Category Archives: Health

Better seatbelts for seniors

Ohio researchers say today’s seat belts weren’t designed to protect the smaller, frailer seniors who account for tens of millions of drivers in the U.S alone.

“When seat belts were first designed four decades ago, safety dummies tested in car crash simulations resembled the average-size male driver of 40 years old and weighing approximately 170 pounds,” said John Bolte, an associate professor of health and rehabilitation sciences and director of Ohio State University’s Injury Biomechanics Research Center. This standard seat belt design can be less effective for older drivers, Bolte said, and cause fatal harm due to injuries sustained along the path of the belt.

“If someone doesn’t adjust the height of their shoulder belt, and if that belt is up around the neck, you will have severe neck injuries,” Bolte explained. “If it’s under your arm, it will lead to rib fractures.”

To reduce injury in drivers 65 and older, Bolte and colleagues at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center are collaborating with automakers to measure properties of the thorax and upper body in older drivers to better predict how crash-related impact affects them.

The project’s new simulations use smaller crash test dummies to better represent older, frailer drivers, in order to design better protection.

“Like most things, injuries can be more disabling in older drivers,” said Richard Marottoli, a professor of medicine and medical director of the Dorothy Adler Geriatric Assessment Center at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Pain from the injury “can affect respiration, and if you have any underlying lung problems, it can make those worse as well.”

Marottoli, who is not associated with the research project, said seat belt-related injury is a significant issue among older drivers.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, close to 600 older adults are injured each day in car crashes. Common injuries, including cracked ribs and broken pelvises, can be life-threatening.

More than 36 million drivers in the U.S. are now ages 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By 2030, the AAA predicts that number will surpass 60 million.

“In a decade or two, the needs of the aging driving population are going to effect changes required in infrastructure, in vehicles, and in laws to manage driver licensing,” said Jake Nelson, the AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “The needs of this driving population will dictate automotive safety technology.”

Nelson says automakers are developing inflatable seat belts that will assist older adults by spreading the force of a crash over a larger surface area. The hope is that thoracic injuries will prove less severe and less likely.

“People need to wear their seat belts,” Bolte said. “There could be smarter belts, and they could reduce the injuries we are left with.”

In the next decade, he said, new technology may include a personalized car key fob to activate a customized safety system within each vehicle. The key fob could adjust a seat belt based on a driver’s individual physiology.

Early 30s can test their fertility

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more women are waiting until later in life to start a family. As of 2014, the average age of first-time pregnancies reached a record high of 26.3. The report suggests a decline in women having babies in their teenage years and an increase in women giving birth in their 30s.

But what do these statistics mean for American women’s fertility? We got the following email from a viewer:

Dr. Manny,

I am 30 years old, and I am focused on my career. I hear a lot of conflicting information about when to start a family. Is this something I should be thinking about now, or do I have time?


Many women have similar concerns when it comes to starting a family. CDC data suggests 12 percent of women between ages 15 and 44 are infertile— and the condition can be expensive for those who want to have children. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a popular alternative fertility option, but one cycle can cost up to $12,000.

Causes of infertility include:
Drinking alcohol in excess
High stress levels
Poor dieting

Dr. Kaylen Silverberg is board-certified in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive endocrinology, and she is the co-founder of Los Angeles-based fertility lab Ovation Fertility. He recommended that women in their late 20s and early 30s get an annual evaluation of their ovarian reserve at their OB-GYN or a trusted fertility clinic by having their blood drawn on the third day of their menstrual cycle.

The test measures a woman’s Anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH,) as well as her estradiol and follicle-stimulating hormone (FDH). With this information, specialists can determine if a woman’s ovarian reserve is stable or starting to diminish.

“The major benefits of ovarian reserve testing are that you’ll know where you are in your reproductive lifespan,” Silverberg told “If in fact your numbers are starting to deteriorate already— suggesting that your ovarian reserve is starting to fall— we’ll know the rate at which it’s falling, and therefore fertility specialists or even gynecologists can recommend how fast you need to get moving.”

Country fall victim to synthetic marijuana

The nation’s homeless are proving to be especially susceptible to a new, dirt-cheap version of synthetic marijuana, which leaves users glassy-eyed, aimless, sprawled on streets and sidewalks oblivious to their surroundings or wandering into traffic.

