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Health Capsules: Jan. 10

Are you living with a silent killer?

You can’t see it or smell it, but it’s the second leading cause of lung cancer in America, and the top cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. And it could be silently leaking into your home.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas which comes from the breakdown of uranium. Radon in the ground, groundwater or building materials can enter and permeate living and working spaces, where it becomes dangerous when inhaled, especially over a long period of time.

During the month of January, which is National Radon Action Month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], together with the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, urges all Americans to have their homes, businesses and schools tested for radon. The EPA estimates that as many as 21,000 lung cancer deaths are caused each year by radon exposure. Smokers who also are exposed to radon are at especially high risk of developing lung cancer.

Levels of radon in homes and other buildings are measured in picocuries per liter [pCi/L], with measurements over 4 pCi/L considered above the EPA’s recommended “action level” for radon exposure. Most of Missouri is in the EPA’s “orange” zone for predicted levels of radon contamination of between 2 and 4 pCi/L; however, data for St. Louis County supplied by radon testing company Air Chek, Inc., and published on the County’s website [county-radon.info/MO/Saint_Louis.html], shows that more than half of homes tested in St. Louis County had radon levels above 2 pCi/L, and 28 percent had levels above the EPA’s action limit of 4 pCi/L.

Despite its dangers, exposure to radon is a preventable health risk, and testing for radon levels in the home is a relatively simple process. There are many kinds of low-cost “do-it-yourself” radon test kits that can be purchased online as well as at hardware stores and other retail outlets. If preferred, or if buying or selling a home, one also can hire a qualified testing company to do the testing. Although radon testing currently is not required by law for real estate transactions in Missouri, many area home inspectors now provide radon testing routinely as part of their service.

If a high in-home radon level is detected, immediate steps to fix the problem can be taken. Radon mitigation includes testing, installing a system and then retesting, and in general may cost between $700 and $1,200. The process typically includes drilling a hole through the home’s concrete foundation into the soil beneath, and installing a PVC pipe that runs up the wall and through the ceiling and roof. The hole around the pipe is sealed to make it airtight, and a fan is installed to create a vacuum effect, sucking the radon up and into the outdoor air where it can dissipate harmlessly.

More information about radon testing and remediation in Missouri can be found on the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services website at health.mo.gov/living/environment/radon/.

Additional information also can be found by visiting the EPA’s “A Citizen’s Guide to Radon” at www.epa.gov/radon.

Tea for two – healthy eyes, that is

According to the Tea Association of the USA, the antioxidants in hot tea can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, promote good bone health, support the immune system and lower the risk of certain cancers. Now, a new small study published online in the British Journal of Ophthalmology has found that drinking a cup of hot tea at least once a day also may help to significantly decrease the risk of developing glaucoma, a serious eye condition.

Glaucoma causes intraocular pressure, or fluid pressure inside the eye, to increase, damaging the optic nerve. It is one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide. The disease currently is estimated to affect 57.5 million people, and that number is expected to climb to 65.5 million by 2020.

Previous research has suggested that caffeine can alter intraocular pressure, but no study to date has compared the potential impact of decaffeinated and caffeinated drinks on glaucoma risk.

For this study, researchers analyzed data from the U.S. 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey [NHANES]. This nationally representative annual survey of about 10,000 people included interviews, physical examinations and blood samples, and was designed to measure the health and nutritional status of Americans.

In that particular year, the NHANES survey also included eye tests for glaucoma. Among the 1,678 participants who had full eye test results, including photos, 84 [5 percent] of the adults surveyed had developed the condition. All of the eye-tested participants specifically were asked how often and how much they drank both hot and cold caffeinated and decaffeinated drinks – including coffee, tea and soft drinks – over the previous 12-month period.

Those who drank hot tea every day had a much lower glaucoma risk, according to the NHANES results. In fact, after taking into account other potential contributors to developing glaucoma, [such as diabetes and smoking] hot tea drinkers were found to be 74 percent less likely to have developed glaucoma. No such reduction in risk was seen among participants who regularly drank decaffeinated tea, iced tea, coffee – either caffeinated or decaffeinated – or soft drinks.

The researchers noted that, because this study was strictly observational, no firm conclusions could be drawn about cause and effect, and that the absolute numbers of participants with glaucoma were small. The NHANES survey also did not include specifics about factors like tea type, serving size or length of brewing time, all of which may have been influential.

However, because other studies have suggested that oxidation and neurodegeneration may be involved in the development of glaucoma, and hot tea may have protective effects in both of these areas, their study has merit, they added, concluding, “Further research is needed to establish the importance of these findings and whether hot tea consumption may play a role in the prevention of glaucoma.”

