Health Highlights: June 30, 2008

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

Experimental Alzheimer's Drug Ineffective

The experimental Alzheimer's drug Flurizan produced disappointing results in a late-stage clinical trial and development of the drug will be halted, Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics announced Monday.

Compared to a placebo, the drug didn't improve thinking ability by a statistically significant amount, nor did it improve patients' abilities to do daily activities, The New York Times reported.

The drug -- designed to prevent the buildup of toxic amyloid plaques in the brain believed to cause Alzheimer's -- was one of the first of its kind to reach late-stage testing. The failure of Flurizan may raise doubts about the role of amyloid plaques in Alzheimer's and about other experimental drugs designed to combat the plaques.

    • Experimental Alzheimer's Drug Ineffective
    • Personal Characteristics Often Used to Determine HIV/STD Risk
    • England's Smoking Ban Could Save 40,000 Lives in a Decade: Study
    • Glaucoma Could Blind 8.4 Million Asians by 2010
    • White House Delays Medicare Fee Cuts
    • Hospital Offers Workers Free Weight Watchers Programs
    • BMI Not Effective for Tracking Children's Exercise

Two such drugs are currently in late-stage testing, the Times reported.

A study published earlier this month in the journal Nature suggested that gamma-secretase modulators such as Flurizan showed potential for treating Alzheimer's. The study said these drugs reduce the production of long pieces of amyloid beta protein that stick together and form clumps, while increasing production of shorter amyloid beta that blocks longer amyloid beta from sticking together, HealthDay News reported.


Personal Characteristics Often Used to Determine HIV/STD Risk

The length of time a person has known someone is often used to determine a sexual partner's risk of having HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, says a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The researchers had 317 people at Canadian STD clinics complete questionnaires. All the participants were questioned on their first clinic visit and hadn't been diagnosed with an STD, United Press International reported.

Knowing or trusting a partner was found to influence a person's beliefs about their partner's STD-related risk. People who were well-educated and had higher incomes were more often considered "safe," said the study, published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

The researchers said their findings suggest that many people rely on partner/relationship characteristics when considering a partner's STD/HIV status, and reliance on these factors is associated with a decreased perception of personal STD/HIV risk, UPI reported.


England's Smoking Ban Could Save 40,000 Lives in a Decade: Study

Since England banned smoking in public places last July, more than 400,000 people have quit smoking, says a study that estimates the smoking ban will save 40,000 lives over the next decade.

Researchers with the Smoking Toolkit Study interviewed more than 32,000 smokers and ex-smokers during the nine months before the ban and nine months afterward, Agence France Presse reported.

In the nine months preceding the ban, there was a 1.6 percent decline in smoking in England, compared to a 5.5 percent decline in the nine months after the ban took effect.

"These figures show the largest fall in the number of smokers on record," said Professor Robert West, Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco studies, who oversaw the study. "The effect has been as large in all social groups, poor as well as rich smokers."

West said he "never expected such a dramatic impact and of course there are no guarantees that smoking rates will not climb back up again," AFP reported.

However, if health officials can maintain the momentum created by the ban, "there is a realistic prospect of achieving a target of less than 15 percent of the population smoking within the next 10 years," West said.

About 22 percent of Britain's adult population still smokes.


Glaucoma Could Blind 8.4 Million Asians by 2010

Unless they receive timely treatment, more than 8.4 million people in Asia will go blind due to glaucoma by 2010, according to a survey released Monday by All Eyes on Glaucoma, a global education program.

The group said high blood pressure, family history and increased risk of glaucoma among Asians are among the factors contributing to the predicted high number, Agence France Presse reported.

Glaucoma -- optic nerve damage caused by high pressure within the eyeball -- is the second leading cause of blindness in the world. Cataract is the leading cause of blindness.

"Whereas cataract can be cured by surgery, glaucoma can lead to irreversible loss of eyesight and is the single largest preventable cause of blindness in Asia," Ivan Goldberg, president of the World Glaucoma Association, said at a news conference in Hong Kong, AFP reported.

Currently, as many as 9.4 million Chinese aged 40 and older have glaucoma. That could increase by about six million between 2010 and 2020.


White House Delays Medicare Fee Cuts

A 10.6 percent fee cut for about 600,000 doctors who treat Medicare patients is being delayed by the Bush administration, the Associated Press reported.

Doctors' Medicare claims for services delivered on or after July 1 will be held by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, while claims for services received on or before June 30 will be processed as usual, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Kevin Schweers said Monday.

"By holding claims for health care services that are delivered on or after July 1, CMS will not be making any payments on the 10.6 percent reduction until July 15 at the earliest," he said.

The cuts were scheduled under a formula that requires fee reductions when spending surpasses established targets, the AP reported.

It's believed Congress will take action to prevent the cuts when lawmakers return to Washington the week of July 7 after a July 4 recess. Ads being run by physicians have hinted the cuts may make it more difficult for Medicare patients to find doctors willing to treat them.


Hospital Offers Workers Free Weight Watchers Programs

The Cleveland Clinic will offer free Weight Watchers programs to staffers enrolled in an in-house program that covers more than 27,000 of its 37,000 employees.

"The goal is to help our employees get healthier if they want to... When our employees feel healthier and are healthier, they're able to take care of patients better," Dr. Michael F. Roizen, the clinic's chief wellness officer, told the Associated Press. "Health care organizations ought to stand for health."

Employees will be able to sign up for free weight management programs, fitness centers and smoking cessation programs.

The Cleveland Clinic stopped hiring smokers last September and doesn't allow trans fats and sugar-sweetened beverages on patient menus or in cafeterias, restaurants, pharmacies and vending machines, the AP reported.


BMI Not Effective for Tracking Children's Exercise

Using body mass index (BMI, a ratio of weight to height) to determine whether children are achieving exercise targets may not be effective, say British researchers who studied 113 boys and 99 girls over four years.

The researchers found no difference in BMI between children who got regular exercise and those who didn't, BBC News reported. However, blood tests for health indicators such as cholesterol levels and insulin resistance showed the children who got regular exercise were in better shape.

"BMI just doesn't pick up any differences in children -- it's just not a sufficiently sensitive measure," said study leader Professor Terry Wilkin, of the Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth.

The study was published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

In adults, BMI has proven useful as a guide to overall fitness and the success of diet and exercise programs, but there's ongoing debate about its effectiveness in children, BBC News reported.