Monthly Archives: August 2012

Workplace Safety

A safe workplace doesn’t happen by accident. It takes alertness and vigilance to keep a day at work from turning into a stay at the hospital. As America prepares to celebrate its workers, here are some safety tips to help make sure you get to enjoy your weekends:

  • Don’t read and walk at the same time. Your reading material not only distracts you, it obscures your vision.
  • Don’t open all the drawers of a filing cabinet at the same time. Indeed, many filing cabinets have interlock mechanisms to prevent that.
  • Don’t climb shelving units or other furniture not intended for that purpose, especially in heels. Use a ladder instead.
  • Be sure equipment works properly. Broken machines and other things are far more likely to cause injury.
  • Don’t ignore spills. Clean them up or tell the custodial staff.
  • Follow proper procedures for lifting heavy objects. Use your knees, not your back, and don’t jerk around.
  • Never carry a pile of things high enough to block your vision. Make two trips if you have to; it’s better than tripping because you can’t see what’s in front of you.
  • Never be afraid or ashamed to use safety equipment. It’s there for you, and sometimes even required by law.
  • Keep cables, boxes, detritus and other dangers out of walkways. Avoid creating tripping hazards in heavily trafficked corridors
  • Don’t try to sit in a chair that isn’t there. Reach for the chair before you fall on your behind

As you head out to a cookout or whatever events you have planned for the weekend, keep these tips in mind so you can come back ready to work safe.

Illness at Yosemite

Two people—one from Pennsylvania and one from northern California—who died after hiking at Yosemite National Park may have had the rare disease hantavirus, health officials say. Another camper who was near the deceased is recovering from the disease.

Deer mice and other rodents are asymptomatic carriers of the virus. That means that while they spread the disease, the rodents don’t get sick themselves. Humans get it when they come into contact with a carrier’s droppings. It often affects campers and hikers who bed down on the forest floor, but a large majority of patients were exposed to the virus at home.

There have only been fewer than 600 hantavirus cases reported in the 20 years since the virus was first identified in the United States. Hantavirus disease starts out like flu, with chills, fever, and achiness. Symptoms that develop after that include a dry cough, a headache that won’t go away, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, and vomiting, in addition to a general overall sick feeling.

The three people confirmed to have contracted the disease at Yosemite—as well as a suspected fourth case, though park officials are still investigating—had all been in a part of the park called Curry Village sometime after mid-June. All the patients had stayed in one of the campsite’s 90 insulated canvas “Signature Tent Cabins”; all 1700 guests who used those accommodations in the past three months have been contacted, park officials say, and staff have been reviewing the cleaning procedures for Curry Village and the rest of the park.

This is not the first hantavirus outbreak recorded at Yosemite. In 2000, and again in 2010, people were exposed to the disease in the Tuolumne Meadows section. Both of those patients survived. The disease has an overall mortality rate of about 30 percent.

Diagnosis is unreliable immediately after infection because the symptoms are so similar to flu, though exposure to rodent droppings is usually an indicator that tests need to be done. If you are having hantavirus disease symptoms and you’ve been around rodent droppings, be sure to let your doctor know, since treatment gets less effective as the disease progresses. If you might have been exposed, a blood test will be given to look for signs of hantavirus infection. Treatment is typically oxygen therapy until the patient’s breathing is normal again.

B-Vitamin Deficiency

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is an important nutrient. It’s one of a group of substances called essential nutrients, meaning that in order to get enough B12, you have to eat foods that have the vitamin in them. It is needed to produce red blood cells and effects the functioning of the brain and nervous system; B12 deficiency can lead to anemia and dementia.

Although the body doesn’t make B12, it can convert any of the several forms into the kinds it needs. Vitamin B12 is found in fish and shellfish, meat, eggs, and dairy products. In the United States, synthetic B12 is often added to livestock feed, making farmed meat an especially good source.

Vegetarians, and particularly vegans, typically need additional B12. A compound found in soy products can reduce B12 levels by, in effect, mimicking B12 despite not being useable by the body, thus distracting the B12 utilization mechanisms.

