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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 is currently 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.”

On the calendar

Area residents are encouraged to participate in an American Red Cross blood drive during the month of January, especially to help fill a critical need for A Negative and B Negative blood types. A drive in the Chesterfield area will be held from 8 a.m.-noon on Monday, Jan. 15 at Dot Foods, 17050 Baxter Road in Chesterfield. To register for an appointment time, visit www.redcrossblood.org.

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St. Louis Children’s Hospital sponsors a Babysitting 101 course from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 15 at the Schroeder Park Office of Manchester Parks and Recreation, 359 Old Meramec Station Road in Ballwin. A workbook and light snack are provided. The fee is $30 per person, and children of any age considering babysitting may attend. To register, visit classes-events.bjc.org/wlp2/ or call (314) 454-5437.

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A 12-week Healthy Weigh Program is offered on Wednesdays, beginning Jan. 17 and continuing through April 4, and is available at either 2:30 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Hospital’s Desloge Outpatient Center, 121 St. Luke’s Center Drive in Chesterfield, in Building A. A registered dietitian will help participants implement lifestyle changes to lose weight, improve overall health and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes. The fee is $99. To register, visit www.stlukes-stl.com, or call (314) 205-6483 for more information.

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St. Luke’s Hospital presents Girl Talk Unplugged, a program for girls ages 11 and older and their mothers and/or other important women in their lives, from 1-3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 20 at the hospital’s Institute for Health Education, 222 S. Woods Mill Road in Chesterfield. This program involves mother-daughter activities, an interactive physician panel, and sessions on nutrition, fitness and stress. Attendance is free, but space is limited. Register online at www.stlukes-stl.com.

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BJC sponsors a Staying Home Alone course from 9-10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 27 at the Missouri Baptist Medical Center Clinical Learning Institute, 3005 N. Ballas Road. This class is designed for parents and children to attend together. The fee is $25 per family. Register online at https://classes-events.bjc.org.

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