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Healthier school meal programs helped poorer kids avoid obesity

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Just how healthy has the introduction of healthier new meals at America’s schools been for kids? A new study ties the policy move to about a half-million fewer obese U.S. children.

The study covered kids aged 10 to 17. It found that after the introduction in 2012-2013 of school meals with less fat and sugar, and more whole grains, the risk of obesity fell by 47 percent among kids from low-income families.

All of that has translated to an estimated 500,000 fewer obese poor American children, according to the research team.

“Students growing up in families with low incomes participate the most in school meals, so it stands to reason that they would benefit the most,” researcher Erica Kenney, an assistant professor of public health nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, said in a news release from the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or RWJF.

“These students are also at highest risk for obesity, food insecurity and poor health. Our study shows that the healthier nutrition standards are working as intended for these students,” she said.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to upgrade nutrition standards for schools, and those standards went into effect in 2012-2013.

Poorer kids were especially impacted, because the new health-oriented policies “included the National School Lunch Program, which affects 30 million students nationwide, and the School Breakfast Program, which affects 14 million students nationwide,” Kenney’s team noted.

Some of the changes included providing “nutritionally adequate meals during the school day” boost the amount of fruits and vegetables in meals while lowering starchy vegetables — such as French fries — serve only fat-free or low-fat milk and increase the amount of whole grains in meals.

Even vending machines were affected: the Smart Snacks program “eliminated most sugary beverages and reduced the sugar and calorie content of food products for sale,” Kenney’s team reported.

But did any of this actually boost kids’ health?

To find out, the Boston team looked at obesity data for kids aged 10 to 17 from the ongoing National Survey of Children’s Health.

Family income seemed key, the study found. Although the healthier food program didn’t affect obesity overall, among children living in poverty, the predicted percentage of children with obesity in 2018 was 21 percent, but without the introduction of healthier school meals and snacks, it would have been 31 percent — a 47 percent reduction, the researchers said.

The authors pointed out that — even among kids — obesity can raise the risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Katrina Hartog is clinical nutrition manager at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Reviewing the new data, she agreed that changes to school meals have been a success and “no other legislation was passed that could explain the positive decline in obesity prevalence during this period.”

Kenney’s team warned, however, that Trump administration efforts to roll back Obama-era changes in school nutrition could threaten these advances.

For example, the study authors pointed out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has sought to rescind parts of the program with moves such as the reintroduction of flavored milk, a weakening of the whole grains requirements and delays on limits on salt in school meals.

The agency has also tried to cut one million kids from free meals programs and allow schools to serve less fruit, fewer whole grains, fewer varieties of vegetables, and more starchy vegetables, such as French fries, Kenney’s group said.

That’s the wrong direction for kids, Hartog believes.

“We ought to be maintaining or strengthening these standards versus weakening them. Healthy children are more likely to develop into healthy adults and continue to pass these habits to future generations,” Hartog said.

According to Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the RWJF, “Healthier school meals have been an unqualified success.” She also believes the coronavirus crisis has made it tougher on low-income families to ensure their kids get good nutrition.

“To provide some certainty during the ongoing pandemic, USDA should allow schools to serve free meals to every student during the coming school year — universal free school meals — and Congress should appropriate any necessary additional funding to cover the full cost of all meals served,” Bussel said in the news release.

The report was published July 7 in the journal Health Affairs.

More information

For more on healthy school meals, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Common meds linked to faster mental decline in seniors

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A group of widely used medications might speed up older adults’ mental decline — especially if they are at increased risk of dementia, a new study hints.

The medications in question are called anticholinergics, and they are used to treat a diverse range of conditions — from allergies, motion sickness and overactive bladder to high blood pressure, depression and Parkinson’s disease.

The drugs are known to have short-term side effects such as confusion and fuzzy memory.

But studies in recent years have turned up a more troubling connection: a heightened risk of dementia among long-term users.

The new findings, published Sept. 2 in Neurology, add another layer: Healthy older adults on these medications had an increased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment. That refers to subtler problems with memory and thinking that may progress to dementia.

And the link, researchers found, was strongest among two groups of people already at heightened risk of Alzheimer’s disease: those who carry a gene variant that raises the odds of the disease, and people with certain biological “markers” of the disease in their spinal fluid.

The results do not prove anticholinergic drugs are to blame, cautioned Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“This study shows an association in a very specific population, but it does not prove causation,” said Snyder, who was not involved in the research.

However, it is biologically plausible that the drugs could increase dementia risk, said Dr. Allison Reiss, an associate professor at NYU Long Island School of Medicine.

The medications, she said, block a chemical called acetylcholine, which transmits messages among nerve cells. Acetylcholine is involved in memory and learning, and is typically low in people with Alzheimer’s.

“The preponderance of evidence suggests it’s better to avoid these medications in older adults,” said Reiss, who is also an advisory board member at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.

