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This week in the medical journals

By Peggy Peck
Medpage Today Senior Editor

Editor's note: has a business partnership with, which provides custom health content. A medical journal roundup from MedPage Today appears each Thursday.



Medical Research

No comfort for colds

Treatments that don't work made medical news this week, with the debunking of a popular "natural" cold remedy leading the list. Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine tested three preparations of echinacea and reported that none of them work. Echinacea, they wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, doesn't prevent colds and doesn't ease symptoms.

Cold comfort for echinacea fans

Good drug, limited benefits

In the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from the University of Massachusetts and Tufts Medical School report that drugs such as Propranolol and Atenolol, which belong to a class of heart drugs called beta-blockers, don't reduce mortality in low-risk patients who have surgery for conditions other than heart disease.

The drugs, which slow down the heart, reduced deaths after surgery by 42 percent in high-risk patients but had no benefit in moderate-risk patients and may have been harmful to low-risk patients, said the researchers. They studied hospital records from nearly 120,000 patients given beta-blockers and 216,000 patients who didn't receive the drugs.

The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology both say that patients with heart disease or those with heart disease risk factors should be given beta-blockers when undergoing non-cardiac surgery.

Beta-blockers don't reduce deaths among low-risk surgical patients

Can't turn back the clock

Continuing on the same theme, cardiologists at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reported that while exercise may carry a buff bod into old age, it won't keep the heart young. Aerobic capacity begins to decline when people are in their 20s, but the decline accelerates dramatically once a person reaches 70 regardless of daily workouts, according to the study published in Circulation, Journal of the American Heart Association.

But the researchers added that exercise still is vital to maintaining strength and flexibility and independent living in old age.

Aerobic capacity takes nosedive in old age regardless of fitness

Back to school and pesticides

With August approaching, returning to school is on the minds of many, and a report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health suggested that a health risk may be awaiting students and teachers. It turns out, the government scientists reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, that many schools are using highly toxic pesticides in buildings and on school grounds. The result is that both teachers and students are at increased risk for pesticide-related illness.

The assignment for school administrators, said the researchers, is to find the least toxic way to debug schools.

School kids and teachers bugged by pesticide exposure

Predicting prostate outcome

Also in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association two studies provided evidence that prostate specific antigen testing has a role in predicting survival for men with prostate cancer, but understanding that role is not a simple matter of interpreting a single test. The value of PSA is in its ability to change over time, and the faster the increase in PSA values the greater the risk of death from prostate cancer.

Change over time is key to PSA predictive value

Inside and outside the colon

Virtual colonoscopy can detect medical problems from outside the colon, said researchers from the San Francisco VA Medical Center who reported their findings in Radiology. Virtual colonoscopy uses non-invasive imaging by CT scan to find suspicious growths in the colon, but the byproduct of the imaging technique also detects growths outside the colon. In this study of 500 men, there were problems outside the colon in 9 percent of the men. The downside, however, is that that 63 percent of the problems detected by CT were clinically insignificant, leading to unnecessary additional tests.

CT colonoscopy detects more than colon cancer

Waistline headlines

A team of researchers from the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio reported that overweight and obese rheumatoid arthritis patients live longer than such patients who are normal weight or thin. Although the researchers report the finding, they are not sure what to make of it. It could, they wrote in Archives of Internal Medicine, mean that fat is protective, or it could mean that thin patients are likely to be sicker with more secondary diseases.

And the big weight loss reported by super-hyped, low-carb diets such as South Beach, the Zone and even the great granddaddy of them all, the Atkins diet, comes not from cutting out carbs but from increasing protein, said researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Proteins, it seems, really do stick to the ribs. So, beefing up often means consuming fewer calories. Fewer calories in means more weight off, they write in the American Journal of Nutrition. So for those who just can't pass on the pasta, add a few more meatballs to the plate.

Obese RA patients outlive thin RA patients

High-protein diets may promote weight loss by depressing appetite

Blood sugar and alcohol

People with type 1 diabetes should pass on the wine even if they add an extra slice of prime rib, said researchers at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital in Bournemouth, England. They reported in Diabetes Care that even a moderate amount of alcohol with dinner can increase the risk of hypoglycemia in the morning.

Alcohol with evening meal increases hypoglycemia risk for diabetics

Lost that loving feeling?

And if a bottle of wine, prime rib, and soft lights don't get the sexual mojo working, there may be a way to patch up the situation, said researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. A testosterone patch, they reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine, can boost libido and increase sexual satisfaction among women who have undergone hysterectomy and surgery to remove their ovaries. But, they noted, even women who used dummy patches reported improved sex lives.

Take home: If it works, it works.

Testosterone may patch up desire after surgical menopause

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