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Health Capsules: July 10

Could expectant moms’ diets contribute to autism?

Recent research may link pregnant women’s consumption of PPA, a substance in processed foods, with autism in their babies.

Despite the growing numbers of young children diagnosed with autism, pinpointing its causes remains elusive. Researchers at the University of Central Florida now say they are closer to proving a link between processed foods pregnant women commonly consume and the onset of autism in their babies’ developing brains.

Propionic acid [PPA], which is used to increase the shelf life of packaged foods and prevent mold in commercially processed cheese and bread, reduces the development of neurons in fetal brains, the UCF team recently found. If consumed at high levels, it could cross from mother to developing fetus, they suggested.

Their research, which involved exposing neural stem cells to PPA, found that the acid damages brain cells in a number of ways: by causing inflammation, disturbing connectivity between neurons and impeding the brain’s ability to communicate with the body.

Dr. Saleh Naser, who specializes in gastroenterology research at UCF, launched the study after he became interested in a possible link between the gut and brain in autism. Because autistic children often suffer from gastric issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, he wanted to examine how the microbiome – or bacterial environment present in the gut – differed between people with autism and those without the condition.

“Studies have shown a higher level of PPA in stool samples from children with autism and the gut microbiome in autistic children is different,” Naser explained. “I wanted to know what the underlying cause was.”

Previous studies have proposed links between autism and both environmental and genetic factors, but the UCF team said their study is the first to discover the link between elevated levels of PPA, disturbed neural circuitry in the brain and autism.

Younger women – and men – at risk of osteoporosis

Low bone density was found to be common in both men and women under 50 in a recent study.

Most women under 50 would probably dismiss osteoporosis as a problem they don’t need to worry about yet … and the vast majority of men would probably dismiss it completely. However, random testing of about 175 men and women between 35 and 50 recently found that more than a quarter of adults of both sexes had osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis.

In fact, 28% of younger men tested were found with osteopenia, compared with 26% of women. This result was surprising for both the participants and the University of Mississippi scientists conducting the trial, who did not expect the condition to be more prevalent in men.

Osteopenia occurs when bone mineral density [BMD], the primary measurement of bone health, is lower than normal. An adult’s peak BMD is generally established by age 30 and begins to decline with age, so younger adults who don’t have sufficiently strong bones are at risk for developing osteoporosis at earlier ages. A bone fracture is often the first symptom of osteoporosis after years of silent, worsening bone loss.

Genetic factors, lifestyle, nutrition and physical activity are all contributors to bone health.

Their research suggests that more bone health assessments should be conducted to help middle-aged adults understand their future risk of osteoporosis, said Martha Ann Bass, Ph.D., associate professor of Health, Exercise Science and Recreational Management at the university.

“We typically associate loss of bone mineral density with post-menopausal women, but our findings showed elevated risk in younger men. Almost all participants who were found to have osteopenia were surprised and I think this is a more prevalent issue than anyone expected,” Bass said.

Bass added that the best way for adults to maintain their highest possible BMD is through weight-bearing exercises, like walking, running and moderate weight lifting. The study was published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

On the calendar

A free class for caregivers, Positive Thinking, is offered on Thursday, July 18 from 3:30-5:30 p.m. at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital, 10 Hospital Drive in St. Peters, in Room 108A of Medical Office Building 1. This class, part of a monthly caregiver series, is best for friends and family members caring for someone who is developmentally disabled; however, topics are relevant for anyone caring for someone with a chronic condition. For more information or to register, call (636) 928-9355.

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BJC St. Louis Children’s Hospital sponsors a Babysitting 101 class on Saturday, July 20 from 1-5 p.m. at Progress West Hospital, 2 Progress Point Parkway in O’Fallon, in Conference Room B. 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. Advance registration is available by calling (636) 344-5437.

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BJC St. Louis Children’s Hospital sponsors a Staying Home Alone course on Saturday, July 20 from 10-11:30 a.m. at the McClay Branch Library 2760 McClay Road in St. Charles. This class is designed for parents and children to attend together; it will help to determine a child’s physical, mental, social and emotional readiness to stay home alone and prepare them for the experience. The fee is $25 per family. To register, call (314) 454-5437.

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BJC of St. Charles County sponsors a special “Evening with the Experts” presentation, Breast Health: Current Events and News, on Wednesday, July 24 from 6:45-8 p.m. at Siteman Cancer Center, 150 Entrance Way in St. Peters. Breast cancer prevention, detection and treatment news is all over the internet and social media, but how can you determine what is relevant to you? Join BJC experts to discuss the latest recommendations, treatments and therapies as well as screening. The session will be followed by a Q&A session and a yoga wellness bonus. Attendance is free. Advance registration is preferred and is available online at bjcstcharlescounty.org/Events.

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