Health Highlights: Sept. 17, 2008

3rd Infant Dies, More Than 6,000 Sickened in China's Baby Formula Scandal U.S. Hospital Charges Increase to $943 Billion Regular Walking Reduces Octogenarians' Risk of Death/Serious Illness Finger Length Linked to Desire to Exercise: Study Drug Cuts Spinal Fracture Risk 68 Percent Alzheimer's Drug Study Produces Inconclusive Results

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

3rd Infant Dies, More Than 6,000 Sickened in China's Baby Formula Scandal

A third baby has died and the number of infants sickened in China's tainted baby formula scandal has jumped to 6,244, with more than 1,300 hospitalized, including 158 suffering from acute kidney failure, wire reports say.

The grim news Wednesday was coupled with an announcement that China's biggest dairy is one of three companies that have joined the massive recall of infant milk formula after the chemical melamine was found by health officials, the Associated Press reports.

Mengniu Dairy said Wednesday it's recalling three batches of baby formula made in January but didn't say how much product was included in the recall or whether any of the formula was exported, AP reported.

The two other companies joining the recall of infant formula are Guangdong-based Yashili and Qingdao-based Suncare. The first recall was issued last week by Sanlu Group Co., which began receiving complaints as early as March and confirmed the presence of melamine in its infant formula in early August. Sanlu officials apologized for the delay in alerting the public but did not explain why they waited so long to take action.

Chinese officials said about 20 percent of dairy companies tested nationwide had sold products tainted with melamine, the AP reported. It's believed the chemical, used to make plastics, was added by suppliers to watered-down milk to make it appear to have a higher protein content.

Melamine from China was also at the heart of the huge pet food recall in North America last year, which sickened or killed hundreds of animals.

In response to the current scandal, 1,400 teams with 5,000 inspectors have been assigned to oversee production at all companies that make baby milk, the Chinese government said.

This is the second major scandal in recent years involving Chinese-made baby formula, the AP reported. In 2004, phony formula that contained no nutrients was linked to more than 200 cases of malnutrition and at least 12 infant deaths.

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U.S. Hospital Charges Increase to $943 Billion

From 2005 to 2006, U.S. hospital charges for patients increased from $873 billion to $943 billion, even though hospital admissions increased only slightly, from 39.2 million to 39.5 million, according to a new government report released Wednesday.

The report, by the Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research, also noted that the largest percentage increase was among uninsured patients.

Hospital charges include what patients are billed for their rooms, nursing care, diagnostic tests and other services. Uninsured patients are expected to pay the full amount, while insured patients and their health plans pay less than the full charge.

The report listed the following increases in hospital charges between 2005 and 2006:

  • 15 percent for people with no insurance, from $38 billion to $44 billion.
  • 9 percent for Medicaid patients, from $124 billion to $135 billion.
  • 8 percent for Medicare patients, from $411 billion to $444 billion.
  • 6 percent for patients with private insurance, from $272 billion to $287 billion.

The data comes from The National Bill: The Most Expensive Conditions by Payer, 2006, a report based on statistics from the 2006 Nationwide Inpatient Sample, a database of hospital in-patient stays.

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Regular Walking Reduces Octogenarians' Risk of Death/Serious Illness

Compared to less active peers, octogenarians who walk an hour or more a day are less likely to die or suffer serious illness, says a study that included 248 Italians, average age 85.9 years, who lived in a mountain community.

During the two-year study, 12 percent of the participants died. The death rate was one-third lower among those who walked more than an hour a day, Agence France Presse reported.

The study also found that participants who walked an hour or more a day were less likely to be depressed or to have cognitive impairment, heart problems, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Preventive Medicine.

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Finger Length Linked to Desire to Exercise: Study

There may be a link between differences in finger length and motivation to exercise, suggests a study by American and Canadian researchers who analyzed differences in activity levels between normal mice and selectively bred, active mice.

Overall, the more active mice had a higher ratio of the length of the digit finger divided by the ring finger.

The results indicate a strong association between digit length, voluntary exercise and high levels of prenatal stress hormones, said the University of Alberta and University of California, Riverside researchers, United Press International reported.

They found that prenatal stress, rather than prenatal testosterone levels in the womb, plays a role in a natural desire for physical activity.

"The research shows a link, or relationship, between the brain, behavior and personality traits and the shape of the hand," lead researcher Peter Hurd, of the University of Alberta, said in a news release, UPI reported. "It opens the door to the notion that aspects of one's personality, in this case the desire to exercise, are fixed very early in life."

The study appears in the journal PLoS One.

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Drug Cuts Spinal Fracture Risk 68 Percent

In women with osteoporosis, the experimental bone drug denosumab reduced the risk of spinal fractures by 68 percent, the risk of hip fractures by 40 percent, and the risk of all fractures outside the spine by 20 percent, according to a study released Tuesday by drug maker Amgen.

The study of 7,800 postmenopausal women found that 2.3 percent of those who took the drug suffered a vertebral fracture, compared with 7.2 percent of those who took a placebo. That 68 percent relative risk reduction compares favorably with the 40 to 50 percent reductions achieved in clinical trials by drugs currently used to treat osteoporosis, The New York Times reported.

The 40 percent reduced risk of hip fracture noted in women who took denosumab is as good or better than that results seen with other drugs.

However, the study did find that 4.3 percent of women who took denosumab suffered serious infections, compared with 3.4 percent of those who took the placebo. While not statistically significant, the increased risk of infection could concern government regulators, The Times reported.

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. It's expected Amgen will apply for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of denosumab by early next year.

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Alzheimer's Drug Study Produces Inconclusive Results

Disappointing results from a midstage study on the experimental Alzheimer's drug AZD3480 were announced Monday by U.S.-based Targacept Inc. and U.K.-based AstraZeneca.

The findings from the 567-patient study were inconclusive because data from both AZD3480 and the comparison drug donepezil (brand name Aricept) weren't statistically significant. In addition, patients who took a placebo showed an improvement in brain function, the Associated Press reported.

The unclear results mean another midstage clinical trial may be needed.

It's likely the future of AZD3480's development will be decided in December, AstraZeneca said.

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