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Health Highlights: Sept. 4, 2008

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

    U.S. Workers Face Higher Health Care Costs

    About 59 percent of U.S. companies plan to control rising health costs in 2009 by increasing employees' deductibles, co-pays or out-of-pocket spending limits, according to a survey released Thursday by the Mercer consulting firm.

    Mercer said health care costs for both employers and workers will increase an average of 5.7 percent next year, the same as this year's increase, the Associated Press reported. There was a 6.1 percent increase in 2007.

    Since 2005, annual increases in health care costs have been around 6 percent, compared to double-digit increases in previous years, Mercer said. Even with single-digit increases, health care costs are outpacing inflation and workers' wages.

    Mercer said that between 2003 and 2007, the average deductible increased from $250 to $400 for a single person and from $1,000 to $1,500 for a family, the Associated Press reported.


    Study Finds 27% of University Students Addicted to Tanning

    Tanning dependence -- with symptoms similar to alcohol and drug dependence -- was reported by 27 percent of students at a large American university, according to a study by Carolyn Heckman of Fox Chase Cancer Center and colleagues.

    The study included 400 students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who took part in an online survey used to measure traditional substance abuse and dependence, United Press International reported.

    In this case, the survey measures were used to assess: an increasing need to tan frequently; discomfort when not having tanned recently; and difficulty controlling tanning behavior despite awareness of negative consequences such as freckles, wrinkles and increased risk of skin cancer.

    "We were surprised to find that 27 percent of those we surveyed were classified as tanning dependent," Heckman said in a news release, UPI reported "The finding that almost 40 percent of those surveyed had used tanning booths and that the mean age when tanning booths were first used was 17 is also alarming."

    The study, which was published in the September/October issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior, also found that students with a tanning dependence were more likely to be thin and to smoke.


    Bisphenol A Impairs Brain's Ability to Create Connections

    The brain's ability to create connections needed for memory and learning may be impaired by prolonged exposure to bisphenol A, a chemical commonly found in plastic bottles and food containers, says a Canadian study.

    University of Guelph researchers exposed African green monkeys to low doses of bisphenol A for one month. This impaired the creation of synapses, which affected communication between neurons, the Toronto Star reported.

    "The ability of the brain to remain plastic and to respond to things by changing its connection is a critical part of brain function, it's important for learning and memory, it's important for mood swings, for depression," said Neil MacLusky, a biomedical professor. Bisphenol A "dramatically impairs the formation of synapses in the regions of the brain where such processes take place."

    The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    In related news, a U.S. government study released Thursday said exposure to bisphenol A may harm fetuses and children and the chemical needs further study before it is deemed safe.

    The National Toxicology Program said tests in animals showed harmful effects from the chemical and rated concern about the chemical's risks for children at the middle of a five-point scale, Bloomberg news reported.

    While the study authors didn't recommend changing national safety standards, they did suggest parents may want to limit family exposure to bisphenol A. The study is the final version of a report issued in draft form in April.


    One Dead, Hundreds Ill in Oklahoma E. Coli Outbreak

    At least one person has died and 206 have been sickened in an E. coli outbreak linked to a restaurant in Locust Grove, Okla., a community of 1,500 people about 50 miles east of Tulsa. Those who've become sick range in age from 2 months to 88 years.

    The outbreak was first reported by health officials on Aug. 25, and the Country Cottage restaurant has been closed voluntarily for more than a week, the Associated Press reported.

    The exact source of the contamination hasn't been pinpointed. Health officials are testing food preparation surfaces at the restaurant and interviewing people who became ill.

    "The complexity of this outbreak and the necessity to be extremely thorough in our investigation means we still have more questions than answers," state epidemiologist Dr. Kristy Bradley said in a statement, the AP reported.


    Popular Diet Plans Safe and Effective: Study

    Four popular diet programs are safe and effective, according to Australian researchers who conducted a two-month study of 293 people who used the Slim Fast, Atkins, WeightWatchers and Rosemary Conley's Eat Yourself Slim plans.

    Some critics have raised concerns about such diet programs. But the researchers found that all four diet plans resulted in weight loss, while providing sufficient nutrients, BBC News reported.

    "This analysis provides reassuring and important evidence for the effectiveness and nutritional adequacy of four commercial diets in weight management for the general public," the researchers wrote in the Nutrition Journal.

    However, there was no significant increase in the dieters' consumption of fruits and vegetables, despite recommendations to do so, BBC News reported.


    Women Smokers Suffer Heart Attacks Earlier Than Nonsmokers

    Smoking is more of a threat to women's hearts than to men's, according to Norwegian researchers who analyzed data from 1,784 patients admitted to a hospital after suffering a first heart attack.

    The study found that women who smoke have heart attacks nearly 14 years earlier than women who don't smoke -- age 81 vs. age 66. Men who smoke have heart attacks about eight years earlier than male nonsmokers -- age 72 vs. age 64, the Associated Press reported.

    Smoking may cause women to go through menopause earlier, leaving them less protected against a heart attack, suggested Dr. Morten Grundtvig and colleagues from the Innlandet Hospital Trust in Lillehammer.

    The study was presented to the European Society of Cardiology.

    "This is not a minor difference," said Dr. Silvia Priori, a cardiologist at the Scientific Institute in Pavia, Italy, the AP reported. "Women need to realize they are losing much more than men when they smoke," said Priori, who was not involved in the study.

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