Nearly 300 homeless people became ill last month in St. Louis due to the man-made hallucinogen that experts believe is far more dangerous and unpredictable than the real thing. Other outbreaks have occurred in New York City, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.

“It was common for us to see reactions where they were violent, incoherent, sometimes catatonic on the ground,” Austin police Lt. Kurt Thomas said.

The homeless are easy targets in a confined area, experts say. The drug is cheap — as little as $1 or $2 for a joint — more difficult to detect in drug tests and is a fast escape from a harsh reality.

Things got so bad in St. Louis last month that the region’s largest provider of homeless services urged people to stop giving the homeless handouts, because they were worried the money would be used to buy the drug.

The Rev. Larry Rice saw the odd behaviors from several homeless people in the streets outside his New Life Evangelistic Center shelter in downtown St. Louis.

“They told me, ‘You get so low, you get such a sense of hopelessness. Somebody wants to sell this for a dollar and you take it,'” Rice said. “People are desperate out there.”

Synthetic marijuana has been around since the late 2000s, packaged under names like K2, Darkness and Mr. Happy. The Drug Enforcement Administration says it is usually a mixture of herbs and spices sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredients in marijuana. It is typically manufactured in China and sold in places like head shops, but it’s also on the street and over the internet.

State legislatures have outlawed it based on its chemical makeup, but the makers tweak the formula enough that it escapes the provisions of the law. So far in St. Louis, only one charge has been filed — a homeless man accused of selling to others on the street.

“You factor in some of the despair or difficult circumstances that these folks are going through, and they often fall prey to the suppliers offering an outlet to deal with their unfortunate situation,” Thomas said.

The medical dangers are real with synthetic marijuana, which can be up to 100 times more potent than real marijuana, said Dr. Anthony Scalzo, director of toxicology for the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

Users often experience rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, anxiety and hallucinations, he said.

Research published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that 20 deaths from August 2011 through April 2015 were blamed on synthetic marijuana, though that doesn’t account for overdose deaths of undetermined or multiple causes. Scalzo said those who survive can suffer permanent kidney failure and brain damage.

“We have no idea how the body is going to react to the next wave of chemicals,” Scalzo said. “It’s like Russian roulette. You just don’t know what you’re getting.”

During one outbreak in Brooklyn in July, 130 people were hospitalized. Witnesses said many of users were shaking or leaning aimlessly against trees and fire hydrants.

In emergency room interviews, users said they would prefer to smoke real marijuana but took the synthetic drug to avoid detection in urine tests typically mandated for probation and parole issues and other reasons, according to Michelle Nolan of the New York City Health Department.

“For individuals still using a psychoactive substance, this afforded them, criminally speaking, fewer risks,” Nolan said.

Zika defect

Michelle Flandez had just given birth to her first son, but doctors in this U.S. territory whisked him away before she could see him.

Perplexed, she demanded him back and then slowly unwrapped the blanket that covered him.

“My husband and I looked at each other,” she recalled. “No one had warned us. No one had given us the opportunity to decide what to do.”

It was mid-October, and in her arms lay what health officials announced as the first known baby born in Puerto Rico with a rare birth defect that has been linked to the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Those with microcephaly have abnormally small heads and often suffer impeded brain growth and other problems.

The island, already struggling with a shortage of doctors and funds amid a worsening economic crisis, has more than 35,700 Zika cases, including nearly 3,000 involving pregnant women. Some 300 people overall have been hospitalized and five have died, including at least two who developed complications from a paralysis condition linked to Zika known as Guillain-Barre.

Since the birth of Flandez’s son, named Inti after an Inca sun god, four other babies have been born in Puerto Rico with birth defects linked to Zika, including microcephaly. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has projected a surge in cases next year. A study by the CDC estimates that up to 10,300 pregnant women in Puerto Rico could be infected with Zika and that between 100 and 270 babies could be born with microcephaly. The U.S. mainland, meanwhile, has reported more than 30 cases of birth defects linked to Zika.

While Flandez had symptoms of Zika early in her pregnancy, she said she was told that tests showed a false positive. Sonograms in August and September showed no problems.

Flandez ran a finger through the silky dark hair on Inti’s tiny head on Friday as she described the challenges of raising her 3-month-old son on an island in economic crisis. She called several pediatric neurologists after he was born and found just one who accepted Medicaid. The earliest appointment she could get was in October 2017.

