August 08, 2013

Study Ties Higher Blood Sugar To Dementia Risk

New research suggests a possible way to help prevent Alzheimer's disease, by keeping blood sugar at a healthy level. A study found that higher glucose levels, even those well short of diabetes, seemed to raise the risk for dementia.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, and doctors have long known that diabetes makes dementia more likely. The new study tracked blood sugar over many years in people with and without diabetes. Researchers found that the higher the blood sugar, the greater the chance that people would develop dementia, regardless of whether they had diabetes.

The work involved more than 2,000 people 65 and older in a Seattle-area health care system. Results are in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.


Small declines in obesity among young kids could help stem bigger problems in the future.
(Ocean/Corbis)
August 06, 2013

Falling Obesity Rates Among Preschoolers Mark Healthful Trend

A fresh analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the tide may be turning on the childhood obesity front.

After decades of steady increases, 19 states and U.S. territories saw small decreases in their rates of obesity among low-income preschoolers. And another 20 states held steady at current rates.

A CDC map shows several Southern states — including Florida, Georgia and Mississippi — that are part of the downward trend.

"We're beginning to see a tipping point," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden says. "We're beginning to see the scales tip in a more favorable, healthy direction."

The changes are small. For instance, in Florida the rate fell from 14.1 percent in 2008 to 13.1 percent in 2011. And dips in other states are similar during this three-year period. The data for the new CDC report comes from the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System.

Still, Frieden says the changes are encouraging, especially for this age group. He says children who are overweight during the preschool years are about five times more likely to end up overweight or obese as adults.

Now, there have been hints of a leveling off of childhood obesity rates for a while.

This map from the CDC shows decreases (light blue) and increases (gray) in obesity prevalence among low-income, preschool-aged children from 2008-2011. (CDC)

There have been measurable decreases in cities such as New York City and Philadelphia, where there has been concerted, comprehensive action to address the problem. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation points to other promising case studies in cities such as Kearney, Neb., and Vance, N.C.

So, what's responsible for the declining rates across so many states? Frieden points to several federal programs. For instance, changes to the Women, Infants and Children program that provides supplemental foods and education to low-income families.

Also, as we've reported, there's been an increase in the number of moms breast-feeding their infants as the results of support programs in hospitals nationwide. These efforts may lower the risk of obesity.

And municipalities, health providers and employers across the country have introduced all sorts of initiatives to encourage healthier lifestyles. Some doctors are even prescribing fruits and vegetables for their patients.

Many pediatricians say they're much more assertive about obesity-prevention efforts, compared to a decade ago. "It used to be a very awkward, embarrassing conversation to have [with overweight families]," says Dr. Margaret Desler of Kaiser Permanente.

Now, she charts kids' body mass indexes, or BMIs, at every visit and talks with patients and their families about their eating and exercise habits. "It just opens up communication lines," says Desler.

No one is claiming a victory over childhood obesity. "It's still a very serious epidemic," says Dr. Tom Robinson at Stanford University. But he says the CDC report pointing to small declines in childhood obesity is very encouraging.

"Small changes can magnify into large improvements in health" over time, he says.


August 06, 2013

U Of I Canine Cancer Drug To Be Tried On People

An anti-cancer drug for dogs is being tested at the University of Illinois and it's showing some promise.

Chemistry Professor Paul Hergenrother developed the drug compound known as PAC-1 in 2005 and has been testing it since then. He told The News-Gazette in Champaign that the drug has helped many of the dogs involved in the research.

Now the professor is getting ready to find out if the drug works on humans.

The drug essentially causes cancer cells to self-destruct.

Phil Meyer of Springfield believes his golden retriever, Blaze, likely lived with cancer a year or year and a half longer than she otherwise would have because of the drug.

Human trials will be conducted on patients with brain cancer.


blood donation
(Chris O'Meara/AP)
August 03, 2013

Lawmakers Want End To Ban On Gay Blood Donors

Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley has joined more than 80 members of Congress in a renewed push to end a ban on donating blood by men who have engaged in gay sex.

The lawmakers sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting an update on theagency's reevaluation of the policy.

Quigley, a Chicago Democrat, said Friday that despite blood shortages "perfectly healthy would-be donors are turned away based solely on sexual orientation.''

The ban was established in 1983 at the advent of the HIV-AIDS crisis. But lawmakers and others say there is no scientific evidence to support it. There have also been advances in blood screening technology.

The letter says progress in Health Department studies to support a policy change has been slow.


