Friday, March 09, 2007
How do you "chase life?"
Ask almost anyone how he or she would like to live their golden years, and they'll tell you they want to be independent and active. Yet a new report finds more than four in five older Americans living with at least one chronic disease and half living with at least two, potentially cutting into the enjoyment of people's final decades. That's because chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke can cause pain, diminished function and loss of independence.

The report, released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Merck Company Foundation, suggests these figures might get worse in coming years. (Click here for a copy of the report) That's because how you live affects not only longevity, but how healthy you're likely to be in your retirement years.

The most recent statistics available on Americans 55-64 shows they are not as a group living particularly healthy lives. For example, 42 percent reported having high blood pressure; 57 percent weren't physically active; and 12 percent were diabetic. High blood pressure and lack of physical activity are also among the conditions that increase the risk of mental decline.

No one would choose pain, diminished function and a loss of independence in his or her retirement years, but that's potentially the result of decisions people make every day. Do you smoke? Do you exercise? Is your diet healthy?

In an upcoming Special Investigations Unit program, "Chasing Life" (airs 8 p.m. ET April 14-15 on CNN), Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks at ways to live the longest, healthiest life possible. The leading killers - heart disease, cancer and stroke - are often preventable with healthy lifestyle choices. In the course of our research, one of the scientists interviewed said the goal should be to live like a light bulb, burning brightly until the day we go out.

It's a nice image.

Tell us about any lifestyle changes you've made to "chase life."
Including STDs in "The Talk"
It was a hot and sticky spring day in southern Ohio. A group of fifth-grade girls waited anxiously for "the movie." I was one of them. We giggled nervously as a female teacher led us into the gymnasium. Our moms were waiting. We sat down next to them in cold, metal chairs. The lights were turned off. The projector began to whirl. Birds and bees and ovaries and fallopian tubes filled the screen. We were on a journey toward womanhood, while the boys played kickball in the parking lot outside.

Like many Gen Xers, "the movie" was my first foray into the adult world of sex. When I was a kid, my parents and teachers did a good job of explaining "how babies are made," but I don't recall a substantial conversation about sexually transmitted diseases, beyond AIDS.

After the reaction medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and I received to our story about dating with a STD, we decided to take a look at an issue facing many parents: How do you talk to your kids about STDs?

If you don't think this will affect you and your family, consider this: One in four women will get herpes (one in five men will contract it), and at some point in their life - half of sexually active men and women will get the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer or genital warts.

So where do you start? I decided to talk with pediatrician Larissa Hirsch. She's a fellow in children's health media with "Kids are having sex at younger and younger ages," Hirsch says. She says the conversation about sex and STDs should go hand in hand.

The doctor and her colleagues at have all kinds of great advice. Here are some of their top suggestions:

  • Encourage an open relationship with your children. A productive talk about sex and STDs happens long before the first questions about the birds and the bees. If your child can talk honestly to you about things such as friendships and grades, talking about STDs will be easier.

  • Know the facts. This is your chance to educate. Do some research and ask some questions. When it comes to STDs, teens and "tweens" may think they know the score, but chances are some of their information is wrong. Hirsch suggests starting by saying to your child something along the lines of "Oh, I know you know about STDs, tell me what you know." If you get them to talk, you can correct any misinformation they may have.

  • Ask what your child or teen thinks about sexual scenarios on TV and in movies. Who said MTV and "reality TV" wasn't educational? Hirsch says you can use plot situations as a lead-in to talking about safe sex and risky behavior.
Now it's your turn - what have you found that works and doesn't work? Also, most parents I know are shocked by the sexual scenarios their kids are exposed to on TV and the Internet. How do you deal with that? The forum is open... we want to hear from you.
Thursday, March 08, 2007
How a medical producer avoids E. coli
As a medical producer, I have to dig beyond the headlines of the contaminated food articles that are the top stories in many newscasts and newspapers.

But as a consumer I face the same issues you do when you're standing in the supermarket trying to make healthy and safe food choices. Although available statistics do not show an overall increase in outbreaks, there have been more in produce than meat in recent years.

Since I try to eat a lot of salads, last year's E. coli outbreaks have made me wary of the lettuce and spinach that's available - especially since most of what I can buy in local supermarkets comes from the part of California where the recent E. coli outbreaks have been found.

The Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many other food experts have lots of advice about what you can do to prevent food-borne illnesses.

Clean, separate, cook, chill... that's the mantra and it makes sense.

Clean: Washing your hands and surfaces and utensils with hot water and soap prevents cross-contamination.

Separate: Don't cut your veggies on the same cutting board as your chicken - if there are bacteria on the bird, they could be transferred to the produce, and unless you're boiling your salad, the bacteria won't be killed.

Cook: Thoroughly cooking your meat, poultry and eggs can save a lot of stomach pain. Using a food thermometer is the best guide. For someone who likes steak tartar, it's a hard pill to swallow. But it takes less than 100 E. coli bacteria to make you sick, so food needs to be cooked to temperatures high enough to kill harmful bacteria.

Chill: Refrigerate food quickly... because in a warm environment, the number of E. coli bacteria doubles every 20 to 30 minutes.

Another good tip one expert passed on: When it comes to making a "safe" salad, take a full head of lettuce and remove the outer leaves. They're a natural, protective barrier and where bacteria are most likely found. Once you remove the outer leaves, wash your hands so you don't transfer bacteria from the outer leaves to the untainted inner ones.