That’s especially true, she added, when alternatives exist.

Many medications sold for allergies, colds and coughs have anticholinergic properties — and are available over-the-counter. So it’s important, Reiss said, that older adults be aware that non-prescription drugs are not automatically “safe.”

“You don’t want to add any medications that aren’t necessary,” said Reiss, who had no role in the study.

Meanwhile, certain prescription drugs for depression, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia have anticholinergic properties, as do medications for overactive bladder and urinary incontinence.

Reiss said that people with questions about their prescriptions should talk to their doctor.

For the new study, researchers led by Lisa Delano-Wood, from the University of California, San Diego, followed 688 older adults who initially had no problems with memory or thinking skills. One-third said they’d been regularly taking anticholinergic drugs for more than six months — usually far more than one.

In fact, they were taking an average of almost five medications per person.

Over the next 10 years, people on anticholinergics were more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, which was gauged through yearly tests. Over half — 51% — developed the condition, versus 42% of older adults not taking anticholinergics.

The researchers did consider other factors that affect dementia risk — such as people’s education levels and history of heart disease or stroke. And after adjusting for those factors, older adults on anticholinergics were still 47% more likely to develop mild impairment.

The link was even stronger among people who carried a gene variant that raises Alzheimer’s risk: Anticholinergic use more than doubled their risk of impairment. A similar pattern was seen among study participants with Alzheimer’s-linked proteins in their spinal fluid.

That, Reiss said, suggests the medications might have “accelerated a process that was already in place.”

Snyder said the results “illustrate that we need better treatments — not only for Alzheimer’s and other dementias, but for other common conditions associated with aging.”

More information

The University of British Columbia has more on anticholinergic drugs.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Even ‘social smokers’ up their odds of death from lung disease

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Even light smokers are much more likely to die of lung disease or lung cancer than nonsmokers, a new study warns.

“Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, but it’s easy to assume that if you only smoke a little, the risks won’t be too high,” said study co-leader Pallavi Balte, of Columbia University Irving Medical Center, in New York City.

The new study shows how wrong that thinking can be. It included nearly 19,000 people in the United States, average age 61, who were followed for an average of 17 years. During that time, nearly 650 died of lung disease (such as emphysema) and 560 died of lung cancer.

Among nonsmokers, less than 2% died from lung disease and less than 1% died from lung cancer. But among social smokers (fewer than 10 cigarettes a day), those numbers were over 3% and close to 5%, respectively.

Not surprisingly, heavy smokers (more than 20 cigarettes a day) fared worst, with more than 10% dying from lung disease and about 13% from lung cancer, the study found.

After accounting for other potential factors — such as age, sex, race, level of education and body weight — the researchers concluded that social smokers were 2.5 times more likely to die of lung disease and 8.6 times more likely to die of lung cancer than nonsmokers.

Social smokers had around half the rate of death from lung disease as heavy smokers, but their rate of lung cancer death was two-thirds that of heavy smokers, according to the study.

The results were scheduled for presentation at a virtual meeting of the European Respiratory Society. Data and conclusions presented at meetings should be considered preliminary until peer-reviewed.

The findings show that cutting down on smoking is no substitute for quitting, the researchers concluded.

“Previous research suggests that people are cutting down on smoking. For example, in the U.S.A., the proportion of smokers smoking less than 10 cigarettes per day has increased from 16% to 27%,” Balte said in a society news release.

“You might think that if you only smoke a few cigarettes a day you are avoiding most of the risk. But our findings suggest that social smoking is disproportionately harmful,” Balte said.

If you don’t want to die of lung cancer or respiratory disease, the best action is to quit completely, she added.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a guide for quitting smoking.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Antidepressant use rising in U.S., mostly in women, CDC says

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Sept. 4 (UPI) — Nearly 18% of all adult women in the United States used antidepressant medication between 2015 and 2018, compared to just over 8% of men, according to data released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall, during the decade between 2009-2010 and 2017-2018, antidepressant use increased to 14% from 11%, the agency found. Use increased more for women — to 19% from 14% — than for men — to 9% from 7%.

In 2018, slightly more than 7% of adults in the United States said they suffered from a “major depressive episode,” the agency said.

The findings are based on an analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for the 10-year period between 2009 and 2018.

Depression is a mental health disorder in which sufferers experience a persistent depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Antidepressant medications are used to reduce the symptoms of depression, and include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs.

From 2015 through 2018, antidepressant use increased with age and was highest among women aged 60 and over, at slightly more than 24%, the CDC found.

In addition, use of the drugs was higher among non-Hispanic White adults, at 17%, compared with non-Hispanic Black adults, at 8%, and non-Hispanic Asian adults, at 3%.

Adults with at least some college education were more likely to use antidepressants than those with a high school education or less, the agency said.



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