Top 10 Health Stories of 2013

Here, we look back at some of last year’s top health stories

1) Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy.
The actress published an op-ed column in the New York Times about her preventive double mastectomy after learning that she carries the BRCA gene mutation. She was told the gene hiked her breast cancer risk to 87 per cent and ovarian cancer risk to 50 percent.

“I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy.”

Two months later, her surgeon said Jolie’s decision and public discussion about it had already inspired other women to be proactive and has saved lives.

2) Obamacare
Canadians looked on smugly as Americans fought about health care. The Affordable Care Act was implemented despite a Republican attempt to derail it by partially shutting down the government for 16 days.

When the website did go up for registration, it failed to function properly. Then people found they couldn’t necessarily keep the health insurance they already had, despite Obama’s promising they could. Nevertheless, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services reported that the health care law has already saved American seniors $8.9 billion on their prescription drugs since its enactment.

3) Sports concussions
Baseball was added to the lengthening list of sports that put players at risk for concussions. Ryan Freel, who committed suicide a year ago at the age of 36, had abnormal protein in his brain that indicated chronic trauma. Major League Baseball said it would ban home plate collisions by 2015. Meanwhile, a study by Toronto neurosurgeon Michael Cusimano showed the NHL’s rule changes aimed at eliminating blindside hits and hits that target the head have not resulted in a significant decrease in concussions.

The study also showed that the type of hits outlawed by the NHL rule weren’t actually the major cause of concussions. Most of the concussions are coming from other types of plays, including fights.

4) Alzheimer’s research
Research is racing ahead on several fronts, from exploring the brain, to genetics to early diagnosis. Still, successes are pretty much limited to identifying and predicting dementia rather than preventing, delaying or curing it.

This year, scientists discovered 11 new genes that may be tied to the late-onset form of the dementia disease. This doubles the known gene variants linked to the disease. One plays a large role an area of the brain that’s involved in the immune system and has also been connected with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, suggesting that the immune system has something to do with Alzheimer’s.

Another study reported that women who experience high stress in middle age — including common stressors such as job loss, divorce, death of a family member — may have a higher risk for Alzheimer’s.

Researchers also found that cognitive decline in people with Type 2 Diabetes is likely due to brain atrophy, or shrinkage, that resembles patterns seen in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
One area of research currently being brought into sharp focus is mild cognitive impairment (MCI) as a path to early diagnosis. People with MCI have a significantly increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease within a few years.

5) Medical marijuana
The federal government launched a $1.3-billion free market in medical marijuana. About 450,000 Canadians are expected to avail themselves of quality weed at competitive market prices. Large indoor marijuana farms certified by the RCMP and health inspectors will replace the cottage industry that previously supplied medical marijuana in varying amounts and quality, with some of it going to the black market. The old system will be phased out by March 31. Prices for the therapeutic pot are expected to rise from a Health Canada regulated price to market price. The industry is expected to be worth $1.3 billion a year by 2024. And there’s speculation that producers already in place could really cash in if recreational marijuana were ever legalized.

6) What Men Want
They don’t want to do housework and if they do it, they don’t want to have as much sex. The American Sociological Review reported that married couples in which men take on a greater share of the dishes, laundry and other traditionally female chores had sex less often than average, which in this study was about five times a month. Yet couples in which men confined themselves largely to traditionally male chores such as yard work enjoyed sex more frequently than average.

Meanwhile, a 75-year Harvard study of men concluded that those who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa; that although recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength.  Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. Political ideology had no bearing on overall life satisfaction but the most conservative men on average shut down their sex lives around age 68, while the most liberal men had healthy sex lives well into their 80s. And the most powerful correlation for men’s health and happiness in later years is the warmth of relationships.

7) Lung cancer in Canada
Lung cancer mortality in Canada is among the highest in the world, especially among women. Canadian women have the highest rate of lung-cancer mortality in the developed world, almost double the average of other Western countries. Canadian Cancer Society statistics show that the rate of deaths from lung cancer for Canadian woman is almost double the rate of breast cancer mortality. And the lung cancer death rates for women have only been increasing. The good news is that they’re expected to drop in the near future, as they have been in the U.S., because fewer women are smoking and this should be begin to show up in the statistics. The Cancer Society reported in 2013 that two out of five Canadians (46 percent of men and 41 percent of women) are expected to develop some form of cancer during their lifetimes. One out of 4 four Canadians (28 percent of men and 24 percent of women) is expected to die from cancer.

8) Multivitamins Nixed
“Stop wasting money on vitamin and mineral supplements,” advised an editorial in Annals of Internal Medicine. “Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease for death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided.” Some of the concern is about the risk of mislabeling, contamination and substitution of ingredients — supplements are unregulated. And research so far has found no benefit from them. Studies reported by the Annals journal found they don’t seem to protect aging men’s brains or prevent further heart disease among people who have already had a heart attack. As well, most people in North America are not deficient in vitamins and therefore don’t need supplements. But some researchers say the jury is still out and indeed individual vitamins may still prove worthwhile in some cases for some people.

9) Of concern: trans fats, antibacterial soaps, e-cigarettes, artificial sweeteners
*Canada was urged to follow the U.S. in eliminating artificial trans fat in processed food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will attempt to make partially hydrogenated oils a banned additive unless specifically authorized.

*The FDA warned that antibacterial soaps (not sanitizers) aren’t better germ killers than plain soap and water and may actually be bad for you. The common antibacterial ingredient triclosan may alter the way hormones work in the body and contribute to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. The FDA wants to give soap makers a year to prove that products with added antibacterial ingredients such as triclosan are safe and effective.

*Even as electronic cigarettes became more popular and “vapers” continue to increase, e-cigs are not approved for sale by Health Canada which has nevertheless left them to be marketed, unregulated. while advising they may pose risks including nicotine poisoning and addiction. The Canadian Lung Association warns they could be potentially harmful to lung health.

*Artificial sweeteners were implicated in altering metabolic response and increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, overweight and obesity. Researchers reported that both regular and diet pop increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, but the risk was higher among diet drinkers — 15 per cent higher for consumption of as little as 500 ml per week and 59 per cent higher for those having 1.5 litres per week.

10) Drugs
Justin Trudeau did pot, Rob Ford lit up crack cocaine and chef Nigella Lawson smoked coke. Uruguay became the first nation to legalize recreational cannabis and Trudeau suggested that Canada could do the same.

Prescription drugs were also in the news: statins can significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes even in people with no underlying risk of cardiovascular disease, research found.

“As such, calls are being made for greater use of statins particularly in people aged 50 years and over,” reported The British Medical Journal.

However, side-effects from statins mean that prescribing statins to everyone over the age of 50 is predicted to lead to over 1,000 extra cases of muscle disease and over 10,000 extra diagnoses of diabetes.

Guidelines for medicating blood pressure changed, too. A study in The Journal of the America Medical Society proposed putting people age 60 and over on drugs only if their blood pressure is at least 150/90 instead of 140/90, the current guideline which is still recommended for people ages 30 to 59.

Finally, GlaxoSmithKline became the first Big Pharma company to say it will stop paying doctors for promoting its drugs, scrap prescription targets for its marketing staff and stop payments to healthcare professionals for attending medical conferences. Other drug companies are expected to follow, as a greater focus is directed to physician and pharmaceutical ethics.