Personal Health: News and Notes

Posted: February 18, 2013

Folic acid and autism risk

Mothers who took folic acid supplements around the time they became pregnant were less likely to have children with an autism spectrum disorder, a new study found.

Researchers in Norway examined records of more than 85,000 children born there between 1999 and 2009 to check for an autism diagnosis. They also looked at surveys of their mothers to see how much folic acid they were consuming in the month before they became pregnant and during the first eight weeks of pregnancy, a critical period of brain development. Norway advises pregnant women (and women trying to get pregnant) to take 400 micrograms of folic acid a day.

Mothers who skipped the supplement were more than 2.1 times more likely to have a child with autistic disorder compared with mothers who took the supplement.

But not all mothers were equally likely to take folic acid supplements. Those who did were more likely to have attended college and be nonsmokers, among other factors. After the researchers controlled for factors like these, they found that taking the supplements was associated with a 39 percent lower risk of having a child with autistic disorder.                                        - Los Angeles Times

Kidney tumors overtreated?

A large review of Medicare records finds that people 66 years old and older with small kidney tumors were much less likely to die over the next five years if doctors monitored them instead of operating right away.

Even though nearly all of these tumors turned out to be cancer, they rarely proved fatal. And surgery roughly doubled patients' risk of developing heart problems or dying of other causes, doctors found.

After five years, 24 percent of those who had surgery had died, compared with 13 percent of those who chose monitoring. Just 3 percent of people in each group died of kidney cancer.

The study was observational - not an experiment in which some people had surgery and others were monitored - so it cannot prove which approach is best. Yet it offers a real-world look at how more than 7,000 Medicare patients with kidney tumors fared. Surgery is the standard treatment now.

"I think it should change care" and that older patients should be told "that they don't necessarily need to have the kidney tumor removed," said physician William Huang of New York University Langone Medical Center.                                  - Associated Press

Smart friends = higher grades

Here's some new advice for high school students who want to raise their grades: Be friends with academically oriented classmates.

Researchers surveyed the junior class at Maine-Endwell High School in Endwell, N.Y., and asked them to rate their classmates as either a "best friend," a "friend," an "acquaintance," or someone they didn't know. The research team also obtained grade point averages for all 158 students so they could track changes in academic performance.

The researchers found that grades and their friends' academic status tended to move in concert. If a student's class ranking at the start was higher than usual for her social network, it tended to fall over the year. Conversely, if a student ranked below the rest of her group, her class ranking tended to rise.

The most significant influence seemed to be the grades of those labeled as "friends." The researchers suggested that the grades of "best friends" made little difference because they were probably very similar to start with. But the gaps between students and their "friends" were bigger, so there was more opportunity for influence. - Los Angeles Times

Group seeks less sugar in soda

The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a petition last week with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, urging the agency to require beverage makers to cut the amount of high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners.

"Researchers have done a variety of experiments and studies that connect soft drinks to obesity" and other health problems, said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the consumer group. "The science is now very strong." He said current levels of high-fructose corn syrup are unsafe for daily consumption.

FDA said it would reply directly to the petitioner, but did not give a time frame. The petition follows recent actions by health advocates to curb consumption of sugary drinks. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is pushing a measure to ban the sale of large soft drinks in his city. Other municipalities voted on ballot measures to tax the sale of sugary drinks. Philadelphia Mayor Nutter has twice sought to impose a soda tax; the city health department was among dozens of agencies, advocacy groups, and scientists to sign the petition. - Los Angeles Times

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