Health Updates 30 March 2012

  • Autism rate climbs again: “In a large autism monitoring network, an estimated one out of every 88 8-year-olds had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2008, the most recent year with data available, CDC researchers reported.  That’s a relative increase of 23% from the same network for 2006, when the estimated prevalence was one out of 111 children, and a 73% relative increase from 2002, according to a surveillance summary in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.  But getting a firm grasp on the prevalence of ASD is tricky because of a lack of objective diagnostic markers and changes in clinical definitions over time, so it’s unknown how much of the increase is real and how much is related to changing diagnostic criteria and better identification of cases.  CDC director Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, noted on a conference call with reporters that doctors have gotten better at diagnosing autism and communities have gotten better at providing needed services.  ‘So at this point I think there is the possibility that the increase…is entirely the result of better detection,’ Frieden said, while acknowledging the uncertainty.  Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization, argued  that only part of the increase in prevalence could be explained by broader diagnosis, with about half of the rise still unexplained.  ‘One thing the data tell us with certainty is that there are many children and families who need help,’ Frieden agreed….Children are considered to have an ASD if they display behaviors consistent with autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not-otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), or Asperger disorder.” (Todd Neale, MedPage Today)
  • 911 dispatchers may suffer from post-traumatic stress: “Answering 911 calls for help may cause emergency dispatchers to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a new study has found.  Even indirect exposure to traumatic events could lead to psychological disorders, whether a person personally knows the victims or not, according to a report published in the March issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress.  ‘Post-traumatic psychological disorders are usually associated with frontline emergency workers, such as police officers, fire fighters or combat veterans,’ study author Dr. Michelle Lilly, assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., said in a journal news release.  ‘Usually, research considers links between disorders and how much emotional distress is experienced on the scene of a traumatic event,’ Lilly said.  ‘However, this is the first study on emergency dispatchers, who experience the trauma indirectly’….The unexpected injury or death of a child accounted for 16 percent of the calls dispatchers identified as their worst trauma.  Nearly 13 percent of the worst calls identified were suicidal callers, about 10 percent were police-officer shootings and another 10 percent involved the unexpected death of an adult, the investigators found.  The study authors noted that the dispatchers experienced a high level of distress following an average of 32 percent of potentially traumatic calls.  In addition, 3.5 percent of the dispatchers reported symptoms severe enough to be classified as  PTSD.” (HealthDay)
  • The chocolate diet?  “Chocolate may not be as hazardous to your waistline as you think – at least in moderation.  A new study shows that people who eat chocolate frequently have lower body mass indexes than those who eat it less often.  The researchers could not explain precisely why something usually loaded with sugar, fat and calories would have a beneficial effect on weight.  But they suspect that antioxidants and other compounds in chocolate may deliver a metabolic boost that can offset its caloric downside.  Chocoholics may know that in recent years chocolate has been linked to a growing list of health benefits.  Studies have found, for example, that regularly eating chocolate may lower blood pressure and cardiovascular risk, and improve cholesterol and insulin regulation. Although the new study is among the first to look at chocolate’s effect on weight, the findings ‘are compatible with other evidence showing favorable metabolic effects that are known to track with body mass index,’ said Dr. Beatrice A. Golomb, lead author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego.”  Now, this is not permission to binge on chocolate! “It’s not the case that eating the largest amount of chocolate is beneficial; it’s that eating it more often was favorable,” Dr. Golomb said.  “If you eat 10 pounds of chocolate a day, that’s not going to be a favorable thing.” (NY Times)
  • Stigma, shame can worsen depression in lung cancer patients: “Feelings of shame, social isolation and rejection can heighten depression in lung cancer patients, a new study finds.  The findings may help explain why depression is more common among lung cancer patients than among patients with other kinds of cancer, according to the researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.  ‘Given its strong association with tobacco use, lung cancer is commonly viewed as a preventable disease,’ study co-author Paul Jacobsen said in a Moffitt news release.  ‘Consequently, patients may blame themselves for developing lung cancer and feel stigmatized.  Even lung cancer patients who have never smoked often felt — accurately or inaccurately — that they were being blamed for their disease by friends, loved ones and even health-care professionals.’  For the study, the researchers gave mental-health questionnaires to lung cancer patients and found that 38 percent of them suffered from depression.  Greater levels of perceived stigma were associated with greater levels of depression….’Documenting this link between stigma and depression is important because it adds further evidence to the growing body of research suggesting a link between illness-related stigma and the symptoms of depression,’ Jacobsen said.  ‘For example, studies on depression and HIV have found similar links between disease, stigma and depression’.  The findings suggest that psychotherapeutic approaches might be useful in treating or preventing depression in lung cancer patients, study co-author Brian Gonzalez said.  ‘Many approaches to reducing perceived stigma focus on education of the public about lung cancer inaccuracies and stereotypes, and replacing those inaccuracies with facts,’ Gonzalez said in the news release.” (HHS/

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