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Today's Health Highlights: Dec. 11, 2001

New Early-Stage Breast Cancer Drug Touted Alcoholism Drug of No Use to Heavy Drinkers: Study Older Americans Ignorant About Long-Term Care Costs . . . . . . And They're Getting Inappropriate Medications Young People Use Internet for Health Information . . . . . . But They're Also Getting Illegal Smokes Online

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

New Early-Stage Breast Cancer Drug Touted

A new class of estrogen-blocking drugs appears to be slightly more effective than the standard medicine for treating women with early-stage breast cancer, the Associated Press reported today.

The drug tamoxifen has long been used to help prevent cancer from coming back after surgery and chemotherapy. Some cancers are fueled by estrogen, the female sex hormone, and tamoxifen interferes with this process.

A new global study, presented yesterday at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, suggests that the drug anastrozole is possibly even more effective. The drug was approved for advanced breast cancer use last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is sold under the brand name Arimidex.

The study, described by researchers as the largest ever in breast cancer treatment, was sponsored by AstraZeneca, which makes anastrozole. It involved 9,366 early-stage breast cancer patients in 21 countries who were randomly assigned to get tamoxifen, anastrozole or a combination of the two. After almost three years of follow-up, 10 percent of those getting anastrozole alone had suffered a return of cancer or died, compared with 12 percent getting either tamoxifen alone or in combination with anastrozole.

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Alcoholism Drug Has No Effect on Heavy Drinkers: Study

The drug most used to treat alcoholics in this country has no effect on long-term heavy drinkers, a Veterans Administration study found.

The Associated Press reported today that the study looked at more than 600 veterans, almost all of them men who were about 49 years old, had been getting drunk regularly since their early 20s, and when the study began were drinking three days out of four, downing an average of 13 drinks on those days.

One group took the drug naltrexone for three months, another took it for a year, and a third took look-alike pills with no medical effect. In all three groups, the patients went an average of 4-1/2 months without drinking. After 13 weeks and after a year, they were drinking less and on far fewer days than they had when the study began. But the reduction was about the same for all three groups, the AP reported.

Naltrexone, approved in 1995, blocks chemicals that make alcoholics feel good after a drink. It was used for drug addiction before the Food and Drug Administration approved it for alcoholism. The findings were reported in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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Older Americans Ignorant About Long-Term Care Costs . . .

Americans approaching retirement age are largely ignorant about the costs of long-term care for the elderly and what services are covered by private insurance and Medicare, a survey released today by AARP found, according to CNN.

Almost one-quarter of Americans 45 and older said they did not know the cost of nursing home care, and only 15 percent could identify the price within 20 percent of the national average monthly cost, $4,654, the survey said. When asked to estimate the cost, more than half estimated too low, CNN said.

But when asked if they were prepared to pay the cost of long-term care, 49 percent of respondents said they were "very" or "fairly" prepared, while 46 percent replied "not very" or "not at all" prepared, CNN said.

Finally, 31 percent of those surveyed said their insurance would cover the costs of long-term care. But the Health Insurance Association of America says only about 6 percent of Americans have such insurance. AARP concluded that this could show that many people facing retirement are financially ill-prepared, the news network said.

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. . . And They're Getting Inappropriate Medications

A depressingly high percentage of older Americans are being prescribed medications that they would be better off without, a federal survey finds, HealthDay reported today.

"In 1996, 21.3 percent of community-dwelling elderly patients in the United States received at least one of 33 potentially inappropriate medications," said experts at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, whose report appears in the Dec. 12 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That number comes from analysis of the 1996 Medicaid Expenditure Panel Survey, which looked at overall health care use, said Dr. Arlene S. Bierman, a senior research physician with the agency's Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety. The analysis was done by a panel of experts that reached a consensus on the often-controversial issue of which drugs older people shouldn't be taking.

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Young People Use Internet for Health Information . . .

Three-quarters of teen-agers and young adults online have used the Internet to find health information, including details on depression, birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, according to a survey released today, the Associated Press reported.

Although those surveyed are fairly skeptical about the information they find on the Internet -- only 17 percent trust it "a lot,'' compared with 85 percent who trust information from doctors -- they also base decisions on their Internet research.

Among those who have checked health information, 44 percent have researched topics related to pregnancy, birth control, AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. Almost one-quarter have researched depression or mental illness, and a similar number have researched problems related to drugs or alcohol.

And, the study found, 39 percent said they had changed their personal behavior because of information they had looked up online, and 14 percent said they had seen a doctor or other health-care provider as a result of their research.

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. . . But They're Also Getting Illegal Smokes Online

Internet tobacco vendors, many of whom offer illegal tax-free or duty-free cigarettes and some of whom sell to minors, may be the biggest threat yet to tobacco regulation in the United States, two new studies warn, HealthDay reported today.

American tobacco control researchers are calling for tough state, federal and international regulation of Internet cigarette sales across the United States. Those sales, according to analysts' estimates, could rise to between 14 percent and 20 percent of all tobacco sales within the next decade.

The findings appear in the December issue of the journal Tobacco Control.

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