Health Highlights: Nov. 24, 2003

Senate Ends Medicare Drug Bill Debate, Vote Due Morning Workout Promises a Good Night's Sleep: Study Sugary, Starchy Foods Linked to Birth Defects Ecstasy Could Help Trauma Victims Road Deaths Tied to Higher Speed Limits

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

Senate Ends Medicare Drug Bill Debate, Vote Due

The U.S. Senate voted to choke off debate Monday on a historic Medicare prescription drug bill, but die-hard opponents vowed one final effort to scuttle the legislation they attacked as a boon to pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

The vote was 70-29, 10 more than the 60 needed to end a filibuster led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the Associated Press reports. But Kennedy and other opponents of the measure immediately launched another attack. This one, invoking arcane Senate budget rules, obliged supporters of the bill to gain 60 votes to prevail.

"It will be close," conceded Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Tennessee Republican and former heart transplant surgeon who has made passage of the measure a key goal of his first year as head of Senate Republicans.

The U.S. House of Representatives barely passed the Republican-sponsored drug bill early Saturday after some last-minute maneuvering and middle-of-the-night phone calls to wavering members. The final House vote was 220 for, 215 against.

The bill, which would add a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program and expand the role of private insurers, has created deep divisions in Congress. Supporters call it a fundamental change that would help older Americans rein in their prescription drug costs, while opponents see it as a handout to insurers and drug companies that would ruin Medicare.

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Morning Workout Promises a Good Night's Sleep: Study

A little workout in the morning could translate into a lot more shut-eye at night, particularly if you are an older women who has trouble sleeping.

Morning exercisers had fewer complaints about a bad night's sleep and those who stretched in the morning had somewhat better sleep, scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle report in the November issue of the journal Sleep. Women who exercise in the evening, on the other hand, were more likely to be up at night, they say.

The women in the study didn't need much morning activity to get the benefit. "It's like doing a brisk walk," researcher Anne McTiernan told the Associated Press. "Nobody is saying people have to be athletes and do marathons."

The research involved post-menopausal women between 50 to 75 who were cancer-free, and not exercising at the start of the project. Eighty-seven were placed in an exercise program, which involved 45 minutes of walking or exercise bike five days a week, and 86 in a stretching program, which was done for an hour a week under supervision and a half-hour three times a week on their own. Both groups were followed for a year.

Women who exercised averaged 70 percent better sleep and women who stretched averaged 30 percent better sleep, the study found.

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Sugary, Starchy Foods Linked to Birth Defects

Pregnant women who eat sugary, starchy, and highly processed foods like white bread may have double the risk of conceiving children with birth defects, University of California researchers say.

They compared the diets of more than 900 mothers, finding that those who ate foods that gave a quick sugar high also doubled their risk of having a baby with neural tube defects like spina bifida. The foods were rated according to their glycemic index (GI), a measure of how likely they are to cause blood sugar to surge.

Foods that contain highly refined carbohydrates include potatoes, white bread, rice, and many popular breakfast cereals, the Sydney Morning Herald says.

Experts caution against initially reading too much into these results, however, since some of the "problem" foods cited also have proven beneficial to pregnant women and their unborn children.

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Ecstasy Could Help Trauma Victims

The club drug ecstasy could have a legitimate medical use as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder, say University of South Carolina researchers, who plan to begin trials on traumatized crime victims soon.

Ecstasy, scientifically known as MDMA, was created as a diet aid, but was made illegal after a surge in recreational use during the 1980s. While some studies have found that it can cause dramatic spikes in body temperature that can lead to organ damage, its long-term effects remain largely a mystery.

Still, the drug has also been found to boost the levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that's important in regulating mood, reports BBC News Online. Dr. Rick Doblin, who is leading the South Carolina trials, concedes there are risks, but adds "I do believe the risks are manageable.

"What we'd like to do is develop MDMA into a prescription medication," he adds.

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Road Deaths Tied to Higher Speed Limits

A new report finds that 1,900 people from 22 states died in car crashes between 1996 and 1999 as a result of higher speed limits on interstate highways.

According to the New York Times, the problem is that drivers are adjusting to the higher limits and often exceed them. "If you raise the speed limits, people go faster," Susan Ferguson, a researcher with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the paper. The institute did the report.

The U.S. government repealed speed limits in 1995, turning over the authority to the states. They had been 55 miles per hour or 65 mph on rural interstates. Since then, 28 states raised the limit to 70 mph or higher, the Times reports, and for a while Montana had no daytime speed limit at all.

The report found that, in Colorado, where the limit is 75 mph, about a quarter of drivers exceeded 80 mph, the "fastest speeds we've ever observed," the report says.

Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver magazine, expressed doubts over a study funded by insurers, who might benefit from lower limits. "If you get a ticket, your rates go up," Csere told the Times. "From their standpoint, the more tickets, the better."

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