Have you changed your eating and shopping habits as a result of the recent bacteria outbreaks?
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
The human toll from E. coli
This past week, I had a chance to meet a family that was dramatically affected by the E. coli outbreak in spinach. Sure, like you, I heard the numbers. In fact, I reported that 204 people were affected and that three people had died. But those were numbers. There were real stories behind those numbers. So, who were these people? And, what happens to you if you are afflicted with the bad strain of E. coli? (Watch Video)

Well, seven months ago, Tiffany and Russell Erickson found themselves in the middle of the outbreak. Yes, they ate spinach contaminated with the 0157:H7 strain in Salt Lake City, Utah. The bacteria were then passed on to their two children. The parents recovered, but their 4-year-old child, Regan, became really sick.

He first developed nausea, and then strange puffiness. He started to have awful headaches and hypertension. He was developing one of the most devastating consequences of an E. coli contamination, something known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. His kidneys were shutting down and he needed dialysis. Again, all of this from spinach. He will recover and survive, but will most likely have problems for the rest of his life.

What is most difficult to comprehend is that our food is really no safer now than a year ago. The USDA and FDA are responsible for the food safety, but they have no definitive authority to recall food off the shelves - that is only done voluntarily. And, we have no way of knowing for sure that the food supply won't get contaminated again. Most people still don't worry about food safety, fully convinced it won't happen to them. The Erickson, family, though, used to think the same thing.

So, what do you think should be done to try and make our food supply safer?
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Heart attack or panic attack? Both require attention
When I was a medical student, I did a rotation on the psychiatry service at the University of Michigan. Most of the patients I saw were terribly debilitated by mental illness and required hospitalization, sometimes for weeks on end. Often, they had a long history of troubles and were besieged by their illness. Just by looking at these patients, you knew something was wrong.

I also saw a lot of patients who looked and acted perfectly normal. In fact, it was only after 15 to 30 minutes of questions did it become apparent that these patients suffered from crippling anxiety.

Without any specific reason, they'd begin to worry. A lot. Sometimes they would develop shortness of breath and a racing heart, again for no apparent reason. It can lead to substance abuse and depression. You can feel like you are dying. This morning, I profiled a man who fit that diagnosis exactly. Kevin Penwell was an All-American ball player, could run marathons, and had an MBA and the perfect job. One day out of the blue, he began to sweat profusely and started shaking. He told us he thought he was having a heart attack. He wasn't, but it sure felt like one.

Truth is, most people I have spoken to about this take me aside and say "Hey doc, I think that happened to me." Today, while I was doing a live shot on the topic, Miles O'Brien confided that he, too, had most likely suffered from a panic attack in the past. He's doing well today.

How about you? Have you ever suffered from a panic attack? How did you recognize it or treat it?
Monday, March 05, 2007
I benefited from PE - so should your kids...
Somewhere, in the back of my dresser drawer, along with my socks and old T-shirts, is a little white piece of cloth. It's a ribbon I won when I was in sixth grade, for placing third in the 100-yard dash at my school. To most people my age, that little memento would have been in the trash years ago, but I have held on to it for one reason. Until the time I received that ribbon, I had never been very good at sports.

You see, I was a chubby kid. Not obese, not heavy, just chubby and chubby kids just didn't get to play with the "big leaguers," especially when the "big leaguers" were other sixth-graders who were faster, stronger and thinner. I couldn't kick a ball very far, I never crossed the monkey bars without falling and I always became winded when I ran. But every day, I would go out to the playground for PE and try my best to improve, until one day I outran a girl in my class. Then I beat two others, then three more! I was invincible!!! I kept running. I started to gain more confidence, my weight began to drop and I was now a force to be reckoned with. Finally at the end of the year, our school held a Sports Day, sponsored by the President's Council on Physical Fitness. I ended up in the final pack of ten runners.

You know after all these years, I can still smell the air that day, feel the sun on my shoulders as I ran towards that finish line. I didn't win, but I placed and to me that was my greatest victory ever. I was a school-honored athlete. Since that time, I've won many awards, both in sports and in my professional life but that little white ribbon will always be my most prized possession.

Today, many of our schoolchildren will never have the chance to know the "thrill of victory" that I experienced. It's not because they aren't capable; they've just never been given the time or space to go out and play. With cuts to our schools' PE programs and lifestyles that promote indoor activities, many youngsters don't get as many opportunities to run, leap or jump. And that has caused a nation of heavy kids.

Now a coalition of private, public and non-profit groups including the YMCA and the National Recreation and Park Association have formed a partnership called "Play Every Day." Their goal is to make that sure every child in this country has the opportunity to get out and play at least 60 minutes every day. Sixty minutes is important, because doctors have found that keeping active for an hour can ward off heart disease and Type 2 diabetes in children.

Sixty minutes may sound easy, but it's not. That's because a lot of kids today are conditioned to watch TV or play video games during their free time. Their thumbs are the strongest muscles they have. Many parents are leery of letting their kids go to public playgrounds for safety reasons. And in some cases, new schools are being built without playgrounds, because of budget restrictions.

The group, which recently kicked off its campaign, hopes to provide money and ideas to create new programs and legislation that will make it easier for children to get off the couch and go back to the playground. Along with researchers from Stanford University, the coalition has come up with a "Community Play Index" that will measure or gauge which projects promote the most physical activity and whether they're worth funding .That means, for example, more money for school playgrounds, revenue for sidewalks for housing divisions that have only streets to play on, and funding for police presence at unsafe community parks.

The partnership hopes, if its efforts work, that more students will have the opportunity to get out, get going and get fit.

Do you know of programs in your community or schools that can help kids become more active? I'd like to hear about them.
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends -- info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.
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