August 03, 2013

Director Of Danville VA Hospital Leaving

The director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Danville will leave this month to take over a VA hospital in Kentucky.

According to the Commercial News in Danville, Emma Mitchell announced Thursday that she will leave the VA's Illiana Health Care System. She will become the director of the Lexington VA Medical Center on Aug. 25.


Mitchell said in the announcement that she will miss her job in Danville. She became director of the VA facility in the town on the Illinois-Indiana state line in March 2012.

Her replacement has not yet been named.

The hospital serves veterans living in both Illinois and Indiana.


Many products are labeled "gluten free" on the outside of packages.
(Jon Elswick/AP)
August 02, 2013

FDA Approves Gluten-Free Label

The Food and Drug Administration issued Friday the first legally binding rules for what food companies can legally label "gluten-free."

The rules should help millions of Americans who can't tolerate gluten in their diet.

Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley and rye. Bakers appreciate its gluey texture for making bread. But when people with celiac disease eat it, it causes their immune systems to attack their small intestines.

About 3 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease. But they're not the only ones seeking gluten-free food, which has rapidly grown into $4.2 billion market.

A small number of children and adults have wheat allergy. And 18 million Americans who have neither celiac or wheat allergy experience symptoms from eating wheat — called gluten sensitivity. And still others may buy gluten-free food because they're paleo, or following another diet.

Many products, from beer to flour, already carry the gluten-free label. But until now there's been no official standard for exactly how free of gluten such foods have to be, though the FDA has been pondering how to set one since 2004.

The FDA's new rule says gluten free foods can't contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten. Below that level, gluten can't be detected reliably and only very rare individuals would react to it.

According to the FDA, most gluten-free food on the market already meets this standard. It goes into effect one year from now.

Andrea Levario, executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance, called the label a "tool that has been desperately needed," in a statement.

Doctors who treat people with celiac and gluten sensitivity were also enthusiastic.

"This is a really valuable step forward," says William Chey, a gastroenterologist at the University of Michigan.


medical marijuana
(Mjpresson/Wikimedia Commons)
August 01, 2013

Gov. Pat Quinn Signs Bill Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill on Thursday, making Illinois the 20th state to legalize the medical use of marijuana.

“This new law will provide that relief and help eligible patients ease their suffering, while making sure Illinois has the nation’s strictest safeguards to prevent abuse,” Quinn said.

The plan allows doctors in a pilot project to prescribe the treatment to people suffering from certain medical conditions, like multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Mike Benner, the executive director of the Greater Community AIDS Project of East Central Illinois, said this will also improve care for those living with HIV and AIDS.

“Some of the medications that people are on are still very toxic," Benner said. "They’re able to keep this virus at bay. So, they may have some issues with food tolerance and stuff like that. So, I do believe that it’ll probably help keep their appetite so that they can eat, but also I think it’ll help alleviate with a lot of the anxiety that just living with the virus can cause people.”

State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives, said medicinal marijuana will serve as a better alternative to pain relievers like morphine or Vicodin. He said those prescriptions have harmful effects.

“Those medications, which were designed to help them feel better actually ruined their lives,” Lang said.

Illinois’ medical marijuana law outlines a four-year pilot program requiring patients and caregivers to undergo background checks and sets provisions for state-regulated dispensaries.

Under the plan, patients are allowed no more than 2.5 ounces of cannabis every two weeks.

Supporters say Illinois’ law is strictly regulated to prevent those who just want pot for recreational use to get it from a medical dispensary.

The bill does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2014, but it could be months after that before grow houses are set up and producing marijuana.

Meanwhile, other marijuana laws in Illinois may not change any time soon.

Attorney Brian Vicente worked to legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado, which passed a ballot initiative last year.

"I think that it certainly will open up a broader dialogue about whether Illinois’ marijuana laws make sense or not," he said. "I think that when they see that this product can be regulated for sick people, they’ll say, ‘Well, you know, if we’re making tax money off this, why not just regulate it for all responsible adults?’"

But Gov. Quinn did not say much when asked on Thursday about decriminalizing marijuana.

"I think today is medical and that’s our focus," Quinn said. "Patient-centered. I think this is the right thing to do for today and that’s what I’m focused on."

Last year, Chicago adjusted its policing strategy to allow officers to ticket people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of arrest them.


August 01, 2013

39 Jobs Cut At Vermilion County Nursing Home

Thirty-nine people at the Vermilion Manor Nursing Home located west of Tilton are losing their jobs.