Some medical conditions also cause people to need B12 supplements because they interfere with absorption. The drug metformin needs to be taken with supplemental B12. People infected with HIV have trouble with absorption. Patients who have gastrointestinal illness or have had intestinal surgery may be prone to B12 deficiency. Interestingly, insufficient B12 can both cause and result from anemia.

Because B12 is so important in building and maintaining brain tissue, it is necessary for everyone to get it in order to keep up cognitive functioning. Although getting enough—or more than enough—B12 has not been shown to improve memory or cognition in people who don’t have problems in those areas, it can help prevent such problems, or even slow degeneration in dementia and Alzheimer’s if they do occur.

Unfortunately, according to a Tufts University study, more than half of Americans are deficient in B12. It’s an easy condition to correct if you recognize it, however. Symptoms include weakness and tiredness, unusual pallor, rapid heartbeat, bleeding gums, stomach upset, and a sore tongue. An oral overdose of B12 is non-toxic, so if you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s probably safe to take oral or sublingual supplements, but you ought to consult a doctor.

The End of Flu Shots

Seasonal flu is more than just the sniffles. It can be fatal. In fact, there are approximately 36,000 flu-related deaths in the United States every year. That’s why, every year, health authorities urge people to get the flu vaccine.

The reason that message gets repeated is that the vaccine is needed every year, because the virus changes every year. While the technique for making a vaccine for a specific strain of influenza is known, the process still needs to be repeated annually. Medical researchers have to examine the flu virus anew each year in order to create a vaccine that specifically protects against it. The protean nature of the virus also means that last year’s shot won’t protect you this year. In fact, the virus changes itself in such a way that the shot you got last year will never protect you again.

The good news is that the shot you get five years from now—if not sooner—may protect you for life. Canadian researcher have recently begun testing a universal flu vaccine that protects against every strain, not just the current one. It even works in people who have been vaccinated for previous forms of the virus. This vaccination procedure takes advantage of the antibody that body itself produces to fight off flu.

The universal vaccine consists of, essentially, the body of a flu virus, but with all identifying details—which point to the specific type of flu the virus is associated with—removed. So the body knows it is flu, and is able to react to it as flu, without knowing what type it is. Though the idea of the technique is straightforward, it is only in recent years that advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering have made it possible to actually do it. Previously there was no way to get the body to recognize flu and respond appropriately without an indication of the particular strain.

In addition to a universal vaccine, researchers are hoping to create the first-ever cure for the flu. In addition to being effective in patients who have been previously vaccinated, the universal vaccine may be effective in people who’ve already been exposed, or even people who are already showing symptoms.

Human studies of the vaccine have not yet been begun, though they are expected. So it may be some time before the universal vaccine is a reality. In the meantime, be sure to get your annual flu shot.

Heart Disease in Children

Heart disease is generally a problem of adulthood, but children can be struck as well. In addition, in some cases doctors can know when a child has a significantly elevated risk of serious heart problems later in life. Often this is linked to an autoimmune condition called Kawasaki disease, the leading cause of heart disease in children. Around 5,000 children, mostly boys under five, are diagnosed with Kawasaki disease each year in the United States.

The condition is characterized by inflammation in the arterial walls. Initial symptoms are a sudden, persistent fever, red and swollen hands and feet, red eyes, and body rash. Other symptoms include a white coating or prominent red bumps on the tongue and swollen lymph nodes. More rare are irritability, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. These symptoms are the primary way the disease is diagnosed, since there’s no test for Kawasaki disease specifically. Blood and urine tests can show some of the effects of the disease.

Children diagnosed with Kawasaki disease need to be hospitalized immediately. Treatment is usually with high doses of intravenous immune proteins, called gamma globulins, along with aspirin. If treatment is started right away, recovery is very nearly certain, though about one in four children develop coronary artery problems. Patients are often kept on low-dose aspirin for about two months after being released from the hospital.

