation of the small intestine -- and ulcerative colitis -- a condition that causes sores in the colon, the agency said.

It cost U.S. hospitals $20 billion to treat GI disorders in 2004. Medicare was billed for more than half of all stays for the three most common GI problems -- intestinal obstruction, diverticulosis, and gastrointestinal hemorrhage, according to the agency, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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Airline Travel Could Hasten Flu's Spread

Airplane travel during flu season has a significant impact on influenza's spread, and limiting such travel could help stem a pandemic, researchers say.

Scientists at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard University compared flu deaths in 122 cities to airline-travel trends during nine flu seasons between 1996 and 2005, The New York Times reported. The researchers found a link between fluctuations in travel and how quickly flu appeared to spread.

The link appeared particularly significant in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when a temporary flight ban was imposed and airline travel was at its lowest level than at any other time during the study period.

Overall, the researchers found that the number of travelers -- notably between September and November each year -- was directly related to the timing and severity of the annual U.S. flu season, the newspaper reported.

Travel during the Thanksgiving holiday, in particular, was a "central event" in determining how quickly flu spread, the Times reported. The fewer domestic passengers that traveled during the holiday, the slower flu moved across the country.

The study authors acknowledged that their research depended largely on voluntary reports, which aren't always reliable, the Times said. The research appears in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) - Medicine.

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Antidepressant Linked to Violent Behavior

Study participants who took the antidepressant Paxil (paroxetine) were twice as likely to have violent episodes as those who took a placebo, a British study concludes.

The GlaxoSmithKline drug is among a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which prior research has linked to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

The new study from researchers at Cardiff University and the Cochrane Centre is published on the Public Library of Science (PLoS) - Medicine Web site. The scientists studied data provided by several sources, including Glaxo, according to Britain's The Guardian newspaper.

"The new issues highlighted by these cases need urgent examination in all countries where antidepressants are widely used," the researchers wrote.

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