Health: Latest Findings

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HEART DISEASE
Folic Acid: No Help For the Heart
Doctors hoped they had found a novel marker for heart disease — still the leading killer of Americans each year — in homocysteine, an amino acid in the bloodstream known to damage blood-vessel walls and promote clots. But a new seven-year study from the U.K. shows that patients who lowered their homocysteine levels did not reduce their risk of heart-related death: among 12,000 heart-attack survivors, those taking daily doses of folic acid and B12 — vitamins that break down homocysteine — had the same rates of heart disease, stroke and heart-related death as those taking a placebo.

Although homocysteine may prove an indirect marker of heart health, the authors note that other preventive measures, including a low-fat and low-sodium diet, exercise and cholesterol-lowering medications, may provide stronger protection against heart attack.

FOOD FLACKS
Celebrity sells, so it's no surprise that kids think food tastes better when a popular cartoon character appears on the packaging, as a study found. But the flavor boost occurs only with junk food, not healthy snacks like vegetables — unfortunate for produce companies, which spend 47% of their child-marketing budgets on licensed characters. Compare that with similar spending for other foods:
47% Fruits and vegetables
29% Dairy
15% Junk food
7% Candy and ice cream

INFANT HEALTH
How Long to Breast-Feed
There are many good reasons to breast-feed a baby. Studies show that infants digest mother's milk better than formula and that breast milk can build up immune systems and stave off infection, leading to better health overall. Then there are the emotional benefits; the physical bonding that occurs during nursing can help newborns feel comforted and secure.

But how long is long enough for babies to reap the greatest benefit? A new study from the Netherlands shows that at least four months of exclusive breast-feeding reduces the risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal-tract infections in babies by an average of 45%. Six months confers even better protection, lowering the infection rates an average of 65% below the rates for formula-fed babies. However, a diet of mother's milk supplemented with formula during the first six months resulted in little protective effect.

The results support the World Health Organization's 2001 advice that all children be breast-fed exclusively for six months. But if that's too long for some busy moms, the new findings suggest that even four months of breast-only feeding — but no less — can benefit babies' health.

FROM THE LABS
A Clue to Jet Lag?
Mice don't generally have to worry about jet lag, but the way the rodents' bodies adjust to night and day cycles may provide clues for solving the nettlesome condition in humans. By resetting the circadian clock in a group of mice, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany found that the animals' ability to adapt to a new light-dark cycle depended on how quickly the adrenal gland adjusted production of certain hormones, which in turn regulated other organs' adjustment to a new time zone. The finding could lead to more effective treatments of jet lag, but, the authors note, it's still not clear whether forcing a quick internal-clock adjustment is healthier than allowing our bodies to simply adapt over time.

Red Wine and Weight Control
Resveratrol, a plant compound in red wine, has been touted as the solution to everything from aging to obesity. Now, for the first time, it has shown potential as a weight-loss therapy in primates. In a French lab, taking resveratrol for a month helped six lemurs eat less, boost their metabolism and lose weight. (Previously, the effect had been studied only in rodents.) That doesn't mean gulping red wine will slim you down, but the findings support growing evidence of resveratrol's wide-ranging effects on the body.