After recovery, patients should have an electrocardiogram every year or two as a precaution, in case heart problems develop. A study published in this month’s issue of Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology links Kawasaki disease to early-onset atherosclerosis, a precursor to heart disease. People who had Kawasaki disease as children need to be particularly careful about heart health. They especially should avoid smoking, eat a balanced diet low in saturated fats, and get plenty of exercise.

If your child is showing symptoms of Kawasaki disease, it is important to see the doctor immediately. Treatment needs to be started quickly to avoid heart disease and help the patient live a long and healthy life.

Cocoa Benefits Cognitive Function

A nice mug of cocoa can help your brain, according to the results of a new study. The 90 elderly subjects who drank cocoa fro eight weeks showed improvement on cognitive tasks when they got antioxidant compounds found in chocolate.

The antioxidants the researchers looked at, called flavanols, are believed to be involved in the formation of nitric oxide. Flavanols have some link to memory and problem-solving abilities. These abilities often decline with age. Flavanols also have been observed to have some benefit in improving mathematical abilities.

Nitric oxide widens blood vessels and helps prevent hypertension and stroke, but researchers also believe it increases blood flow to and within the brain. This improves brain function, allowing it to operate more efficiently.

Experts are cautioning that this is only a single study, and it is unknown how broadly the results can be applied. The result appears to be linked to a slight improvement in insulin sensitivity, meaning it improves physical as well as mental health. However, all the patients in the study already had mild cognitive impairment; it is not known if the effect can also be observed in people with total function.

A previous study, in 2006, found physical benefits to flavanols, mostly in the cardiovascular system. In that study, the effects were seen to be significantly greater in elderly subject than younger ones. The researchers in the 2006 study surmised that the difference was a result of the younger subjects being healthier to begin with.

The results were greatest with dark chocolate, with is richest in flavanols and similar compounds. However, all chocolate has them to some degree.

A compound called epicatechin, also found in chocolate as well as in tea and red wine, is another one that helps improve efficiency by maintaining the elasticity of blood vessels. Epicatechin also protects against sunburn.

Easing Treatment for Throat Cancer

There’s new hope for throat cancer patients. Several new treatments are making the condition easier to bear and easier to cure. This research will make the lives of patients easier.

Cancer of the throat or larynx is common in smokers, frequent or heavy drinkers, and men over 50. In the United States, around one in 12,000 people is diagnosed with throat cancer every year. Symptoms include hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, unexpected weight loss, and ear pain.

Laryngeal cancer respond very well to treatment—a 90 percent percent success rate if caught early. However, the treatments can be invasive, unpleasant, and drastic. Surgery is not infrequently performed even if the disease is caught early, and this may involve removal of all or part of the larynx. Radiation therapy is also a common treatment, alone or in combination with chemotherapy.

Fortunately, the discomfort and unpleasantness of radiation therapy can be diminished by an artificial salivary gland being developed at a clinic in Delaware. Radiation therapy patients can often have difficulty swallowing as the treatment dries up their saliva and damages the cells that produce it. This can make eating and drinking next to impossible, worsening the weight loss chemotherapy often causes.

The clinic researchers are working on a project to find a way repair the saliva-producing cells. The most promising technique would remove these cells, encourage them to produce saliva, then put them in a growth medium. Thus augmented, the cells are reimplanted when radiation therapy is finished. That would make it possible for patients to swallow again.

Drug therapy is also sometimes used for throat cancer. The primary current medication damages tumors but can also affect healthy cells. Scientists in Northern Ireland may have found a way to create more narrowly targeted drugs that disrupt the signals tumor cells use to attack healthy tissue.

One of the most effective ways to reduce your throat cancer risk is to quit smoking. Talk to your doctor about ways you can kick the habit for good.

New Discoveries in Metabolic Syndrome

Obesity and insulin resistance, when they occur together, increase your risk for a host of serious health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, stroke, coronary artery disease, kidney and liver disease, and, possibly, certain forms of cancer. The combination of risk factors is called metabolic syndrome, and it is estimated to affect 47 million Americans.

Most of them don’t even know it. Researchers believe the majority of people who have metabolic syndrome, or who are at risk for developing the condition, are not even aware of it. At the same time, doctors are beginning to recognize the importance of properly diagnosing and treating metabolic syndrome.

