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Health Highlights: Jan. 18, 2005

Citing Errors, U.S. Lowers Obesity Death Toll Busy Breast Screening Centers May Be Best for Mammograms Brain Protein Linked to Cocaine Craving in Rats Mass. Weight-Loss Surgery Patients Need Better Follow-up: Report Panel Recommends Medicare Cuts to Hospitals Tennis Star at Center of Doping Controversy

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

Citing Errors, U.S. Lowers Obesity Death Toll

Citing computational errors caused by software problems, U.S. health officials have lowered the death toll attributed to obesity that was first published in a major study last year, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In a letter and correction that appears in the Jan. 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was reducing the death toll due to obesity by about 9 percent. The agency said it would soon publish the findings of a review by scientists inside and outside the CDC that discovered problems with the way the original research was reviewed, the newspaper said.

The CDC said the correct estimated number of deaths due to poor diet and lack of exercise is 365,000 annually, down from the original 400,000 estimate. The errors in the study were first reported in November by The Wall Street Journal.

The revised findings state that obesity remains the second-leading underlying cause of premature death, up 21 percent from 1990 to 2000. But smoking remains the leading cause of mortality, accounting for an estimated 435,000 deaths in 2000, the newspaper reported, citing CDC statistics.

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Busy Breast Screening Centers May Be Best for Mammograms

The best place to be screened for breast cancer may be in high-volume mammogram centers because they seem to be better at detecting tumors, says a study in the current issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

It found that high-volume screening centers detected 28 percent more cases of breast cancer than low-volume centers, The Globe and Mail newspaper reported.

This could be because all the high-volume centers in the study are located at teaching hospitals. That means these centers are more likely to have superior equipment, higher training standards for technicians, and better practitioners, the researchers said.

The study also said that radiologists with a heavy workload may be the best ones to read a breast X-ray because they're less likely to make a false-positive reading. Radiologists who read more than 1,500 screening mammographies each year had 47 percent fewer false-positives than radiologists who read fewer than 250 screening mammographies.

The study, which included more than 300,000 women in Quebec, also found that 10.5 percent of women receive false-positive mammogram readings. That means that while they do have an abnormal mammogram, they do not have breast cancer, The Globe and Mail reported.

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Brain Protein Linked to Cocaine Craving in Rats

A protein in the brain that plays a role in triggering cocaine cravings in rats has been identified by researchers at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

They also found a way to block craving messages in the rats' brains, BBC News Online reported.

The findings may help scientists better understand what happens in the brains of former drug addicts when they crave cocaine and risk relapse. The study results suggest that the most dangerous time for relapse is not immediately after addicts stop using cocaine, but after they go for long periods without the drug.

The study found that activation of the protein extracellular-signal regulated kinase (ERK) was higher in the rats' brains 30 days after withdrawal from cocaine than one day after withdrawal.

"This research is interesting, but we have to be careful about drawing too direct a comparison with the nature of human addiction. Making the obvious point, there is little correlation between the brain patterns and behavior of mice and humans," Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, told BBC News Online.

External factors such as unemployment and lack of housing are often linked to drug relapse in humans.

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Mass. Weight-Loss Surgery Patients Need Better Follow-up: Report

The 24 Massachusetts hospitals that perform weight-loss surgery must do a better job of detecting early signs of post-surgical complications in patients, says the board that oversees doctors in the state.

The warning from the Board of Registration in Medicine comes in the wake of 16 weight-loss surgery-related deaths over 18 months, the Associated Press reported.

Ten of the 16 deaths were caused by infections that resulted in organ failure or by blood clots that clogged the main artery to the lungs.

During the period from March 2003 to October 2004, about 4,500 patients had weight-loss procedures in Massachusetts.

The state's death rate is actually lower than the national average. However, some weight-surgery patients in Massachusetts may not have died if early signs of complications had been dealt with quickly by hospital staff, board officials said.

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Panel Recommends Medicare Cuts to Hospitals

The U.S. government should cut Medicare payments to hospitals and freeze reimbursements to nursing homes and home-care agencies, a federal advisory panel has recommended.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Committee made the budget-cutting recommendations to Congress last week, The New York Times reported. Congress usually pays close attention to the 17-member panel's suggestions, the newspaper said.

The committee essentially recommended that hospitals and clinics be reimbursed as if they were among the most efficiently run institutions, rather than as hospitals that incur typical costs. The panel said this could save Medicare as much as $800 million in 2006 and up to $6 billion over five years, the Times reported.

Medicare, which covers some 41 million elderly and disabled people, saw costs climb 8.4 percent last year to $300 billion. Its outlays are expected to jump 30 percent from 2005 to 2007 with the introduction of a prescription drug benefit beginning in 2006, the newspaper said.

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Tennis Star at Center of Doping Controversy

U.S. Open tennis champ Svetlana Kuznetsova has been accused by a Belgian sports minister of testing positive for the banned substance ephedrine, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The allegations against the 19-year-old Russian were made Monday as she practiced on the second day of the Australian Open. Ephedrine is an herbal stimulant that has been linked to dangerous cardiovascular problems among people who took it as a weight-loss aid. Major League Baseball is among the professional sports leagues that have banned the substance, which also is a common ingredient in asthma medications and herbal cold remedies, the newspaper said.

Kuznetsova said she had been taking a cold remedy during last month's Belgian exhibition when the drug test was administered. The purported test results were revealed in a statement distributed Monday by Belgian Sports Minister Claude Eerdekens.

Technically, the substance is banned only in competition, and the Dec. 19 Belgian match was part of an unsanctioned exhibition, Kuznetsova said in a statement issued Tuesday.

"There's absolutely no reason why I would take a stimulant to enhance my performance at an out-of-competition exhibition match in the middle of the off-season," the statement said.

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