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Notable Medical News of 2013

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So, it's officially 2014, and the new year has begun. I haven't written in a while, but that's only because I've been so busy with my book and more. Now, I finally have time to author a blog post here at The Huffington Post, and as cliché as it sounds, I decided it would be one of those "year in review" articles that everyone seems to enjoy. As I perused the web, though, I realized that almost every topic has been covered so far, from the Top Moments from Rappers Performing at Bar Mitzvah Parties to the Top 10 Miley Moments of 2013. So, as you can see, every idea I had seemed to have been covered previously by someone much more imaginative than I. It was then that I decided to do something simple and also useful at the same time. We are going to review some of the most important health developments from the past year.

Stop with the groans. I know you all wanted something like "The Best Nip Slips of 2013," but you'll have to live with a post where you might actually learn something, instead of delving the depths of the cesspool of depravity currently referred to as pop culture. Besides, 2013 was a busy year for the health industry, and this was due in no small part to the fact that our first real experiment in socialized medicine took its place in the forefront of America's psyche (and it's 24-hour news cycle). The Affordfable Care Act was never far from the minds of everyone, from Average Joe to President O. This resulted in health care being an inevitable part of any conversation about politics, social welfare, and economics. Due to the star of the A.C.A shining down on every national conversation of substance, there resulted an effect similar to "trickle-down economics," where many different health care issues became the center of discussions held in venues ranging from high school classrooms to senate floors. So, with the health and wellbeing of the populace as a whole on the minds of most Americans in the last year, there was no shortage of worthy candidates for this piece on notable medical stories of 2013.

Obviously, we can begin our list with that juggernaut of health care stories; also referred to as the Affordable Care Act rollout, and the joy and pain it has caused millions of our American brethren. I hate to impugn the integrity of such a lofty statute, passed with such great expectations and aspirations, but the top news story of the latter part of 2013, and definitely the biggest health related story of the past year, was the bungled launch of the HealthCare.gov website, and its far-reaching consequences. The bill itself was passed with much fanfare, with our illustrious vice president himself claiming "this is a big f**king deal," and the launch of the insurance exchange website was expected to be a boon for those who were otherwise unable to obtain health insurance coverage. Unfortunately, out of the millions who were in need, a mere six were able to sign up on day one, October 1, 2013. That's six, not six million, or six thousand, but six -- the same number of frosty brews that come in a paper tote at your local convenience store. As the fumbling continued and technical crews took a crowbar and sledgehammer to the website, our Health and Human Services Secretary, the ever-entertaining Kathleen Sebelius told Americans, "You deserve better, I apologize." The president himself also gave us his mea culpa, when he said in November that he was sorry to hear that some were being dropped from their own health plans due to the reforms, even though he repeatedly promised that those who liked their plans could keep them.

Now, though, some of the initial troubles have been addressed, and over 400,000 citizens have signed up for plans in some state exchanges alone. We have yet to see if these patrons will actually be covered, and some dread what will happen when patients attempt to obtain practical medical services, but that's for next year's review.

What will happen with the Affordable Care Act no one can say. Will enough young
"invincibles" sign up to pay for the policies? Will people be able to afford the plans they had to sign up for? Time will tell, but the A.C.A. wasn't the only health news of 2013, though, even though it seems like it was all anyone could talk about as of late. If you remember all the way back to May, Angelina Jolie, one of America's pre-eminent actresses and a tabloid darling, announced she had undergone a preventative mastectomy. Jolie then authored an op-ed piece in the New York Times to explain her choice, in which she relates how, after testing positive for a mutation in the BRCA gene, she made the decision to go forward with the surgery. With the mutation, Jolie had an almost 90-percent chance of contracting breast cancer, and because of this and the fact that her mother had died of the disease, the mastectomy was performed.

After Jolie's actions, the awareness of this gene mutation jumped tenfold, and that's a good thing, for sure. More women were getting themselves tested and double mastectomies are on the rise. Going under the knife is always a risk, though, and women shouldn't rush into surgery. There is even a report that claims mastectomy may not decrease the chances of reoccurrence of breast cancer, so make sure to consider all the options thoroughly before choosing your plan of attack.

No matter what the eventual outcome, raising awareness is never a bad thing. To that end, I want to tell you about some news that pertains to the disease I have lived with for many years, Rheumatoid Arthritis. While it may not be a top issue for everyone, in my world, it certainly qualifies as such. The "leaky gut" theory, proposed as a cause for autoimmune illness as a whole, made headlines in 2013.

Autoimmune disease, for those who are unfamiliar, is a class of ailments where the patient's own immune system attacks different healthy parts of the body. In Crohn's disease, the body attacks the small intestines, in ulcerative colitis, the body attacks the colon, and in rheumatoid arthritis, the body attacks its own joints and cartilage. As you can imagine, R.A. is a painful and destructive disease, and it takes a huge toll on the entire body. Barring joint replacements, medication is currently the only remedy, and even though an entirely new and particularly effective class of drug was introduced over a decade ago, these medicines are still only used to mitigate the symptoms. The exact cause still eludes researchers, ergo they cannot create a medication to prevent it. The leaky gut theory, also called intestinal permeability, attempts to explain the cause of autoimmune reactions.

Everyone's bowels are made up of cells, just like the rest of the body. These cells line the walls of both the small and large intestine, and act as gatekeepers for what gets absorbed into the body and what gets expelled. Normally, any toxins or indigestible material gets passed through the bowel and ends up as feces. The leaky gut theory posits that these cells that line the intestinal walls don't fit together perfectly in those with autoimmune disease, and because of these "holes" in the seals between cells, material that would normally be expelled from the body passes into the bloodstream and collects in places like the joints. When the body's immune system detects this foreign matter or these toxins, it does exactly what it is supposed to do -- attacks.

Of course, the above is just the broad strokes of the hypothesis, but leaky gut has been suggested as the cause for many other diseases as well, from chronic fatigue syndrome to multiple sclerosis. The theory does have its detractors, though, and there are those who don't believe that the "gut" can even have "leaks." No one knows for sure if it's a viable hypothesis, but there is testing going on, so we may find out more this year. Either way, it's reassuring to know that there are some out there who are still working on solving the autoimmune puzzle.

Now, there's a good chance you have heard about one or two of the stories I covered above, but all three? Either way, consider yourself educated, and feel free to espouse the merits of leaky gut syndrome and the dangers of the BRCA gene mutation. Keep in mind it wasn't easy to select just three notable medical stories from the past year, but I do believe this trio is one that will not only provide you with useful information, but will make you much more attractive to others and likely get you invited to many high-class social events. Have a Tom Collins for me, and keep an eye out in 2014, much more to come.

Daniel P. Malito is a columnist and author, check out his website, and for more information on Rheumatoid Arthritis, check out his book, So Young, in stores now!

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