Some treatment—and prevention—starts at home. Research has shown that losing weight and staying active may be the best way to prevent and control metabolic syndrome. The anti-oxidant reservatrol, found in fruits, nuts, and red wine, may also help people to avoid the condition. Reservatrol has a variety of health benefits in lab tests.

In addition, several medical and dietary treatments have been noted, particularly in male patients. Men with metabolic syndrome who eat grapes can improve their odds against heart disease resulting from the condition. Grape consumption lowered blood pressure in one study, and the fruit also helped improve blood flow and reduce signs of inflammation.

Testosterone replacement therapy has proven helpful in a lot of cases. Indeed, testosterone deficiency has been demonstrated to be a risk factor for metabolic syndrome.

Another cause is gut bacteria. Though these bacteria do not cause the condition, they do make their host more prone to both insulin resistance and obesity, as well as other metabolic syndrome precursors such as high blood sugar levels, increased blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

If you think you might have metabolic syndrome, or be at risk, talk to your doctor about a weight-loss strategy that meets your needs.

Breathe Easy with Tai Chi

More and more people are turning to the martial art tai chi for stress management and as a form of exercise. In tai chi, the body is in constant motion. The movements—more than 100—are designed to be graceful and rhythmic and can, in conjunction with proper breathing techniques, help create a feeling of calm, leaving you untroubled, for the moment, by distressing thoughts.

Tai chi is inexpensive and versatile. It uses no equipment, doesn’t require any particular setting, and can be done alone or in groups. You don’t need to find a studio or a class, but at the same time, if you want to look for a class, there are a number, at a range of prices, in most areas. That means tai chi is great for someone who may not be able to go to a class regularly.

In addition to overall health, research has shown that tai chi offers some specific benefits. In a Chinese study, elderly people who did tai chi three times a week were found to have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The practice improved cognitive function and increased brain size over eight months.

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are marked by decreases in brain tissue and connections between various parts. Activity that helps the brain grow thus staves off dementia.

Another health benefit of tai chi, according to Australian scientists, is in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD often presents problems exercising because patients get out of breath quickly. Tai chi is one option for these people.

In fact, participants in the 12-week study showed improved endurance from two hours a week of sun-style tai chi. Balance and strength also improved. In addition, the patients reported better breathing and lessened anxiety after the sessions.

There are different styles of tai chi, at different levels of intensity. Some styles are fast and some are slow; some are better suited to people bringing more energy to the practice, some for people who may need something calmer. However, since tai chi is about technique, it’s suited to people who are unable to do other exercise programs.

Dementia Affects Seeing Sarcam

According to a new study, people with a certain type of dementia are limited in their ability to recognize lies and sarcasm. In fact, this inability can be observed notably before any of the usual symptoms of neurodegenerative conditions appear, meaning it can be used not only to diagnose dementia, but to predict it.

Failing to detect insincerity is more than just a social liability. People who can’t tell when they’re being lied to are easy marks for scam artists and confidence tricksters, who often prey on the elderly and vulnerable.

The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that detects insincere communication. In a condition called frontotemporal dementia, that part of the brain—along with the temporal lobe—undergoes a gradual decline. This type of dementia strikes only about five percent of sufferers, and often begins between the ages of 40 and 70.

The associated decline eventually leads to impulsive and socially unacceptable behaviors. Before that, however, scientists now say it leads to gullibility and an inability to tell when people are not being sincere, whether than means deliberate deception or sarcasm.

“If somebody has strange behavior and they stop understanding things like sarcasm and lies, they should see a specialist who can make sure this is not the start of one of these diseases,” said Katherine Rankin in a statement. Dr. Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, was the lead researcher on the study.

There is no surefire way to predict which patients will develop neurodegenerative conditions, including dementia, but with this study, doctors may have a much higher success rate. The researchers say this inability to detect insincerity is a reliable sign of degeneration, though by no means a universal one, and it can help identify which patients would most benefit from close monitoring.