Health Highlights: Aug. 13, 2013

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Mouse Study Finds Even Small Amounts of Added Sugar in Diet Harm Health

Eating added sugars, even at levels that are within recommended limits for humans, could be toxic, a new mouse study suggests.

Researchers gave mice an amount of extra sugar in their diet that matched the current recommendation for humans of no more than 25 percent of a person's diet, Fox News reported Tuesday. When compared to a control group of mice that were not fed the added sugar, the first group of mice died sooner, produced fewer babies and gained control of less territory during their 32-week life spans.

"The odd things is our mice passed their physicals. They really didn't look any different from control animals," first study author James Ruff, a doctoral graduate from the University of Utah, told Fox News.

In terms of obesity rates or fasting insulin, glucose or triglyceride levels, there were no differences between the two groups of mice, the researchers reported in Nature Communication.

Only cholesterol levels were higher in the sugar-fed mice, and female mice who were fed sugar had more trouble clearing glucose from their bloodstream, Fox News reported.

"One common criticism of animals studies is they look at doses irrelevant to the human condition, which makes them more difficult to translate," Ruff said in explaining the amount of sugar they gave to the one group of mice. "We wanted to pick something relevant to human health."

The researchers noted that even though the effect on health was small, most people would be concerned that the added sugars everyone eats every day might be causing harm in the long run.


New Coke Ads Defend Safety of Aspartame

A print ad from Coca-Cola defending the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame will debut in USA Today in the Atlanta area Wednesday, followed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Thursday and the Chicago Tribune next week.

The ad contends that diet drinks can help people manage their weight and emphasizes the scientific evidence showing that aspartame, more commonly known under the NutraSweet brand name, is safe, the Associated Press reported.

A growing number of consumers are concerned about the safety of aspartame, despite reassurances from organizations such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Cancer Society.

"Coke is trying to get out front and proactively defend these diet sweeteners," John Sicher, editor of the industry journal Beverage Digest, told the AP.

The move comes as sales of both regular and diet soft drinks decline in the United States. Last year, sales of Coke fell 1 percent and Diet Coke fell 3 percent. Sales of Pepsi dropped 3.4 percent and Diet Pepsi declined 6.2 percent, according to Beverage Digest.

Both Coke and Pepsi are attempting to develop a drink that uses natural, low-calorie sweeteners, the AP reported.


Out-of-Pocket Cost Limit Delayed Until 2015

The U.S. health care law's across-the-board limit on patients' out-of-pocket expenses has been delayed until 2015.

The limit was supposed to be $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family. But federal officials quietly granted a one-year extension to some insurers, which means they will be allowed to set higher limits, or no limit at all on some costs, in 2014, The New York Times reported.

The change was posted on the Labor Department's website in February, but went largely unnoticed because it was buried in layers of legal and bureaucratic language. When asked about it, department officials confirmed the policy.

Under the change, many group health plans will be allowed to maintain separate out-of-pocket limits for benefits next year. In those plans, consumers may have to pay $6,350 of their own money for doctor and hospital care, and an additional $6,350 in out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs under a plan administered by a pharmacy benefit manager, The Times reported.

And some people may face even higher costs, because some group health plans will not be required to set any limit on a patient's out-of-pocket expenses for drugs in 2014. Federal officials say that if a drug plan doesn't currently have a limit on out-of-pocket costs, it will not have to impose one next year.

The change was made because many insurers and employers said they needed more time to comply with the policy because they used separate companies to administer medical coverage and drug benefits, with separate limits on out-of-pocket costs, according to federal officials.

Many of the companies' computer systems cannot communicate with one another, The Times reported.

The delay on universal limits on out-of-pocket expenses was condemned by advocates for people with chronic illnesses.

"The government's unexpected interpretation of the law will disproportionately harm people with complex chronic conditions and disabilities," Myrl Weinberg, the chief executive of the National Health Council, which speaks for more than 50 groups representing patients, told The Times.

Out-of pocket costs can total tens of thousands of dollars a year for people with serious health problems such as multiple sclerosis and cancer, Weinberg noted.

Last month, the Obama administration announced a one-year delay in enforcement of a health care law provision requiring larger companies to offer health coverage to full-time workers, The Times reported.


Plea Deal for Hospital Technician in Hepatitis C Outbreak

A traveling hospital technician believed to have infected dozens of people in a number of states with hepatitis C through contaminated syringes could receive a sentence of as little as 30 years after reaching a deal with prosecutors.

David Kwiatkowski is accused of stealing painkiller drugs in syringes and replacing them with saline tainted with his blood. In the plea agreement, he told investigators he had been stealing drugs for more than a decade and was "killing a lot of people," the Associated Press reported.

If convicted at trial, Kwiatkowski could have faced a sentence of up to 98 years. Under the deal reached with prosecutors, he pled guilty to 14 federal drug theft and tampering charges in exchange for a sentence of 30 to 40 years.

Kwiatkowski worked at 18 hospitals in seven states before being hired in New Hampshire in 2011. The number of patients diagnosed with the strain of hepatitis C carried by Kwiatkowski include 32 in New Hampshire, 7 in Maryland, 6 in Kansas and 1 in Pennsylvania, the AP reported.

One of the patients in Kansas has died and hepatitis C played a "contributing role" in the death, according to the plea agreement. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne infection that can cause liver disease and chronic health problems.


Study Offers Explanation for Near-Death Experiences

A possible explanation for near-death experiences has been discovered by University of Michigan researchers.

In experiments with rats, they found that the brain remains conscious after the heart stops beating and may even function at a higher level for a short time, CBS News reported.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may help explain why about 20 percent of people who have survived cardiac arrest report having visions and heightened perception during their brush with death.

The findings are "the first dealing with what happens to the neurophysiological state of the dying brain," lead author Jimo Borjigin, an associate professor of molecular and integrative physiology and associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School, said in a news release, CBS News reported.

"It will form the foundation for future human studies investigating mental experiences occurring in the dying brain, including seeing light during cardiac arrest," she added.


New HIV Drug Approved by FDA

A new drug to treat HIV infection was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday.

Marketed as Tivicay, the medication interferes with an enzyme that is essential to the ability of the HIV virus to multiply and spread within the human body, the agency said in a news release. It is a pill that is to be taken once a day with other HIV drugs, according to the FDA.

"HIV-infected individuals require treatment regimens personalized to fit their condition and their needs," Dr. Edward Cox, director of the Office of Antimicrobial Products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in the release. "The approval of new drugs like Tivicay that add to the existing options remains a priority for the FDA."

Approved for use in both people who have been diagnosed with HIV but have never taken medications to treat the virus and in those who have taken other HIV drugs, Tivicay (dolutegravir) is also approved for certain children under the age of 12.

The approval was based on the results of five clinical trials involving more than 2,500 patients. Insomnia and headaches were common side effects of the medication, along with hypersensitivity and abnormal liver function in HIV patients who have also been diagnosed with hepatitis B and/or C, the agency said in the release.

Almost 50,000 Americans are infected with HIV every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 15,000 died of the disease in 2010.

Tivicay is made by GlaxoSmithKline, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., according to the FDA.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

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