Vermilion County Assistant State’s Attorney Bill Donahue confirmed the announcement Thursday shortly after the nursing home was sold to a private equity firm for $3.4 million.

Premier HealthCare Management, which is partnering with FNR Healthcare Group, is now overseeing Vermilion Manor. Donahue said Premier did an assessment of the nursing home’s operations, and determined that it could stand to lose those employees.

“No one’s pleased when people are not employed because in this community we need employment,” he said. “We’re hopeful that’ll change over time as the resident population grows.”

Donahue said people losing their jobs have been notified, while around 130 existing nursing home jobs are still in place.

The Vermilion County Board sold the nursing home after struggling to maintain it.

A call seeking comment from the owner of Premier Healthcare Management was not returned.


August 01, 2013

U of I Phone App Checks For Food Safety

Afraid there may be peanuts or other allergens hiding in that cookie? Thanks to a cradle and app that turn your smartphone into a handheld biosensor, you may soon be able to run on-the-spot tests for food safety, environmental toxins, medical diagnostics and more.

The handheld biosensor was developed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A series of lenses and filters in the cradle mirror those found in larger, more expensive laboratory devices. Together, the cradle and app transform a smartphone into a tool that can detect toxins and bacteria, spot water contamination and identify allergens in food.

Kenny Long, a graduate researcher at the university, says the team was able to make the smartphone even smarter with modifications to the cellphone camera.


Agricultural work, which is very physically demanding, is also a risky business venture.
(Kirk Siegler/NPR)
July 31, 2013

Farm Laborers Get A Foothold With Their Own Organic Farms

Northern California's Salinas Valley is often dubbed America's salad bowl. Large growers there have long relied on thousands of seasonal workers from rural Mexico to pick lettuce, spinach and celery from sunrise to sunset. Many of these workers seem destined for a life in the fields. But a program that helps field workers, like Raul Murillo, start their own farms and businesses is starting to yield a few success stories.

Murillo leases a three-acre strawberry farm from a cooperative called ALBA Organics. It trains longtime workers in organic farm management and helps with things like fertilizer and irrigation tools.

Murillo can sell his berries back to ALBA's cooperative, which does a brisk business with grocery stores in the nearby Bay area.

If God permits, he says, he'll continue turning a modest profit so he can hire more people who need the work. Under ALBA's rules, Murillo can only lease this land at a subsidized rate for a few years — after that he's on his own. But it's a risk he's willing to take. Even though he'd leave behind the steady paycheck he gets still working for big growers.

It's about being your own boss, instead of working for a foreman, he says. And at 45, he wants to try going out on his own before he gets too old.

Murillo's story is not unlike many of the 50 or so other farmers-in-training here at ALBA. Many have spent their entire lives in the fields, moving from one harvest to the next, from California, down to Mexico, then back.

"So it gives them a chance to take a bit of control of their lives, and not have to work for somebody else," says Nathan Harkleroad, who is in charge of ALBA's training programs, which are run out of an airy, converted farm house.

"You know, is everyone going to make it? Probably not," Harkleroad says.

Probably not, because there are a lot of barriers. Language and the high price of land, to name just two. Still, since 2002, 90 ALBA graduates have managed to break through and start their own farms off-site. And they're doing well today. Harkleroad attributes some of that to growing demand for local produce. But it's also due to a lot of hard work.

"You know our farmers are here six days a week, and on their seventh day they're probably worrying about their crops here. So, you have to be willing to accept that. You have to be willing to accept a certain level of risk, too," he says. "Farming is inherently a risky business."

Gail Wadsworth, head of the California Institute for Rural Studies, which advocates for farm worker rights, adds that "the reward economically isn't that great."

She adds: "I don't think that there are that many farmers that you can look at and say, 'Wow, you know, they've really made it.'"

Wadsworth says ALBA's mission of empowerment and teaching business skills to long-marginalized farm workers is good. But she's not sure encouraging them to launch into farming on their own is a good idea.

"Agricultural work is physically very demanding," she says, "It's one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. But you're not risking everything that you own basically. You don't have the risk of owning land or a business."

That's why 23-year-old aspiring farmer Octavio Garcia has a backup plan. He's almost finished with the ALBA program. He's been able to hire three employees and is now looking for land to lease elsewhere in the valley.

"I want to be my own boss. And when I came from Mexico, I came with the idea of doing something better," Garcia says.

But if Garcia can't find suitable land to lease soon, he'll head to school. He's just been accepted into a plant science program at Fresno State.

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