health alert
June 12, 2019

On Wednesday, the Commonwealth Fund released a report billed as a "scorecard" for the U.S.'s health systems. And it doesn't look good.

Among the most troubling parts of the report is the fact that based off of data from 2017, deaths caused by drug overdose, alcohol, and suicide have reached an "all-time high," NBC News reported. These so-called "deaths of despair" have risen nationally, but they affect different states in vastly different ways. For example, drug overdose deaths predictably hit hardest in areas affected by the opioid epidemic, mainly concentrated in the northeastern states. Midwestern states, meanwhile, have a higher rate of deaths by suicide or alcohol.

West Virginia and Ohio had the two highest rates of death by drug overdose — both states have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. And comparing between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia's rate went up by 450 percent, while Ohio's went up by 320.

The Commonwealth Fund states in their report that these dramatic rises in death rates are "another marker of complex socioeconomic and behavioral health problems across the nation." They recommend increasing access to a drug that can save lives during an overdose, naloxone, and better legislating the prescription of opioids.

As a result of suicide, alcohol, and drugs becoming more prevalent problems, some states even have a decreasing life expectancy. As health care becomes more expensive, the report states, this presents an increasing problem for people who have trouble accessing health care because of their insurance. All in all, it paints a dire picture of our country's health.

Read more at NBC News. Shivani Ishwar

June 4, 2019

Will you be having the chicken or the beef?

Either way, you could be endangering your heart health, suggests a new study. The research has found that white and red meats can be equally bad for cholesterol levels, contradicting the common knowledge that white meat is more healthy.

The study, published on Tuesday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined people who shifted between eating diets high in red meat, white meat, and plant-based proteins. While plant-based protein was less likely to cause high blood cholesterol levels than meat-based protein, the difference in effect between white and red meats was insignificant.

That's not to say that you should stop eating meat altogether, though: "A combination of poultry, fish, vegetable proteins, and lean red meat" is still a good approach to nutrition, NBC News explained. It's more about how much saturated fat is in your food — whether white or red, meats high in saturated fat present the greatest danger to your cholesterol levels. As long as you're eating leaner cuts, white and red meat can both be parts of a healthy diet; in fact, red meat can even be an important source of vitamins like B12.

As always, "demonizing any food based on one study" is a dangerous route to take. "I don't want people to get too focused on an all-or-nothing approach," said Ronald Krauss, the study's lead author.

Read more at NBC News. Shivani Ishwar

May 29, 2019

Sure, Red Bull doesn't actually give you wings — but it might be doing something else to your body.

Researchers have found that caffeine and other ingredients common in many energy drinks can have adverse health effects, including sleep disruption, high blood pressure, and even cardiac arrest, CNN reports. And a study, published on Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that consuming too many energy drinks can actually change the electrical activity in your heart in potentially life-threatening ways.

While the American Beverage Association still maintains that energy drinks aren't more dangerous than other foods, health experts have long thought differently. Besides caffeine, many energy drinks include other stimulants — including "guarana, a plant that grows in the Amazon; taurine, an amino acid that's naturally found in meat and fish; and L-carnitine, a substance in our bodies that helps turn fat into energy," CNN explained — which may interact with each other, enhancing their potency to a dangerous level.

These interactions could be especially dangerous for children, pregnant women, or even people who just don't regularly consume caffeine, said John Higgins, a cardiologist at the University of Texas. With the study's new information, "people need to be aware of" the potential health risks associated with energy drinks, Higgins said. Read more at CNN. Shivani Ishwar

May 23, 2019

Kids who are the victims of racially-motivated bullying may be at risk in more ways than one, a new report has found.

The report analyzed data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, a voluntary survey administered to children through their schools. The results point to a worrying link between bullying and drugs and alcohol for children in California high schools from 2013 to 2018, U.S. News reported on Thursday. The data suggests that children who were bullied for their race, ethnicity, or origin were 11 percent more likely to drink alcohol, 9 percent more likely to use marijuana, and 8 percent more likely to use opioids or other medication not as prescribed.

The study found that black and Asian students were the most targeted for bullying, with 22 percent and 20 percent of each group reporting having been bullied at least once in the 2017-2018 school year. White students were the least affected by bullying, but that figure was still at 11 percent.

Being under stress can lead to risky or unhealthy habits even in adults. So the fact that it's affecting adolescents in schools is concerning, given that the still-developing brains of teenagers are already "more likely to engage in risky behavior," explained Virginia Huynh, a professor in child and adolescent development.

