In Brief

October 06, 2006


Third of infant deaths due to prematurity

At least a third of infant deaths in the United States are the direct result of prematurity, double the proportion previously believed, federal researchers report.

Prior data obtained solely from death certificates had indicated that birth defects were the major cause of death among infants in their first year. But linking death certificates with birth certificates, which include gestational age, shows that birth before 37 weeks of gestation plays the dominant role, according to the study. A full term is 38 to 42 weeks.

Prematurity is the direct cause of death for half of those who die in the first month of life, and also for 95 percent of those who are delivered before the 32nd week of pregnancy, according to the report in this week's edition of the journal Pediatrics.

"What this says is that we need to focus a lot more effort on prevention and the study of what leads to prematurity," said Dr. Gabriel Escobar of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., who was not associated with the study.



Sewage from land endangering water

Untreated sewage pouring into the world's seas and oceans is polluting their water and coastlines and endangering the health and welfare of the people and animals that inhabit them, according to a bleak new United Nations report released this week.

Oceans also are suffering from rising levels of nutrients such as runoff from agricultural land, triggering toxic algal blooms that deprive the water of oxygen, destruction of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and a rising tide of ocean litter, says the State of the Marine Environment report drawn up by the U.N. Environment Program.

"An estimated 80 percent of marine pollution originates from the land and this could rise significantly by 2050," said U.N. Environment Program chief Achim Steiner.

The good news: oil pollution is falling and progress is being made in preventing radioactive materials, industrial chemicals and pesticides from tainting the oceans, the report said. The amount of oil entering the oceans has decreased to 37 percent of its 1985 levels, with spills from tanker accidents down 75 percent.

Associated Press


Menthol cigarettes harder to quit

Minty menthol cigarettes may have a cooling, anesthetic effect, but that sensation comes with a price: They could be harder to quit than regular cigarettes, a new study has found.

"Per cigarette, menthols are no more or less harmful than any other," said Dr. Mark J. Pletcher, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco and lead author of the study. "But menthol smokers may have a harder time quitting and may need some extra encouragement and support when they try to quit."

A study of 1,200 smokers over 15 years found that 69 percent of people who smoked menthol cigarettes in 1985 were still smokers in 2000, while 54 percent of nonmenthol users still smoked. It also found that menthol smokers were almost twice as likely to relapse and were less likely to stop smoking for a sustained period of time.

Menthol's cooling and anesthetic effect encourages people to hold their breath longer, which decreases nicotine metabolism and increases levels of addictive nicotine in the blood. The study was in the Sept. 25 edition of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Los Angeles Times


Longer ring finger may help in sports

Want to know whether your daughter could get an athletic scholarship? Take a look at her fingers. British scientists say that if she has a really long ring finger and a short index finger, she'll do better in sports, according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The two fingers are usually almost equal length, but the ratio between the second and fourth fingers is a burgeoning area of research linked to fertility, vulnerability to serious disease, intellectual ability, personality traits and musical talent.

In the latest study, the researchers looked at X-rays of the right and left hands of 607 female twins. Their average age was 53. The mostly right-handed women ranked their highest achievement in individual and team sports.

The study found the association with finger ratio was highest for running, soccer and tennis. The best runners had the lowest second-to-fourth-finger ratio - meaning long ring fingers and short index fingers.

The authors aren't really sure whether it's exposure to sex hormones in the womb or genetic factors, but the ratio stays the same throughout life. Men tend to have a lower ratio than women.



Athlete EKGs may cut cardiac arrests

Testing athletes' hearts dramatically lowered the rate of sports-related sudden cardiac deaths in Italy, a study suggests.

There are roughly two dozen sports-related deaths of high school and college students from sudden cardiac arrest in the United States each year. Only a handful of schools here require an electrocardiogram, or EKG screening, but Italy has required all athletes to get EKGs to screen for hidden heart problems since 1982.

Researchers from the University of Padua Medical School analyzed trends in sudden deaths from heart problems before and after the program began. They found that, among athletes, the rate of sudden deaths fell by 89 percent over the 25-year period. The rate among nonathletes did not change.


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