Friday, April 13, 2007
Chasing life has changed mine
By David Martin
Senior Producer

CNN Medical News

Talking to leading researchers on aging and reading up on their work for Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Special Investigations Unit special Chasing Life (Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET) has altered the way I eat, exercise and think about life in general.

You could say I've become an active participant in my health. With any luck, I'm healthier now and will gain a few extra healthy years at the end of my life as a result.

I understand as I never did before how the small decisions I make every day can affect how many vital years I have.

My lifestyles before and after "Chasing Life" are very different.

Before: I didn't think much about my diet.

After: I try to eat seven fruits and vegetables a day, preferably brightly colored ones rich in anti-oxidants. Fruits and vegetables are so much more effective than supplements or anything else we can eat at maintaining good health into old age.

Before: I ran a lot but didn't think much about lifting weights.

After: I try to mix it up a lot more. We lose a lot of muscle mass and bone density as we get older. Weightlifting helps on both fronts. Added strength later in life lowers the chance of a catastrophic fall in old age.

Before: I considered reading and writing as the way to brain health in my golden years.

After: I'm aware how the brain and body are connected. My diet, whether I exercise and how much stress I'm under all potentially affect how well my mind will function as I age.

Before: I didn't think much about the link between my outlook on life and my health.

After: I'm acutely aware how optimism, laughter and relaxation can all result in physiological changes that promote good health.

Before: I avoided tofu if at all possible.

After: I've tried to work tofu into my diet as a high-protein, low-fat, extremely healthy food. It's not so bad. Really.

Now, if I can only get the habit of flossing. That's been shown to add a year of life, on average.

Please let us know the ways you're chasing life.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Considering conception in a kit?
The Conceivex Conception Kit is available by prescription for $299
By Ann Curley
Assignment Manager
CNN Medical News


My friend Scottye is pregnant. In fact, she's having twins. But her road to pregnancy was rocky, and she and her husband spent thousands of dollars on fertility treatments. Scottye's situation isn't unique, particularly as women often wait longer to have babies. That's why a new product caught my eye when it recently received FDA approval.

It's been humorously referred to as "Baby in a Box," but its real name is the Conceivex Conception Kit. It's the only FDA- approved home conception kit. The kit costs $299.95 and is available with a doctor's prescription from the company's Web site www.conceptionkit.com. The kit includes eight ovulation predictors, a conception cap - a flexible cup-like receptacle that is placed over the cervix, a non-latex "semen collector" (actually a condom), a pregnancy test kit, a conception wheel to help plan when the baby will be born, a journal, and an instruction manual.

The maker says these items can be used together for as long as three months "to enhance the couple's chance of becoming pregnant." The most important part of the kit, according to the instructions, is the conception cap, which brings the sperm into direct contact with the cervix, increasing the sperm's chances of reaching the uterus and implanting in an egg. The manufacturer is careful to point out that the kit is NOT appropriate for more complex infertility issues including hormonal problems, endometriosis, low sperm count, blocked fallopian tube, and a host of other common conditions.

We showed the kit to several doctors, and the resounding reaction was that they didn't see any harm in trying to use the kit, but that women might have trouble placing a full conception cap onto the cervix without spilling the contents. One doctor pointed out that many women's cervixes are angled differently from the picture in the diagram, and he also pointed out that it might be difficult to remove the cap after the recommended six to eight hours.

This kit wouldn't have helped Scottye and her husband, who fit into the "complex" category. But it might be useful for a couple who need lessons in predicting ovulation, or in an instance where the man isn't fertile and they choose to find their own donor rather than use expensive fertility procedures, or perhaps in the case of a lesbian couple who have a donor in mind.

Would you try the Conceivex kit if you were having trouble conceiving?
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Expanding the base for Autism research
By Miriam Falco
Managing Editor, CNN Medical News

April is Autism Awareness Month, and in many respects, awareness of the neurological disorders that fall under the "autism spectrum disorders" umbrella has grown. The latest CDC statistics suggest that 1 child in 150 has an autism disorder - autistic disorder; Asperger's disorder; childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD); Rett's disorder; or PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). That's about 1.5 million people in the United States right now. The Autism Society predicts that number will rise to 4 million in the next 10 years.

