Top 5 health stories to watch for in 2008

(ARA) – When warnings about trans fats emerged, you worked hard to eliminate them from your family’s diet. You were quick to clean out the kids’ toy box when lead contamination fears prompted recalls of foreign-made toys in 2007. Keeping on top of health news can help you and your family lead healthier, happier lives.

Staying abreast of health news becomes more critical every year,’ says Dr. Holly G. Atkinson, medical editor-in-chief of EverydayHealth.com, the award-winning Web site that helps people manage their health online daily. ‘Knowledge is power and being aware of the latest developments in medicine can help you make informed decisions about your own health care.’

So what health developments on the horizon for 2008 are like to have the most impact on you and your family? Dr. Atkinson advises we keep our eyes on the following five developments:

1. Personalized medicine through genetic testing

Genetic testing is promising to make it possible to identify many ailments you may be predisposed to such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, hypertension, high cholesterol and colon, breast or skin cancers. Testing to see if you carry the genes that have been linked to these diseases could allow for early diagnosis, treatment, and preventative measures tailored to your specific genetic makeup and lifestyle.

‘For example, it’s estimated that 600,000 Americans have ‘familial hypercholesterolemia,’ a disease that causes high cholesterol levels, which in turn contributes to the risk of heart attack,’ Dr. Atkinson says.

‘Genetic testing can tell you if you are one of those 600,000 so your doctor can help you create a preventative plan for avoiding cholesterol-linked heart disease.’

What you can do: A new genetic test allows doctors to definitively identify people whose genes place them at risk of high cholesterol, putting them at risk for heart disease. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, heart disease before age 45 in men and 55 in women, tendon xanthomas (a waxy-looking build up on tendons in the hands or feet) or known familial hypercholesterolemia, consider getting tested.

2. Controlling obesity at an earlier age

Obesity and corresponding diseases such as diabetes, liver and kidney problems, orthopedic injury and ultimately heart disease continue to rise among children, teens and young adults. ‘For the first time in recorded medical history, we are at risk of life expectancy actually going down,’ Dr. Atkinson says. ‘Obesity is a monumental threat to health.’

Studies show that as much as a third of all American children and teens are overweight or obese, and yet many parents (around 40 percent by a recent study) don’t realize it. Medical professionals are beginning to see more children suffering from obesity-related diseases once thought to affect only adults.

What you can do: First, recognize if your child is overweight. If your child has a weight problem, get professional help immediately – for the entire family. Children learn health habits at home; lead by example by taking steps to control your own weight and heart health. Create a healthful home environment conducive to good eating and exercise habits: for example, throw out the junk food, cut up vegetables and put them out before dinner, ban eating while watching TV, and take an evening family walk. Also, support community initiatives to fund healthier lunches and more exercise at school.

3. Vitamins and anti-oxidants

Recent studies have shown that anti-oxidants and some vitamins may have less of a positive health impact than previously thought. In fact, some data indicates such supplements may actually boost your risk of some types of cancer, including prostate cancer, increase mortality rates, or fail to have any positive impact on cardiovascular health.

What you can do: ‘Patients should be aware that many of the benefits claimed by manufacturers of these supplements have not been substantiated by research,’ Dr. Atkinson says. ‘For example, studies do not show a benefit from vitamin C, vitamin E, or beta carotene for prevention of cardiovascular events.

Do not substitute these supplements for medically proven courses of disease treatment or prevention, including practicing healthful lifestyle habits.’

4. DNA paternity tests hit drugstores

For years, DNA testing was hard to come by. Now, at least one company is selling a paternity test direct to consumers through drugstores. This follows a growing trend of companies marketing genetic testing for different health risks, like breast cancer, directly to consumers. But Dr. Atkinson warns consumers to be cautious.

What you can do: ‘If you’re interested in the information, consider first the consequences of having that knowledge, and how the information may help or harm in any given situation,’ she says. ‘Learn about the test, what it can show, and consider the truth and consequences.’

5. Environmental health risks

‘The health of the environment directly impacts our own health,’ Dr. Atkinson says. ‘Environmentally responsible lifestyles not only save the planet, they can save us as individuals as well.’

Millions of Americans are turning to healthful habits that also benefit the environment, such as eating organically grown produce, walking or biking to work or school, avoiding carcinogens, reducing their contributions to greenhouse gasses, and recycling waste, including leftover medications.

These practices can improve your overall health while also reducing your negative impact on the environment.

What you can do: Make lifestyle changes that can benefit the environment, such as committing to reduce your family’s output of carbon dioxide – a harmful greenhouse gas – by 3,000 pounds in 2008. Take simple steps – from washing clothes in cold water rather than hot to keeping your tires properly inflated – that are sure to will help.

For more information on these and many other current health issues, visit www.EveryDayHealth.com

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