Missouri researcher discovers potential new treatment for ALS

Between 14,000 and 15,000 Americans currently are estimated to suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS], also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Symptoms of this devastating disease may at first be subtle, but develop over time into obvious muscle weakness, followed by progressive paralysis, which eventually causes death. In newly published research, a University of Missouri scientist has identified a potential type of enzyme treatment that may help to lessen the severity and slow the progression of ALS, and also has suggested that this same enzyme pathway could help patients who have suffered strokes and other disorders to recover.

“Our previous studies indicated that an enzyme known as NAMPT [nicotinamide phosphoribosyltransferase] is primarily expressed in the neurons in mouse models, and overexpression of NAMPT can protect against further brain injury following a stroke. For these reasons, NAMPT became a good target of study,” said Shinghua Ding, an associate professor of bioengineering and an investigator at Mizzou’s Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center.

Ding and his team first observed that mice which lacked the NAMPT enzyme experienced progressive weight loss, hypothermia, motor neuron degeneration and motor function deficits, all of which also are observed in people with ALS.

Then the team treated the mice with a molecule called nicotinamide mononucleotide [NMN], which serves as a substitute for the missing enzyme. They found that mice treated with the NMN showed enhanced motor neuron function and overall improved health. This discovery shows that NMN is an important avenue for potential future ALS treatments, according to Ding.

“Remarkably, NMN improved health span, restored motor function and extended the lifespan in NAMPT-deficient mice,” Ding said. “Based on our findings, it is an ideal candidate for further study, and the possible development of drugs in the diagnosis and treatment of ALS and stroke victims.”

Vanilla may have benefits in treating psoriasis

Small amounts of artificial vanilla extract, also called vanillin, are present in a wide variety of consumer products, from baked goods to perfumes. But vanillin may have a significant health-related use as well. In a recent mouse study published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers reported that this compound could also prevent or reduce the inflammation caused by psoriasis.

Psoriasis is a serious inflammatory skin disorder that affects about 125 million people worldwide.  It results in scaly red areas called plaques that typically show up on the elbows, knees or scalp. Immune system proteins called interleukins are known to be key players in the development of the condition. Interestingly, vanillin can have effects on different interleukins that are involved in other inflammatory conditions and diseases.

Leaders of this study sought to find out if treatment with vanillin could prevent psoriatic symptoms. After inducing psoriatic skin inflammation on groups of mice by putting a compound called imiquimod on their skin, the mice were given various daily oral doses of vanillin for seven days. They found that mice treated with certain doses of vanillin had reduced psoriatic symptoms compared to those receiving smaller or no doses of vanillin. In all mice treated with vanillin, levels of two interleuken proteins specifically associated with psoriasis were decreased. The researchers concluded that vanillin was an effective compound against psoriatic skin inflammation in this animal model, and plan to continue their research into its potential benefits in humans.

On the calendar

Free health screenings for adults are available from 7:30-9:30 a.m on Wednesday, Jan. 17 at Progress West Hospital, 2 Progress Point Parkway in O’Fallon, in Conference Room B. Screening tests include lung function and blood pressure checks, cholesterol lipid panel and glucose testing, body composition analysis and BMI measurement. Participants should fast for at least 10 hours prior to screening. Pre-registration is required by visiting www.bjcstcharlescounty.org/events.

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Hoola Hoop Fitness Fun, a free fitness class for families with kids over the age of 8, is offered from 1:30-2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 21 at the Spencer Road Branch Library, 427 Spencer Road in St. Peters.  Join a fitness instructor for exercise and fun using hula hoops. Hula hoops will be provided, or participants are welcome to bring their own. Space is limited. To register, call (636) 441-0794 or visit www.youranswerplace.org/ecalendar.

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Area residents are encouraged to participate in an American Red Cross blood drive during the winter months, especially to help fill a critical need for A Negative and B Negative blood types. A drive in the St. Charles County area will be held from noon-4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 1 at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, Medical Office Building 1, 6 Jungermann Circle in St. Peters, in Suite 117.  To register for an appointment time, visit www. redcrossblood.org  or www.bjcstcharlescounty.org/events.

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Progress West Hospital sponsors a Stress Elimination class from 10 a.m.-noon on Friday, Feb. 15 at the Middendorf-Kredell Library, l2750 Hwy. K in O’Fallon. Participants discover their stress stage and solutions to become stress-free. There is no cost to attend. Register online at www.bjcstcharlescounty.org/events or call (636) 978-7926.

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