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Health Highlights: July 19, 2004

Cost of Treating Alzheimer's Poses Huge Financial Burden Drug Delays Onset of Alzheimer's Symptoms Air Travelers Want to be Contacted if Disease Threat Exists Researchers: Flick -- Don't Squash -- Mosquitoes Woman's Honesty Saves Money for Minnesota HMO Depression Tied to Increase in Nerve Cells

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

Cost of Treating Alzheimer's Poses Huge Financial Burden

The number of Medicare beneficiaries identified as having Alzheimer's disease soared 250 percent in the 1990s, and experts say that will translate into a huge jump in health-care costs.

Duke University researchers found the increase was highest (460 percent) among blacks. These figures essentially mean that people are getting care for what ails them, but it does not not come cheap. And experts now suggest the degenerative neurological condition will become the top public health crisis of this century, according to HealthDay.

This was one of several studies detailing the costs associated with Alzheimer's disease presented at the International Conference on Alzheimer's Diseases and Related Disorders in Philadelphia, which runs from July 17 to 22.

"Unless a prevention or cure is found soon, Alzheimer's disease will overwhelm our already stretched health-care system and bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid," Sheldon Goldberg, president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer's Association, said in a prepared statement.

The number of Americans with Alzheimer's is expected to increase from 4.5 million to 16 million by 2050.

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Drug Delays Onset of Alzheimer's Symptoms

A drug used to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease may delay development of the less severe forms of brain impairment that can lead to the degenerative condition, according to HealthDay.

Patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) who took donepezil (brand name Aricept) had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's compared to people taking a placebo, according to research presented at the International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders being held in Philadelphia, which runs from July 17 to 22.

The reduction in risk lasted only for the first 18 months of the three-year trial, however. When those taking donepezil did develop Alzheimer's, it was an average of six months later than those who took a placebo.

The data is consistent with what experts already know about this class of drugs, cholinesterase inhibitors, which is that they have an effect on symptoms but do not affect the underlying disease process, said William Thies, vice president of medical and scientific affairs at the Alzheimer's Association.

A number of questions remain unanswered, including why the benefit appears to end at 18 months, whether there is a specific window of opportunity during which these drugs work, whether the observed slowdown holds throughout the course of Alzheimer's in people who go on to develop it, and whether the drug has any promise for actual prevention, HealthDay reported.

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Air Travelers Want to Be Contacted if Disease Threat Exists

The vast majority -- 94 percent -- of American air travelers would want public health authorities to contact them if they might have been exposed to a serious contagious disease on an airplane. And they'd be willing to provide information that would help public health officials contact them, according to a new study by the Harvard School of Public Health.

Currently, international air travelers must offer emergency contact information and a large majority are willing to continue doing so. Nearly nine in 10 Americans who travel internationally (89 percent) would be willing to give the airlines the name and telephone number of someone who could be contacted in case of an emergency, the study found.

Domestic air travelers aren't required to provide emergency contact information, but most would be willing to do so.

"The combination of possible threats of bioterrorism carried out on airplanes and newly emerging infectious diseases has left most Americans willing to cooperate with public health authorities who need emergency contact information to head off the spread of dangerous diseases," said Robert J. Blendon, a professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The worldwide SARS epidemic last year highlighted the difficulties public health officials can have in notifying airline passengers quickly, the study noted.

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Researchers: Flick -- Don't Squash -- Mosquitoes

A mosquito bite has a better chance of becoming infected if you squash the bloodsucking insect while it's stinging you than if you simply flick it off, according to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The article focuses on the case of a 57-year-old Pennsylvania woman who died two years ago of a mosquito-borne muscular fungal infection called Brachiola algerae, according to the Associated Press.

The article's authors, including Christina Coyle of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, concluded that the victim must have smashed the bug on her skin, forcing some of its infected body parts into the bite.

The suggestion to flick the insect in mid-bite is similar to the long standing advice for tick-bite victims, the AP pointed out.

The new advice isn't without its critics, however. Roger Nasci, an expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says he doesn't see the scientific proof that flicking will do any better than squashing. And because flicking probably won't kill the mosquito, it may go on to bite you again, he notes.

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Woman's Honesty Saves Money for Minnesota HMO

Depending on whom you ask, Mary Simmons might just be the most unpopular woman in Minnesota right now.

The 79-year-old retired Roseville school librarian wound up saving the Medica Health Plans HMO big bucks by pointing out a computer bug that permitted pharmacists to give thousands of retirees free generic prescriptions for several weeks, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported.

The incident began when Simmons picked up $100 worth of prescriptions at a local pharmacy and was told they were free. The pharmacist explained that Simmons had been given a $600 drug credit for low-income people as a result of the new federal Medicare law.

But Simmons realized her income was too high to qualify. A phone call to Medica straightened the whole thing out, to the relief of the HMO, which hadn't been informed of the error by anyone else.

Medica -- which said it will allow people who already benefited from the mistake to keep their windfall -- is still trying to figure out just how much it lost, the newspaper said.

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Depression Tied to Increase in Nerve Cells

A new study finds a higher number of nerve cells in a part of the brain called the thalamus may be responsible for major depression.

The study, appearing in the current issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, is the first to link a psychiatric disorder to the number of neurons a person has in a certain region of the brain.

The findings revealed that patients diagnosed with major depression had about 30 percent more nerve cells in regions of the thalamus involved with emotional regulation. Also, the regions seemed to be larger in patients with major depression, according to researchers at Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and the Texas A&M University System Health Science Center.

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