Top health stories of 2007

Is being overweight actually contagious? Quite possibly, according to research by Harvard and the University of California, San Diego. The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that when a participant’s friend became obese, the participant’s chance of becoming obese himself or herself rose by nearly 60 per cent.

Drug safety concerns provoke calls for stronger warning labels. Both Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Association have issued safety warnings for a number of drugs, despite the fact they are widely prescribed in both countries.

Of particular interest to older citizens are antipsychotic medications which are used to manage the behavior of seniors who have dementia. Atypical antipsychotics are drugs such as Risperidone (Risperdal), Quetiapine (Seroquel), Olanzapine (Zyprexa) and Clozapine (Clozaril). The Health Canada warning stated that in 13 scientific studies, older patients with dementia who were prescribed atypical antipsychotics had a 60 per cent higher death rate on average than similar patients taking placebos.

Despite the 2005 Health Canada advisory about the dangers of prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to seniors with mild dementia, the prescriptions for those drugs have increased by from seven to 40 per cent in six provinces from October 2005 to September 2007, according to a CBC report. (Read the full report.)

Another drug currently under debate is Avandia, which is used to treat Type 2 Diabetes. A study published by the Cleveland Clinic showed that people who take the drug had a 43 per cent higher risk of having a heart attack.

Several non-prescription oral cough and cold medicines intended for children under two years old were voluntarily pulled from Canadian shelves because of fears their improper use could lead to deadly overdose. For more information on drug safety issues, visit the Health Canada website.

Declining Breast Cancer rates. Thanks to better screening carried out on a wider scale, early detection and more efficient treatments, the age-standardized mortality rate for breast cancer in women in Canada has fallen 25 per cent since 1986, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

This year the Canadian Cancer Society changed its long standing recommendation regarding the importance of monthly breast self-examination (BSE). The society says that while women should take note of any changes in their breasts, that regular breast self-exams should not replace a mammogram if it is recommended for their age group or family history. (Read the press release.)

A better mammogram? In other breast cancer news, two studies this year found that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans are more effective than other techniques at identifying breast cancers in high-risk women. As a result, the American Cancer Society revised its screening recommendations to say that women at high risk for breast cancer should receive a breast MRI every year, in addition to a regular mammogram.

Risk of early death is falling. Death rates from all causes, including heart disease, dropped among all groups (except female diabetics), according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The improved prognosis was attributed to more people reducing risk factors for disease such as not smoking, lowering cholesterol and increasing activity, as well as improved diagnosis and treatment.