Parents of children with autism face many frustrations, including finding the proper treatments, getting access to the therapies their children need and paying for the care, because many insurance plans don't cover autism. Just this month Harvard researcher Michael Ganz published a study that says the lifetime cost of autism is $3 million. He suggests that doctors and health-care professionals urge parents to seek financial counseling, so they are able to plan ahead.

There's no test or cure for autism. But researchers around the country are looking for answers to the question: What causes autism? They're finding more clues each day. But so more needs to be learned. And who better to learn from than families with children with autism? A new project launched by the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, hopes to accelerate the process of unraveling the mysteries of autism by bringing researchers and families together. It has created the "Interactive Autism Network," or IAN - the first nationwide online autism registry. Parents are encouraged to register at http://www.ianproject.org/, because they know things about their child that doctors, therapists and researchers are unaware of. Linking their knowledge to the scientists searching for better treatments and a possible cure is essential. According to Dr. Paul Law, the project director who also is the father of a child with autism, a lot of families want to participate in research, but either they don't know about what's already under way or it's inconvenient for them to go where the research is being done. The IAN project hopes to bridge that gap by providing an online tool.

Does your child, or someone you love, have autism? Would you participate in the Interactive Autism Network?
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
More clarification on supplements
By Caleb Hellerman
Senior Producer
Chasing Life

Judging from viewer e-mails, our report on anti-aging supplements struck a nerve. Most who wrote were upset and argued that research does support supplements after all, suggested that CNN is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry, or both.

Dr. Frank Pinto, the supplement enthusiast we featured, wrote to say that he was disappointed. "Like many other issues in medicine, further study is warranted. Another reason for taking supplements is to ensure adequate amounts of essential vitamins, minerals, and trace elements that cannot be adequately obtained from the diet."

That's certainly true. In fact, Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, says just 3 percent of Americans follow government dietary guidelines.

Our original headline should have been more specific. Our current headline better reflects the story's focus on anti-aging supplements. As you pointed out, there are well-supported examples of supplements' effectiveness that have nothing to do with aging. Here are two: Folic acid taken by pregnant women has been shown to sharply decrease birth defects, and the National Institutes of Health recommends additional selenium for many people with severe gastrointestinal illness.

It's also true that the book on anti-aging supplements isn't closed. Not just Andrew Weil but our e-mailers pointed out studies showing heart benefits from Omega-3 fish oil supplements (our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes one daily) and a potentially lower cancer risk from Vitamin D.

But mainstream science moves slowly. Neither the American Cancer Society nor the National Institute on Aging recommends supplements for the general population, and the American Heart Association "does not recommend using vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements to treat or prevent heart disease and stroke," according to its Web site.

This won't be the last word on supplements at CNN - I guarantee it.
Chasing Life: Stem Cells and Aging
By John Bonifield
Associate Producer
CNN Medical News

I peered through the window of an airlock into what might be one of the most controversial rooms in America. At the Geron Company in California, stackable incubators store human embryonic stem cells that are swimming in nutrients - the kind of cells that critics say are grown only by destroying life. The room isn't large, but it doesn't take a large room to grow something as small as a cell. And it's the vast number of cells this room is designed to grow that makes it unique. "What we have here is the world's first and probably the world's only GMP, fully-scaled production plant to manufacture embryonic stem cells," Tom Okarma, Geron's CEO, said on a tour of the company he runs.

How these cells will be used in the future is one of the most contested issues in medicine. In the United States, Geron is positioning itself to be among the first to test stem cell therapies in human clinical trials. It intends to ask permission from the Food and Drug Administration to test a spinal cord injury treatment by the end of this year. In paralyzed rats, it's improved mobility.

We went to the Geron Company for our reporting on Chasing Life , Dr. Gupta's new hourlong program for CNN's Special Investigations Unit that examines the keys to healthy aging. Our investigation also took us to a clinic in Russia where a doctor injects less controversial adult stem cells into patients to keep them young, he says - a claim no research supports. The potential of human embryonic stem cells is that they can transform into more specific human cells, but they can be obtained only by destroying an embryo; Geron uses embryos that were destined for destruction or being frozen forever and would never be implanted to develop into a child. Ethicists swings both ways. In investigating advances into how we age, I wanted to know how these cells might be used. Geron's Okarma said stem cells aren't the fountain of youth, but they will be the pills of tomorrow.