Read more about the survey and its results U.S. News. Shivani Ishwar

May 9, 2019

Buprenorphine, a drug that curbs the craving for opioid drugs, has been instrumental in the fight against the addiction epidemic our country faces. Reducing the cravings a drug user feels can help people on the path to recovery and reduce the chances of a fatal overdose. But as it turns out, this treatment isn't being offered equally to everyone who needs it.

A study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that an overwhelming majority of the patients who receive buprenorphine treatment are white. Between 2012 and 2015, the study showed, while the number of prescriptions written for buprenorphine surged, there was little to no change in the number of prescriptions for patients of racial minorities. This, worryingly, happened at the same time that deaths by opioid overdose were "rising faster" for black people than for white people, NPR reported.

The opioid epidemic has been framed "as largely a white epidemic," said Pooja Lagisetty, one of the study's authors, "but we know now that's not true." And yet white Americans are "almost 35 times as likely" to discuss buprenorphine as a treatment option as black Americans.

The problem may be partly due to funding. Because very few physicians have the special training required to prescribe buprenorphine, some doctors have resorted to taking direct cash payments for the drug. Only 25 percent of buprenorphine treatments that the study examined were funded by Medicare or Medicaid — which means that low-income patients might have a tough time affording the potentially life-saving medicine.

Whatever the cause, specialists are calling for racial parity in the treatment for opioid addiction. This study "demands for us to be looking at equitable treatment for addiction for African Americans," said Michael Botticelli, director of the Grayken Center for Addiction. Learn more at NPR. Shivani Ishwar

May 8, 2019

All over the world, technology is improving. Cars, running water, electricity, and other modern conveniences are spreading to more and more communities — and these changes bring a lot of benefits. But there are also some disadvantages, as one new study found.

The study, published in Nature on Wednesday, showed that people in rural areas contribute significantly to the global rise in obesity. While "the prevailing belief" is that urban areas are hotbeds for weight gain and sedentary habits, The Verge reported, the truth is that more than 55 percent of the rise in obesity from 1985 to 2017 came from rural areas.

Much of the rise has come from places with "emerging economies," The Verge explained, such as Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. While rural communities in developed countries have long had high obesity rates, the rest of the world is, unfortunately, catching up.

This data supports the changing of initiatives for global health. In addition to addressing issues like malnutrition, scientists are calling for a shift in attention to high-quality of food and the importance of exercise. "We have to think outside the box a little," said Sherry Pagoto, a professor of health sciences at the University of Connecticut. Obesity initiatives, instead of trying to apply the same methods worldwide, should be tailored to the needs of the community, whether urban or rural, she argues. Learn more at The Verge. Shivani Ishwar

May 7, 2019

About 700 women die every year in America due to pregnancy-related complications, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. And now, a report released by the federal agency on Tuesday says that most of those deaths — three out of every five — are entirely preventable.

In addition to the 700 deaths every year from pregnancy-related issues, 50,000 more Americans face serious complications, even if they survive. Hospitals and health-care providers have blamed this figure on "mothers being too old, too fat, or too unhealthy," USA Today reported.

But per the CDC's findings, the fault may lie more with a widespread failure to follow the recommended best practices for pregnancy and childbirth safety. And there are also "persistent racial disparities" in the risks faced by mothers of different racial backgrounds in the U.S.

The CDC's report calls for health care systems to be aware of the barriers that prevent high-risk women from getting appropriate treatment during their pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the warning signs that can predict pregnancy complications. "I urge the public health community to increase awareness with all expectant and new mothers about the signs of serious pregnancy complications," said Robert Redfield, the CDC's director. This awareness "can and does save lives." Read more at USA Today. Shivani Ishwar

April 30, 2019

Doctors are officially recognizing a new brain disorder that falls under the umbrella of dementia. While this new disease may come with many of the same symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, is thought to affect the brain differently and develop more slowly, and may be more common in elderly people.

The new type of dementia, called "limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy," or LATE for short, was identified and described in a new report published in the journal Brain on Tuesday. If the name sounds complicated, the disease is even more so: Because many forms of dementia can cause similar symptoms, and even overlap with each other, telling the difference and making the right diagnosis can get tricky.

But researchers are hoping that further research into the brain and the underlying causes behind these disparate types of dementia will help clarify things and lead to improved treatment options, CNN explained. For example, if drugs were designed to treat Alzheimer's, people who had undiagnosed LATE but thought they had Alzheimer's may have just thought their treatment didn't work — when actually, there might be new hope by seeking out treatments for this newly defined disease.

Further studies into LATE, and dementia in general, will be required in order to develop treatments that address the root causes and not just the symptoms. But this study is an important first step — a "roadmap," said Nina Silverberg, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Centers Program at the National Institute on Aging. Learn more at CNN. Shivani Ishwar

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