Cabin Pressure May Harm Ill Infants

Compiled by THOMAS H. MAUGH II

Infants whose breathing ability is already impaired by respiratory infections may suffer sharp drops in oxygen levels in their bloodstreams when they encounter the reduced cabin pressure in airplanes, a British physician reports in the March 21 British Medical Journal. Such oxygen deficits have been associated with sudden infant death syndrome.

Dr. David Southall of the North Staffordshire Hospital Centre in Stoke on Trent simulated the situation by exposing 34 infants to air containing only 15% oxygen, six percentage points less than normal. Four of them suffered hypoxemia, a sharp fall in oxygen blood levels. But there are no records of an infant ever dying on an airliner.

German Study Links Allergy, Hay Fever to Western Lifestyle

Children in the former German Democratic Republic had a lower risk of hay fever and atopy (hypersensitivity to substances in the environment, such as pollen and house-dust mites) than children living in the same areas after the unification of the two Germanys, an indication that the disorders are associated with a Western lifestyle. Dr. Erika von Mutius and her colleagues at the Universitatskinderklinik in Munich studied 1,454 children ages 9-11 in 1991-92, shortly after the fall of the communist system, and 2,252 in 1995-96.

They report in the March 21 Lancet that 2.3% of the first group had hay fever and that 19.3% were hypersensitive to at least one allergen, compared with 5.1% with hay fever and 27.7% with hypersensitivity in the more recent group. They could not attribute the increases to specific causes, however.

Cigar Smoking Doubles Risk of Cancer Death, Doctor Says

Cigar smoking, unlike cigarette smoking, does not appear to increase the risk of coronary artery disease, but it doubles the risk of dying from all forms of cancer and of certain circulatory conditions, including heart disease caused by hypertension and cardiomyopathy. The mechanism by which the effects are produced is still unknown, Dr. Carlos Ibarren of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in Oakland told a meeting of the American Heart Assn. in Santa Fe, N.M.

U.S. cigar sales have increased 44% since 1993. Cigar smoke is not generally inhaled to the same extent as cigarette smoke, which may explain its lack of effect on coronary arteries, Ibarren said. But it is known to contain a number of potent carcinogens that can be absorbed through the cheeks.

Scientists Discover Gene That Causes Heart to Stop Beating

Scientists have identified a defective gene that can make a young person's heart stop beating for no apparent reason. The heart basically starts quivering instead of beating and is unable to pump blood. The person collapses, becomes unconscious and will die quickly unless treated with an electric shock to get the heart working correctly.

Such episodes are called "ventricular fibrillation" and kill more than 300,000 Americans each year, but the vast majority of those cases are caused by a prior heart condition. The new finding pertains to cases with no apparent explanation, or idiopathic ventricular fibrillation.

It's not clear how common IVF is. But past reports suggest it might kill 15,000 to 36,000 Americans a year, said Qing Wang of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He led a team that reported the gene's discovery in the March 19 issue of Nature.

Leg Length in Childhood May Predict Health Woes

People who had long legs as children are less likely to have heart disease but more likely to develop cancer as adults, according to a British study in the March Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Almost 3,000 children ages 2-14 were examined over the course of a week in 1937-39. Researchers from the University of Bristol were able to locate 85% of the people who were originally surveyed.

Leg length was the component of childhood height most closely linked to improved socioeconomic and dietary factors. The follow-up showed that men with the shortest legs as children were twice as likely to die of heart disease as those with the longest legs. The risk was even greater for women. Men with long legs as children, but not women, were more likely to die of cancer. The team suggested that shorter legs reflected poorer diet, more infections and poverty in childhood, and these may influence the risk of disease in the long term.

As Cholesterol Drops, Risk of Death Keeps Declining

Every 10% drop in cholesterol levels achieved by diets or medicine produces a 15% decrease in the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and an 11% overall decline in the total risk of death, according to a report in the March issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Assn.

A team headed by statistician A. Lawrence Gould of the Merck Research Laboratories in West Point, Pa., combined the results of 30 small studies to reach its conclusion. The team concluded that the benefits of lowering cholesterol do not peak, but continue to rise as cholesterol levels are reduced further.

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