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Health Highlights: Jan. 23, 2005

Emphysema Claims Johnny Carson at Age 79 FDA Delays Decision on Morning-After PillMore Younger Teens Sniffing Dangerous SubstancesAlzheimer's Drug Maker Announces Death Increase In Clinical Trials Final Medicare Drug Benefit Provisions Unveiled

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

Emphysema Claims Johnny Carson at Age 79

Johnny Carson, who made late night television a must-see for millions of Americans, died Sunday at his Malibu, Calif. home at the age of 79.

The Associated Press quotes his nephew Jeff Sotzing as saying, "He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable". According to the New York Times family members said his death was caused by the effects of emphysema.

While details about Carson's illness weren't immediately available, the comedian had been a cigarette smoker for most of his life, and he had made only rare public appearances since his retirement from the "Tonight" show in 1992 after hosting the entertainment program for a record 30 years.

According to the American Lung Association, cigarette smoking is the number one cause of emphysema. Emphysema's symptoms include shortness of breath and a limited tolerance to exercise. The association says the condition occurs when "the walls between the alveoli or air sacs within the lung lose their ability to stretch and recoil. The air sacs become weakened and break. Elasticity of the lung tissue is lost, causing air to be trapped in the air sacs and impairing the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide."

The Lung Association estimates that there are slightly more than three million diagnosed cases of emphysema in the U.S., and the vast majority are people over the age of 45.

Johnny Carson was born in Corning, Iowa in 1925, the middle child of an electric power company manager and a stay-at-home mother, whom he credited with his sense of humor and slightly offbeat view of life.

Carson's career included radio and a very short stint in the movies before he found his home in the early days of television. He hosted a game show, "Who Do You Trust?" which gave him and his sidekick Ed McMahon, the chance to replace Jack Paar on the "Tonight" show in 1962.

The rest, they say, is history. Carson's popularity never waned, and he is credited for setting the standard for late night hosts.

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FDA Delays Decision on Morning-After Pill

There was still no word over the weekend on whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would approve over-the-counter sales of levonorgestrel, the so-called "morning-after" birth control pill.

Barr Pharmaceuticals, the firm that markets the pill under the name Plan B, issued a news release saying the FDA had delayed its decision, which was expected Friday. Barr said it was still hopeful that the federal agency would approve the pill for non-prescription sales and that the delay came because FDA officials hadn't completed their review in time to meet the Jan. 21 deadline, the Associated Press quotes the company news release as saying.

The FDA rejected Barr's bid for OTC sales in May 2004, saying it didn't have enough evidence of the drug's safety among younger teenagers to allow unregulated use in that age group. Barr's new plan, submitted two months later, would restrict over-the-counter use to women 16 and older, and would still require a prescription for younger girls.

When it became apparent that the FDA would not meet its deadline, a federal lawsuit was filed in New York against the government, AP reports. The Center for Reproductive Rights filed suit against the FDA, saying that it didn't follow its own procedures or mandates, beginning when it first denied the application in May 2004.

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More Younger Teens Sniffing Dangerous Substances

A recent report that showed a slight decline nationwide in drug use among teenagers has a significant downside: a continued increase in sniffing substances by eighth graders to get high.

The Los Angeles Times reports that a poll conducted by the University of Michigan for the U.S. government's National Institute on Drug Abuse shows a two percent increase of what is commonly known as "glue-sniffing" over 2003. And alarmingly, this increase follows another hike in 2002.

The survey of almost 17,500 eighth graders in 147 schools across the nation found that 17.3 percent of the eighth graders -- usually 13-14 years old -- sniffed substances as diverse as glue, gasoline, paint thinner, fingernail polish remover and butane from cigarette lighters, the newspaper reported. This was two percent higher than in 2003.

Overall, the University of Michigan survey found that when it came to drug use, the survey found that 39 percent of 12th-graders, 31 percent of 10th graders, and 15 percent of eighth-graders had used drugs in the previous year. Those rates are down 1 percent or less from 2003.

But the inhaling increase worries officials. "For whatever reason, the perception of the drugs as risky has decreased in younger kids," Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told the Times.. She said the government planned to launch an information campaign to warn parents and children about the dangers of inhaling these substances.

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Alzheimer's Drug Maker Announces Death Increase In Clinical Trials

U.S. government officials have been notified that two clinical trials involving a prescription drug that treats mild cases of Alzheimer's disease resulted in triple the number of deaths than those in the control group.

The New York Times reports that Johnson & Johnson, which developed Reminyl -- approved in 69 countries to treat mild-to-moderate cases of Alzheimer's disease -- notified the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Friday as well a regulators in Canada and Europe about the clinical trial results.

The trials were taking place in 16 countries using 2,000 people to determine whether Reminyl could also be used to treat people with mild cognitive impairment, a type of memory lapse, the newspaper reports. During the two year trial period, 15 patients taking Reminyl died, as opposed to five who were taking a placebo, according to the Times.

But a Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman, Carol Goodrich, told the newspaper that the investigators didn't believe there was a connection between the deaths and Reminyl. There could have been a number of reasons for the deaths, many of which were heart attacks or strokes, she maintained. Johnson & Johnson said the number of deaths was low for the elderly population participating in the trials.

Representatives of both the FDA and Health Canada -- that country's government health agency -- told the Times they were investigatig the results of the clinical trials.

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Final Medicare Drug Benefit Provisions Unveiled

The U.S. Medicare program released final regulations Friday for establishing the long-awaited senior prescription drug benefit, to take effect in 2006.

Under the sweeping Medicare Modernization Act signed by President Bush in 2003, the new provisions begin the shift from the temporary drug discount cards now in use to broad-based drug coverage for all beneficiaries, according to a statement from Medicare's parent agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS says the new rules, affecting 41 million elderly and disabled Americans, include provisions to:

  • Give beneficiaries a choice of at least two drug plans that will cover a wide range of both brand names and generics.
  • Give relief to 9 million low-income beneficiaries by waiving any premiums and deductibles.
  • Ensure that people who qualify for participation in both Medicare and Medicaid.
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