Health Highlights: May 14, 2008

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

Few U.S. Adults Proficient at Managing Health Care

Only 12 percent of the 228 million adults in the United States have the health literacy skills to manage their own health care proficiently, according to the latest News and Numbers report from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research.

Health literacy skills -- which describe a person's ability to obtain and use health information to make appropriate health care decisions -- include weighing the risks and benefits of different treatments, knowing how to calculate health insurance costs, and being able to fill out complex medical forms.

    • Few U.S. Adults Proficient at Managing Health Care: Report
    • New Guidelines Urge Careful Monitoring of Heart Device Patients
    • Former Supreme Court Justice Pleas for Alzheimer's Research
    • More Americans Taking Drugs for Chronic Health Problems
    • Americans Overconfident About Their Food-Safety Abilities: Survey
    • New Fitness Test for U.S. Adults

People with poor health literacy skills may have worse health care outcomes and face an increased risk of medical errors.

A 2003 survey found that:

  • 12 percent of American adults had proficient health literacy skills.
  • 53 percent had intermediate skills, such as being able to read instructions on a prescription label and determine the right time to take medication.
  • 22 percent had basic skills, such as being able to read a pamphlet and understand two reasons why a disease test might be appropriate despite a lack of symptoms.
  • 14 percent had below-basic skills, which means they could accomplish only simple tasks such as understanding a set of short instructions or identifying what's permissible to drink before a medical test.


New Guidelines Urge Careful Monitoring of Heart Device Patients

People with implanted pacemakers, defibrillators and other devices to regulate heartbeat need to be monitored carefully after the devices begin working, a team of international experts recommended Wednesday.

Almost 2 million people across the globe have had the devices implanted, the Associated Press reported.

While much of the attention so far has been directed to who should get the devices and whether insurance companies would pay for them, the wire service said, experts in San Francisco at a meeting of the Heart Rhythm Society unveiled new guidelines designed to provide follow-up care for people who already have them.

The guidelines recommend:

  • Making the doctor who implants the device responsible for follow-up care, including working with the patient's primary care doctor if the patient moves.
  • Giving each patient an ID card, which would include information about emergency care and solving potential safety issues.
  • Getting a checkup every three to 12 months.
  • Urging the government to brand manufacturer recalls as "safety alerts," to avoid scaring patients into thinking they need immediate surgery to remove an affected product.
  • Using wireless technology to monitor patients remotely from their homes.


Former Supreme Court Justice Pleas for Alzheimer's Research

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to sit on the nation's high court, is urging Congress to help boost research on Alzheimer's disease.

O'Connor retired from the bench in 2005, when she and her spouse moved to an assisted care center in Phoenix, the Associated Press reported. "My beloved husband John suffers Alzheimer's," she told the Senate Special Committee on Aging. "He is not in very good shape at present."

O'Connor welcomed recently approved legislation to ban discrimination based on genetic testing results. "My own sons I have not wanted to go be tested ... out of fear they would be ineligible for insurance," she told the panel on Wednesday.

More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, the AP reported, a number that's forecast to rise to 16 million by 2050. Some 10 million people are already caring for loved ones with the disease, the Alzheimer's Association estimates.

"I suspect that you will not hear from many of my fellow caregivers directly ... simply because they do not have the resources to take time away from their loves ones in order to come before you," O'Connor said in her prepared testimony.

"Our nation certainly is ready to get deadly serious about this deadly disease," she said.


More Americans Taking Drugs for Chronic Health Problems

A new study suggests that more than half of all insured Americans regularly take prescription drugs to treat chronic health problems, with drugs to lower high blood pressure and cholesterol the most widely used, the Associated Press reported.

The Medco Health Solutions Inc. analysis of prescription records from 2001 to 2007 revealed that 51 percent of American adults and children were taking one or more prescription drugs for a chronic condition in 2007, compared to 50 percent in 2006, and 47 percent in 2001.

Regular use of medications to treat chronic health problems occurred in all demographic groups:

  • Three out of four people 65 or older.
  • Almost two-thirds of women 20 or older.
  • 52 percent of adult men.
  • One in four children and teenagers.

The study found that among older Americans, 28 percent of women and nearly 22 percent of men take five or more medicines on a regular basis, the AP reported.

Medco manages prescription benefits for about one in five Americans.

Experts said the study findings reflect both worsening public health and better medicines for chronic conditions and more aggressive treatment by doctors, the AP reported.


Americans Overconfident About Their Food-Safety Abilities: Survey

While 82 percent of Americans say they're confident in their ability to safely prepare food, many don't follow simple steps to reduce the spread of bacteria in the kitchen or ensure safe cooking temperatures, according to a new survey.

For example, only 48 percent of respondents said they used separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry and produce, and only 29 percent said they use a meat thermometer.

The third annual Food and Health Survey, conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, included 1,000 American adults.

Among the findings:

  • 92 percent said they wash their hands with soap and water when preparing food.
  • 79 percent said they store leftovers within two hours of serving a meal.
  • 67 percent said they cook food to the required temperature, but only 29 percent use a food thermometer to check the "doneness" of meat and poulty.
  • Only 15 percent said they check the wattage on their microwave ovens and only 7 percent said they use a meat thermometer when using their microwave.

"Consumers are a lot more confident about their ability to safely prepare food than they ought to be, based on what we learned," Danielle Schor, senior vice president of food safety for the IFIC Foundation, said in a prepared statement. "We still have a long way to go to educate the public about the basics such as avoiding cross contamination and cooking to proper temperature."


New Fitness Test for U.S. Adults

Aerobic fitness, muscle strength, and flexibility are the main components included in an adult fitness test being introduced Wednesday by the U.S. government. The test will feature several of the exercises done by millions of students each year as they strive for a Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

The new test for people 18 and older who are in good health was developed because baby boomers kept asking whether there was a physical-fitness test available similar to the ones they took as students, Melissa Johnson, executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, told the Associated Press.

The aerobic part of the test consists of a one-mile walk or 1.5-mile run, while the strength tests include push-ups and half sit-ups. The sit-ups are done for one minute and the push-ups are done until a person can't do any more. A "sit-and-reach" exercise is used to measure flexibility.

Participants can enter their scores online and get results that show where they rank among people in the same age group, the AP reported.