Hit men harder than women for a reason

It is now well established that many viruses wreak more havoc on men than on women. Examples: Men are five times as likely to develop cancer from HPV as women, twice as likely to develop Hodgkin’s lymphoma from the Epstein-Barr virus, and 1.5 times as likely to die of tuberculosis, per New Scientist.

Scientists puzzling over why have suggested that women could have stronger immune systems, which would make sense from an evolutionary perspective given the importance of being able to bring offspring to term and nurse them through infancy.

But now researchers using mathematical modeling say it might be the viruses themselves that have evolved to behave differently in their hosts depending on sex, and that includes in other animals like chickens, they report in the journal Nature Communications.

Viruses spread between hosts by making more copies of themselves. But in doing so, they also make their hosts ill, which doesn’t actually behoove them. “That’s not something a pathogen particularly sets out to do because it’s shooting itself in the foot,” says one researcher.

Because a virus so easily jumps from mother to fetus or infant, women are the superior host, and thus there is evolutionary pressure to harm them less, Reason reports.

How a virus can determine the sex of its host is a mystery, though subtle differences in hormones and other pathways could play a role. If researchers can sort this out, they might be able to trick viruses into thinking they’re always infecting women, and get them to go easy on the men, too.

Human eyes are brown

Frank Sinatra crooned about blue skies, but it turns out Ol’ Blue Eyes was really Ol’ Brown Eyes. It turns out all human eyes are brown—or at least various shades of it.

It all comes down to melanin and how much of the pigment we have in our eyes, reports CNN. Blue eyes have the least amount of melanin, which explains why brown-eyed newborns can appear to have blue eyes as their melanin (melanocyte cells) forms, darkening the iris.

“Everyone has melanin in the iris of their eye … there’s really only (this) one type of pigment,” says Dr. Gary Heitling. Melanin levels also determine our skin and hair color.

While dark brown in color, melanin absorbs different amounts of light. The more light absorbed, the less light is reflected out, and the browner the iris appears.

Reflected light is what we see when we gaze into someone’s eyes. Blue reflects more light at a shorter wavelength of the visible color spectrum. If you think your sweetheart’s hazel eyes appear amber in the sunset, you’re not wrong.

Eye color can indeed change depending on the light, and hazel and green eyes are in the middle of the spectrum. “It’s an interaction between the amount of melanin and the architecture of the iris itself,” Heitling says.

This architecture is so unique, he adds, that it can act like a fingerprint. Migration from hotter to cooler climes by our ancestors could explain eye color evolution.

(More melanin protects against UV radiation.) Another theory is that a genetic mutation turned off melanin production in blue eyes. But don’t bet on two blue-eyed parents having a blue-eyed child; eye color is influenced by several genes.

Friends can help spot new moles

Melanoma survivors may want to enlist partners to help search their bodies for suspicious looking moles, according to new research.

The researchers previously found that skin cancer survivors and their partners could be trained to spot potentially cancerous moles by doing skin exams. The new report shows that during the two years, those same people had increasing confidence in their skills, with no increase in embarrassment or discomfort.

“There was concern that they might be embarrassed by examining areas of the body that aren’t normally seen close up,” said lead author Dr. June Robinson, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Melanoma survivors were previously told to use mirrors to check inaccessible areas of their bodies, she told Reuters Health.

“For example, men can’t see the top of their bald heads or the back of their necks or ears,” Robinson said.

The new study focused on 395 pairs of melanoma survivors who had received training in skin exams in the original study. The participants attended “booster” training sessions and completed surveys every four months for the next two years.

Overall, the trained group found 51 early melanomas during the study, compared to 18 melanomas found by a comparison group of patients and partners who didn’t receive training.

Among people who received the skin exam training, the researchers found a steep increase in their confidence at performing skin exams between the start of the study and four months later.

“Their confidence level goes up and plateaus at eight to 12 months, and it doesn’t go down,” said Robinson.

The exams didn’t become more embarrassing or less comfortable, either.

The new results show people can ask friends or relatives to help examine their bodies for suspicious moles, said Robinson.

“That’s a simple enough statement, and people are not put off by that,” she said.

Bringing this program into the mainstream presents some challenges, however. Each person in the study was trained on how to find melanoma and attended booster sessions every four months.

“We are now trying to see if people can learn, perform and have continuing confidence without the physician reinforcement,” said Robinson.

