Top health stories of 2009

What a year! Turmoil in the markets aside, we also dealt with a lot of uncertainty when it came to health. With an infectious outbreak, questions about drug and vaccine safety as well as new breakthroughs, we’ve been keeping close tabs on the news. Here’s a quick overview of top health stories and trends from 2009:

H1N1 flu (swine flu) pandemic

Since its first appearance last April, we’ve heard about this novel virus almost on a daily basis. First, it was tracking every case and country affected — then the questions became as widespread as the virus. Are governments ready? Are officials handling it properly? Is the vaccine safe — if it’s even available? Claims of fear-mongering in the media and conspiracy theories added to the confusion. Even the name “swine flu” was the subject of debate.

Some areas are seeing a reprieve from the illness — if not the news — but the H1N1 virus isn’t through with us yet. We could be faced with more questions in the months ahead: will there be another wave, and could it mutate into something worse?

Supplements, superfoods and super diets

Whether we’re looking to lose weight, fight inflammation, boost our immune system or reduce our risk of disease, nutrition and supplements continue to be a hot topic. Even more research found that the Mediterranean Diet is ideal for heart health (among other benefits). And there seemed to be no shortage of new foods or supplements that were proven either to help — or to be ineffective. Harmful supplements like the weight-loss drug Hydroxycut were yanked from the shelves.

Adding to the confusion were supplements and so-called preventatives on the market aimed at H1N1. Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were quick to warn about — and crack down on — companies and websites that made unproven claims or sold counterfeit products.

The bottom line: despite what may seem at times like an overload of information, the rules for healthy eating haven’t really changed. Plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish, plant-based proteins and cutting back on sugar and salt are still the best strategies. Certain supplements — like vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C — continue to be recommended to fill in the gaps.

Fat: location and colour

Of course, there was more news about rising obesity rates, but the amount of body fat isn’t the only issue. This year, the location and colour of fat came became just as important. More research showed the fat around our abdomens (visceral fat) affects hormones and inflammation in the body. It’s also been associated with calcium deposits in the aorta — a marker for atherosclerosis (a build-up of plaque in the arteries). The lesson learned: we have to look at waist circumference as an indicator of increased risk.

New findings this year also highlighted the helpful benefits of “brown fat” — a type of fat in the body that actually helps burn off the “bad fat”. Scientists used to think that only babies had this kind of tissue, but it turns out adults have it too. The more brown fat tissue people have, the leaner they are. There’s still a lot of research needed, but the findings could provide new ways to look at fighting obesity. (See for more details.)

Social networks affect your health

The trend of examining the social aspects of health continues. How is it done? Researchers “mapped” health information from participants of the now-famous Framingham Heart study — including friends, family and coworkers (as well as their connections) — and found that some trends run in the same social circles that we do.

In the past, researchers discovered that your friends (and their friends) can make you fat, and that happiness is contagious. One of the latest findings is that loneliness may be catching too. The findings may seem quirky, and they raise a lot of questions about causation and correlation, but the research opens up new ways of looking at and tackling some of these health problems.

Questionable drug use

We’ve heard quite a few warnings about the pills we pop. For example:

– Experts claim the overuse of antibiotics is partly to blame for rise in the number of drug-resistant superbugs. As a result, they’re urging patients not to demand antibiotics, and treatment guidelines are also changing — such as not prescribing antibiotics for children’s ear infections. (See Stopping superbugs.)

– While a daily dose of acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) can be helpful for preventing a second heart attack or stroke, it can do more harm than good in otherwise healthy people. Recent research shows the risks of stomach bleeding (which can be deadly) may outweigh the protective benefits. (See The Zoomer Report for more information.)

– We’re finally paying attention to the risks of a common painkiller: acetaminophen. Cases of acetaminophen and accidental overdose continue to increase, and experts warn not to exceed recommended dosages and to exercise caution when taking over-the-counter cold and flu remedies that contain it. (See MedlinePlus for advice.)

– An Ontario study found that opioid drug-related deaths were on the rise — especially since the addition of OxyContin to the provincial drug plan. Doctors may be too eager to prescribe these pills, and patients aren’t always aware of the risks. Watch for tighter controls and reporting as a result. (See for the full story.)

Stem cells

There were some major strides this past year, both in terms of breakthroughs and politics. Researchers were able to get around a lot of the controversy by continuing to base research and new therapies on stem cells created from adult human skin rather than embryonic stem cells. Some of the latest therapies in the works include treatments for multiple sclerosis, sickle cell disease, AIDS and eye disease. Scientists even created a mouse using these cells alone.

A lift on funding bans also cleared the way for more research. In March, the Obama administration revoked the Bush administration’s previous bans on federal funds for this “immoral” research. Now, scientists can apply for federal funding rather than having to rely on private donors alone. (See The latest on stem cells.)

Disease breakthroughs

There were many advances big and small this year, but here are some that caught people’s attention:

– Alzheimer’s disease: Last year, it was all about new drugs and treatments. This year, one of the major breakthroughs was identifying a trio of genes — two which affect the amyloid-protein plaques that build up in the brain, and one which affects the junction of nerve cells. Naturally, this is just a start to further research, but experts hail it as the most significant discovery in the last 15 years.

Cancer: There are numerous stories on new findings about various forms of cancer (such as a new treatment for prostate cancer) but one of the latest is a new warning that radiation from CT scans, which are used to help detect disease, can actually cause cancer. The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, has many people questioning if tests are necessary — or if there are less-harmful alternatives.

Type-2 diabetes: A study from the US-based Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group proved once again that diet and exercise are essential for preventing diabetes. In fact, they can ward of the disease for as much as a decade and reduce the risk of disease by as much as 58 per cent. (See Put diabetes on hold.)

– AIDS: In September, results of a study that combined two older vaccines showed a modest success rate of preventing HIV in people who were inoculated. While 31 per cent isn’t a huge success rate — and the study may not have targeted high-risk populations — it’s a place to start.

Multiple sclerosis: Italian vascular surgeon Dr. Paolo Zamboni believes MS is caused (or affected) by constricted or blocked veins in the neck or chest — meaning blood from the brain isn’t draining properly. A procedure where a balloon is inflated in the veins is currently under investigation — and making headlines worldwide. There’s a lot of controversy about the potential effectiveness of this treatment, but this will be a story to follow. (Read more on

What’s ahead for 2010? Next year may feel like something out of a science fiction model with more news about the pandemic, stem cell breakthroughs and more on new technologies like bionic eyes and fingers. Within the next couple of years, scientists will continue to crack the genetic code of cancer, and look at new ways to investigate and treat diseases. Hopefully there will be plenty of good news and breakthroughs to share next year.

Additional sources: Harvard Health Letter, Time Magazine, WebMD

We can’t include it all — what stories would you add to this list? Tell us in the comments.

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