12/28/2012 07:09 am ET

Top 5 Health Headlines Of 2012


By Gary Drevitch

This year brought new discoveries about what we have to fear and look forward to as we age

This was a great year for brain science, which is especially good news for those of us in middle age and beyond. Following is a rundown of 5 major developments that came to light in 2012 as researchers continue to work to unlock the secrets of the brain to plot new ways for us to keep our minds agile and sharp as we age.

1. More of Us May Be "Almost Alcoholics" The body’s ability to metabolize alcohol decreases as we age. In practical terms, this means it takes less alcohol to make someone over 60 tipsy than it does a typical 40-year-old. As a result, some of us who had been moderate social drinkers throughout our 40s can, over time, become what University of Connecticut psychologist Joseph Nowinski calls "almost alcoholics." These drinkers typically fall far short of the clinical diagnosis of alcoholism, but still face serious risks. Some begin to find themselves drinking to fall asleep, relieve physical pain or boredom or "take the edge off" what they consider to be depression.

Social drinking will not always lead to problem drinking, of course, and we should be hesitant to stigmatize people who enjoys a cocktail or two. But be aware of the warning signs of almost alcoholics: drinking alone, talking about how much they look forward to drinking or continuing to imbibe despite negative consequences. Fortunately, many almost alcoholics, with effort and support, can change their habits, shift back to a healthier approach to social drinking and stay there. Learn more about "almost" alcoholism.

2. Scientists Call Red Meat a Killer It was a tough year for beef lovers, who learned that steady consumption may be shortening their lives. A widely publicized study from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that people who regularly eat red meat, especially processed meat like bacon, hot dogs and salami, appear to have a significantly higher risk of premature death than people who get their protein from such foods as beans, nuts, low-fat dairy, chicken and fish.

The findings, based on two long-term studies that tracked the health and lifestyle of more than 120,000 adults for as long as 28 years, revealed that just one daily serving of unprocessed red meat (about 3 ounces) led to a 13 percent greater risk of premature death. Worse, one daily serving of processed red meat led to a 20 percent greater overall risk of premature death. If everyone in the study had eaten a half-serving less of red meat every day, researchers concluded, 9.3 percent of deaths among men in the group, and 7.6 percent of women's deaths, could have been prevented.

(MORE: 8 Great Meat Alternatives)

The study's lead researchers didn't suggest that the entire nation go vegan, but they did say we should avoid processed meats and try to replace at least half the beef we normally eat with chicken, fish or other sources of protein. Learn more about the risks of red meat.

3. We May Not Live as Long as We Think The medical story of the last century in the United States was the extraordinary rise in our life expectancy — by some estimates, the lifespan of the average American soared 30 years between 1900 and 2000. But when some researchers took a closer look at trends in American life expectancy this year, they found that we may be facing a serious slowdown. In the 21st century, American life expectancy may grow only about three years, and even that modest increase will be experienced almost exclusively by the wealthy.

(MORE: Why Are Some Americans Living Shorter Lives Than Others?)

A chief cause of the curtailed rate of longevity: the stark increase in the number of older adults who have been seriously overweight for long periods of time. They are far more likely than members of previous generations to develop such conditions as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome.

Baby boomers also have higher rates of mental illness, depression and drug abuse than members of the previous generation. One disturbing study found that boomer suicide rates rose significantly when members of the group reached their 40s, a time at which, in previous generations, rates consistently declined. Differences in education and race have also led to what one prominent researcher calls "at least two 'Americas,' if not multiple others," when it comes to life expectancy. According to one study, white males with at least 16 years of education live 14.2 years longer than African-Americans who completed fewer than 12 years of school. Learn more about our changing life expectancy.

4. Our Greatest Enemy? Inflammation Perhaps the most widely publicized trend in health research this year was the growing awareness that chronic inflammation is the source of many of our most serious medical problems -- and the realization that our diets can go a long way toward limiting its effects.

Inflammation is our body's means of defending itself against infection and when it does so, it is beneficial. But when inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to cardiovascular and neurological disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis. Our lifestyle choices can induce chronic inflammation, because smoking, refined sugar and fatty and processed foods can become irritants in the body. Also, inflammation in one part of the body, such as gum disease, can lead to trouble elsewhere.

(MORE: Inflammation: A Possible Sign of Disease)

A growing body of research argues that certain foods, including such spices as black cumin, ginger, clove and cinnamon, can help limit or prevent chronic inflammation. The Mediterranean diet is also being promoted for its anti-inflammatory benefits. Its advocates recommend we consume more whole-grain foods, nuts, fruits and vegetables as well as unsaturated fats, poultry, eggs, low-fat dairy products and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon.

5. Our Reckless Youth Is Coming Back to Haunt Us Some of the adventures middle-aged Americans had in their youth are now presenting the bill. Liver cancer, the fastest-growing cause of cancer death in the United States, is on the rise among baby boomers. It is typically caused by scarring in the liver brought on by cirrhosis, which itself can be triggered by heavy drinking, a high-fat diet or chronic inflammation. And the leading cause of that inflammation among boomers is the presence of the hepatitis C virus, even though many of the people infected don't even realize they have it.

The virus, transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids or exposure to blood, produces no physical symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage, as many as 30 years after it was contracted. So people who experimented with injectable drugs or had sex with multiple partners in their youth may now be at risk, along with anyone who received blood transfusions prior to 1990, when screening of the national blood supply for hepatitis C began.

Driven by research revealing that 80 percent of boomers did not consider themselves to be at risk for hepatitis C and 3 out of 4 have never been tested for the virus, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formally recommended in August that all 70 million Americans born between 1945 and 1965 have a one-time blood test. The good news is that current treatments for hepatitis C can cure as many as 75 percent of infections. The CDC estimates that broader testing of boomers could help save more than 120,000 lives. Learn more about the rise in liver cancer and new recommendations for hepatitis C testing.

Read more on Next Avenue

Will There Be a Geriatrician for You When You Need One?
Can New Gene Research Show Us How to Reverse the Aging Process?
Cancer Treatment Progress Reported


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