"The whole object here is not to change the lifespan - the biological limit of life. Stem cells are not going to do that," Okarma said. "What we hope stem cells will do is increase the health span - the fraction of our time on earth that is spent in good health."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta investigates stem cells in his new book "Chasing Life," available in stores now, and on CNN on Saturday and Sunday at 8 and 11 p.m. ET.

It was strange listening to Okarma describe how we generally die. We have one or perhaps two organ systems that because of disease or injury begin to malfunction first. They tend to be critical systems. The brain. The heart. The lungs. The liver. The kidneys. It's an inexorable decline that he says stem cells may one day prevent to keep us functioning up until the end of life.

How do you think stem cells will impact how we age? What would life be like at 80 or 90 without the need for caregivers? If we could create cells that would restore the function of critical organs as they are impacted by disease, how would it free us from the burden of premature death? Is it worth the destruction of an embryo?
Monday, April 09, 2007
A doctor's take on the plagues
Yesterday was Easter Sunday. In between conversations about the Resurrection and the sugar highs induced by chocolate bunnies and multi-colored marshmallow Peeps, I managed to make my way to the movies. I went to see, "The Reaping." I guess I hadn't had enough religion in church, so I had to turn to Hollywood for a little bit more. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. The movie placed No. 5 at the box office this weekend.

It's about a minister-turned-scientist, played by Hilary Swank, who investigates divine mysteries. She's called to a small fictional town in Louisiana that appears to be revisiting the 10 biblical plagues of the book of Exodus.

I've always found the plagues fascinating. The gory story is more than 4,000 years old. God, angry at Pharaoh and the Egyptians for keeping the Hebrews as slaves, unleashed 10 plagues: rivers of blood, frogs, lice, flies, murrain or disease affecting only the cattle, boils, hail, locusts, three days of darkness and death of the firstborn.

Over the years, archaeologists and doctors alike have tried to gain insight on the mystery. Dr. John Marr, an epidemiologist at the Medical College of Virginia, and many other scientists have come up with a "domino theory of natural causes" to explain the plagues. Some estimate that about a month passed between each one of the plagues.

First plague - bloody rivers: possibly caused by red algae sucking out all the oxygen in the water, producing noxious toxins and killing the fish. In addition to the dead fish, the algae itself turns the water color red.

Second plague - frogs: The death of the fish allowed for the unhindered breeding of tadpoles. But once the algae levels rose high enough to affect the amphibians, they were driven out of the water and forced to live on land. They could not survive out of the water for long and died.

Third plague - gnats;

Fourth plague - flies: Without any frogs or toads to eat them, the population of gnats and flies flourished amongst their dead bodies.

Fifth plague - disease;

Sixth Plague - boils: "May have been outbreaks of anthrax in cattle and humans, respectively," according to a 1999 CDC article in "Emerging Infectious Diseases."

Seventh plague - hail: "Hail isn't that uncommon, even in Egypt." says Dr. Marr.

Eighth plague - locusts: Arrived in time to eat up the crops destroyed by the hail storm.

Ninth plague - three days of darkness: Sandstorms are very common in Egypt.

Tenth plague - death of the firstborn: Deadly airborne mycotoxins grow rapidly in top layers of poorly stored grain. Starving Egyptians, out of fish and beef, dig out after a sandstorm and rush to the granaries for food. The first to enter would be blasted with mycotoxins and the first to eat, usually the eldest family members, ate the top, most contaminated portions of the grain.

To be clear, the biblical story of the plagues is not about how it happened physically or whether it happened it all. It has carried messages of overcoming oppression for generations. Even with scientific evaluation, it remains a mystery.

"The order of the plagues had to be in that order. The crescendo of terror culminated in the Pharaoh letting Moses' people go. Statistically, that in and of itself, is a miracle," concludes Dr. Marr.

What do you think about the 10 biblical plagues of Exodus? Do you think a scientific basis for the plagues bears any importance? How does this analysis affect your view of the plagues? Do you think there are modern-day plagues?
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