Health Highlights: Sept. 14, 2007

U.S. to Allow Imports of Older Canadian Cattle Gene Activity May Cause Poor Health in Lonely People: Study High Gas Prices May Lower Obesity Rate Experts Challenge Study on Youth Suicide San Francisco Offers Free Health Care to Uninsured Preventable Diseases Could Claim 36 Million Lives a Year by 2015: WHO

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

U.S. to Allow Imports of Older Canadian Cattle

The risk of mad cow disease from Canada is negligible and, as of Nov. 19, older Canadian cattle and meat products made from them will be allowed again into the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday.

In May 2003, U.S. borders were closed to all Canadian cattle and beef products after the first case of mad cow was reported in Canada, CBC News reported. In July 2005, the United States started to allow imports of Canadian cattle under the age of 30 months, which were believed to be at less risk for contracting the disease than older cattle.

Friday's announcement applies to cows born on or after March 1, 1999 and meat products made from those animals, CBC News reported.

"This rule is firmly based on science and ensures that we continue to protect the U.S. against BSE," (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the medical term for "mad cow") Bruce Knight, U.S. undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in a prepared statement. "It also is consistent with our commitment to promote fair trade practices and further normalizes trade with countries that institute the appropriate safeguards to prevent the spread of BSE."

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Gene Activity May Cause Poor Health in Lonely People: Study

A possible genetic cause of poor health in lonely people has been identified by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.

They found that certain genes -- many of them with links to the immune system and inflammation -- are more active in people who feel socially isolated, BBC News reported. Previous studies have shown an association between lack of social support and health problems such as heart disease.

The authors of the new study assessed levels of social interaction of 14 people and examined gene activity in their white blood cells. Various genes tended to be overexpressed in people who were classified as lonely, BBC News reported.

"What this shows us is that the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most important basic internal processes -- the activity of our genes," said study leader Dr. Steven Cole. "These findings provide molecular targets for our efforts to block the adverse health effects of social isolation."

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High Gas Prices May Lower Obesity Rate

Soaring gas prices may help reduce the high rate of obesity in the United States, suggests a health economics researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.

In his study, Ph.D. student Charles Courtemanche wrote that "a $1 (U.S.) increase in gas prices would, after three years, reduce U.S. obesity by approximately 15 percent, saving 16,000 lives and $17 billion a year."

He said higher gas prices would convince more people to walk, cycle or use public transit (which involves walking to and from a bus or rail stop) instead of driving, the Toronto Star reported. In addition, high gas prices may encourage people to eat healthier home-cooked meals more often, instead of driving to restaurants.

He also estimated that a decline in real gas prices contributed to 13 percent of the growth in the U.S. obesity rate between 1979 and 2004. Courtemanche reached his conclusions after analyzing average fuel prices and U.S. government-reported health trends, the Star reported.

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Experts Challenge Study on Youth Suicide Rates

A number of experts are questioning a recent study that linked a 2004 increase in children's suicides to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning about the use of antidepressants in youngsters, The New York Times reported.

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggested that as a result of the FDA warning, severely depressed teens may not have received needed treatment.

However, outside experts say data in the study do not support that theory, the Times reported. The experts noted that the data in the study shows that while there was a 14 percent increase in suicides among Americans ages 19 and younger in 2004, there was not a substantial decline in the number of antidepressant prescriptions for that age group.

There was a sharp decline in antidepressant prescription rates for minors in 2005, but data on suicide rates for that year are not yet available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There doesn't seem to be any evidence of a statistically significant association between suicide rates and prescription rates provided in the paper" for the years after the FDA warnings, Thomas R. Ten Have, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times.

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San Francisco Offers Free Health Care to Uninsured

San Francisco has launched a new program that offers free or subsidized health care to all of the city's 82,000 adults without health insurance.

Healthy San Francisco, financed mostly by the city, is the first attempt by a locality to guarantee health care to all uninsured adult citizens, The New York Times reported.

The program underwent a two-month trial at two clinics in Chinatown, and is scheduled to become available at 20 more locations across the city on Sept. 17. The 14 city health clinics and eight affiliated community clinics involved in the program will emphasize prevention and management of chronic diseases.

So far, more than 1,300 people have enrolled in the program, and city officials hope to have 45,000 people sign up in the first year of the initiative, the Times reported.

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Preventable Diseases Could Claim 36 Million Lives a Year by 2015: WHO

Unless action is taken, the number of deaths from preventable "lifestyle" diseases worldwide will double to 36 million annually by 2015, says the World Health Organization.

The WHO noted that about 17 million people die prematurely each year from largely preventable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and obesity, Agence France-Presse reported.

"Unless national interventions are urgently taken to reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases, 36 million people will die of these diseases by 2015, nearly half of them before they turn 70," Shigeru Omi, director of the WHO regional committee for the Western Pacific, said Friday as the committee completed a five-day meeting in South Korea.

Most of these diseases are caused by known and preventable risk factors -- unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use. Omi said a "whole-of-society" approach is needed to deal with this issue, AFP reported.

"All sectors, from government to private enterprises, civil society and communities, will have to work together," Omi said.

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