Germany after bird flu

About 30,000 turkeys and ducks were culled in Germany over the weekend after bird flu was found on two farms, authorities said on Monday.

Some 21,600 turkeys were culled on a farm in Soest in North Rhine Westfalia and 9,500 ducks were culled on a farm in Moeser in Saxony-Anhalt after the virulent H5N8 bird flu strain was discovered on both farms, regional authorities said.

The contagious H5N8 strain has been found in about 540 wild birds in Germany in recent weeks but few cases were found on farms as the crucial Christmas season for poultry sales starts.

The German government has introduced tougher sanitary rules to prevent infection by wild birds including orders to keep poultry indoors in high-risk regions plus immediate culling of birds on infected farms.

A series of European countries and Israel have found cases of H5N8 bird flu in the past few weeks and some ordered poultry flocks be kept indoors to prevent the disease spreading.

France has widened high-risk restrictions to the entire country after the detection of several cases of the H5N8 strain in farms. A case of H5N8 bird flu was also reported on a farm in Britain on Friday.

Overall, the trained group found 51 early melanomas during the study, compared to 18 melanomas found by a comparison group of patients and partners who didn’t receive training.

Among people who received the skin exam training, the researchers found a steep increase in their confidence at performing skin exams between the start of the study and four months later.

“Their confidence level goes up and plateaus at eight to 12 months, and it doesn’t go down,” said Robinson.

The exams didn’t become more embarrassing or less comfortable, either.

The new results show people can ask friends or relatives to help examine their bodies for suspicious moles, said Robinson.

“That’s a simple enough statement, and people are not put off by that,” she said.

Bringing this program into the mainstream presents some challenges, however. Each person in the study was trained on how to find melanoma and attended booster sessions every four months.

Woman receives lifesaving lung transplant

For two weeks, Caitlin O’Hara, 33, was on life support, in desperate need of a double-lung transplant. Then, she got an early holiday gift when the perfect pair of lungs became available on Dec. 17.

“Last week she was listed as the sickest person on the lung transplant list in the United States,” Caitlin’s father, Nick O’Hara, told Fox 25.

Caitlin was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 2. The life-threatening condition causes thickened mucus to form in the lungs and other organs, causing lung damage and making breathing difficult, according to the American Lung Association.

Nick told the news channel that Boston hospitals refused to put the Ashland, Pennsylvania, woman on transplant lists because she was high risk. Her petite stature— she’s 5 feet, 2 inches tall— and the general lack of donor lungs available didn’t help. According to the New England Organ Bank, more than 1,400 patients are waiting for lungs, and 200 of those will die waiting each year.

Caitlin was put on a transplant list in April 2014. Her supporters believe the power of prayer led to the transplant.

“The story has gone as far as China, so the story, yes I do believe that this energy surrounding Caitlin has made a difference,” family friend Laura Kelly told Fox 25.

Caitlin’s family encouraged others to consider organ donation.

“If you could do that for Christmas, they’d give themselves the best present ever. And if they could do that, it would help a lot of people,” Nick told Fox 25, noting the family’s immense gratitude toward the donor’s family.

Petroleum jelly may curb

Baby rashes are common, but atopic dermatitis—the most common type of eczema that typically starts in infancy—is associated with a rash of other problems, including asthma, allergies, hay fever, and sleep and weight problems.

And trying to treat it costs US consumers nearly $4 billion a year, reports the Huffington Post. Now a team of researchers at Northwestern is celebrating its findings that a daily full-body application of moisturizing cream for the first six months of a baby’s life can cost as little as $7 and appears effective at preventing the development of eczema in infants with close family members who have it.

“We could really save a lot of newborns—and save families—a lot of suffering,” says one of the researchers. “It’s also a pretty good deal in terms of cost.” There are still many unknowns.

It’s still unclear, for instance, what causes eczema in the first place, or how moisturizers appear to be preventing it, or even whether certain moisturizers are superior to others, reports Reuters.

The researchers treated all equally here, though they did sort out the cost of a six-month supply and found that Vaseline is the most affordable at 4 cents per application and $7.30 over six months, while Avinoply was the most expensive at $173 over over six months, the researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics.

Because petroleum jelly (Vaseline) is a byproduct of the oil refining process, the Huffington Post notes that those who prefer an alternative moisturizer might consider sunflower seed oil, the second cheapest option at $18.25 over six months.