Lab Report: Health, Science and Medicine

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SECONDHAND SMOKE

Hypertension in Kids? Yes, if Parents Smoke

The health hazards of smoking are well known, and these dangers extend to nonsmokers exposed to the secondhand wisps of cigarette toxins as well. But researchers now report on a particularly worrisome problem--high blood pressure--emerging among a particularly worrisome population: children whose parents are smokers.

Compared with youngsters of nonsmoking parents, preschoolers exposed to secondhand smoke had a 21% greater chance of hypertension, defined as blood-pressure values in the top 15% for their age group. That's especially troubling, say experts, since high blood pressure in childhood can carry over into adulthood. And given that elevated blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, youngsters whose pressure is high early on may be more vulnerable to heart attacks later in life.

Protecting youngsters from passive smoke exposure may therefore have long-term health benefits--especially important in the U.S., where 26.8 million adults already have some form of heart disease.

AUTISM

Pregnancy Spacing May Play A Role in Autism

Researchers interested in understanding the myriad and complex causes of autism have recently been focusing their attention on genetic factors. But it turns out there may be another potentially powerful contributor: a mother's womb. Specifically, scientists have documented a threefold increase in autism among those born less than a year after a brother or sister.

The finding is rooted in reproductive biology. Pregnancy depletes necessary nutrients like folate, which is important for proper fetal development. Also, closely spaced pregnancies can increase the risk of low-birth-weight babies, who are more vulnerable to a range of health issues, from immature lung development to immunity challenges.

The study found that the risk of autism decreased as the length of time between pregnancies increased, suggesting that a replenished womb may be important in avoiding the developmental abnormalities of autism. But the authors caution against delaying pregnancy solely to avoid that risk. Older women who postpone childbearing may be in greater danger of having children with other disorders or birth defects and should weigh those risks against the study's results in their family planning.

FROM THE LABS

One-Stop Flu Shot?

A universal flu vaccine, which may be effective against a range of common influenza viruses, is in the works, thanks to survivors of the H1N1 pandemic. Those who were infected developed antibodies that can protect against numerous flu strains, so scientists are hoping to corral those immunological agents into an all-purpose flu shot.

A Blood Test for Alzheimer's

Detecting the first signs of a disease like Alzheimer's remains a frustratingly complex challenge. But it may soon be possible to diagnose the degenerative condition with a simple blood test. Scientists have isolated three blood molecules that bind to antibodies that are made by Alzheimer's patients but not made by healthy individuals. Still, more study is needed to bring the test to the clinic.

DROWNING OUT DRILLS

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