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Health Capsules: Nov. 21

By: Lisa Russell


Sniffing out the best assistance dogs

New research shows that testing young dogs’ cognitive abilities may help to more quickly identify the best potential service animals.

The demand for service dogs is increasing rapidly in the U.S. Due to the many challenges involved with identifying and training these specialized dogs, however, that demand greatly exceeds the current supply.
Only about 50 percent of dogs that start a training program to become assistance animals will successfully complete it. As a result, the wait time to receive a trained assistance dog can be up to two years.
While a dog’s physical characteristics and temperament have traditionally been the top priorities when evaluating potential assistance dogs, University of Arizona researchers recently looked at whether cognitive ability is also a good predictor of a dog’s success as a service animal – before the long and expensive training process begins.
“People have really focused on temperament and how reactive a dog is to certain things in the environment,” said Evan MacLean, assistant professor in the UA School of Anthropology. “What we were interested in was the fact that these dogs also face cognitive challenges. They have to learn all these things in the course of their training, and they have to be able to flexibly solve problems when things go wrong.”
The study focused on both assistance dogs in training for people with disabilities, and explosive detection dogs being trained to work for the U.S. Navy. MacLean and his colleagues looked at the performance of both types of dogs on 25 different cognitive measures by using a battery of game-based tests, like hiding and finding objects and other forms of canine play. Dogs in the study were considered “successful” based on whether or not they ultimately graduated from the training.
Through cognitive testing, MacLean and his colleagues were able to predict the top 25 percent of graduates with 86 percent accuracy. They also found that different sets of skills predict whether a dog will be a good detection dog or a good assistance dog. In assistance dogs, social skills such as the ability to pay close attention to and maintain eye contact with humans were especially important. In detection dogs, good short-term memory and sensitivity to human body language were the best predictors of success.
The study’s findings suggest that cognition is an important factor, alongside temperament and physical traits, in predicting working dog success. If organizations that train dogs could better predict which dogs are most worth the investment, it would not only help ensure that people in need get the right dogs faster, but tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary training costs could be saved, MacLean said.

Home blood pressure readings can reliably diagnose hypertension
Blood pressure readings of 130/80 millimeters of mercury [mm Hg] or higher taken at home can be used to diagnose hypertension in white, black and Hispanic U.S. adults, according to new research published in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.
Researchers analyzed large multi-ethnic studies that compared blood pressure readings taken at home to clinic measurements, of adults between the ages of 30 and 65 in Dallas, Texas and Durham, North Carolina. During a follow-up period of 11 years, they also determined that people with high blood pressure levels measured at home had the same heart disease risk as people with similar levels measured by medical professionals.
“It’s important to measure blood pressure at home because clinic readings might not reflect a person’s true blood pressure. Some people have higher readings in the clinic because of the ‘white coat’ phenomenon, while studies have shown that others – especially, blacks – have lower blood pressure readings in the clinic than at home,” said the study’s leader, Dr. Wanpen Vongpatanasin.
With the definition of high blood pressure redefined in 2017 as consistent readings at or above 130/80 mm Hg, nearly half [46 percent] of U.S. adults now have hypertension. Research has previously found that at least 30 to 45 percent of U.S. adults with hypertension regularly monitor their blood pressure at home.

Signs of type 2 diabetes begin years before diagnosis
The earliest signs of type 2 diabetes can be identified as many as 20 years before the disease is actually diagnosed, according to new research conducted in Japan.
The study tracked over 27,000 non-diabetic adults, with an average age of 49, between 2005 and 2016 and found that increased fasting glucose, higher body mass index [BMI] and impaired insulin sensitivity were detectable up to 10 years before the diagnosis of diabetes was made.
“As the vast majority of people with type 2 diabetes go through the stage of prediabetes, our findings suggest that elevated metabolic markers for diabetes are detectable more than 20 years before its diagnosis,” said Dr. Hiroyuki Sagesaka, the study’s leader.
The research has important implications given that an estimated 425 million adults worldwide were living with diabetes in 2017, and this number is predicted to rise to 629 million by 2045, Sagesaka said. It’s especially important in light of the fact that type 2 diabetes can be prevented with early diet and lifestyle changes.
“Because trials of prevention in people with prediabetes seem to be less successful over long term follow up, we may need to intervene much earlier than the prediabetes stage to prevent progression to full blown diabetes,” he said.

On the calendar
BJC St. Louis Children’s Hospital offers a Babysitting 101 course on Saturday, Dec. 1 at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, 10 Hospital Drive in St. Peters, in Suite 117 of Medical Office Building 1. Topics covered include the business of babysitting, child development, safety and first aid, and fun and games. A workbook, backpack and light snack are provided. The course fee is $30 per child. To register, call (636) 344-KIDS (5437).
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An American Red Cross Community Blood Drive is on Monday, Dec. 3 from 3-7 p.m. at VFW Post 5077, 8500 Veterans Memorial Parkway in O’Fallon. Register online at redcrossblood.org or by phone at 1-800-733-2767.
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BJC offers free Know Your Numbers health screenings on Wednesday, Dec. 5 from 9-11 a.m. at Kathryn Linneman Branch Library, 2323 Elm St. in St. Charles. Screenings include fasting glucose, cholesterol, lung function, blood pressure and BMI measurements; participants. To register, visit bjcstcharlescounty.org/Events.

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