Health Headlines of the Week: May 21-25

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on May 25, 2012

Calcium Supplements Linked to Increased Heart Attack Risk

Who doesn’t love chomping down on a chocolate-y calcium chew? After all, it’s for your health! But a large-scale study conducted in Germany and published in the journal Heart warns that people who regularly took calcium supplements were 86 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who did not. In a confusing footnote, however, researchers did confirm past research in finding that participants with diets naturally high in calcium experienced a lower risk of heart attacks.

So why the distinction between calcium accumulated from natural sources like dairy and that found in supplements? Researchers hypothesize that high doses of calcium from supplements may be absorbed too quickly by the body and contribute to hardening of the arteries, as opposed to calcium consumed through foods, which is digested and released into the bloodstream more gradually.

The study echoes research published in 2010 that also suggested a link between calcium supplements and increased heart attack risk, but future studies are needed. In the meantime, experts recommend boosting your calcium intake with food as much as possible, either through low-fat dairy or dark leafy-green vegetables. (Try some of our calcium-rich snack ideas!)


Maryland Teenager Discovers Cheap, Accurate Test for Pancreatic Cancer

I don’t know about you, but my science projects weren’t all that remarkable. And they certainly pale in comparison to 15-year-old Jack Andraka’s. The Maryland freshman created a simple test that can accurately detect pancreatic cancer 90% of the time. The test, which can be used on blood or urine, is also 28 times cheaper to administer than other screenings for the disease. It works by detecting an abnormal protein only present in pancreatic cancer patients, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Dr. Anirban Maitra, whom Andraka consulted with on the project. Pancreatic cancer kills 37,000 Americans a year, according to the National Cancer Institute, most within five years after diagnosis. (It claimed the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs last October.) It is the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., in part because it has traditionally been difficult to detect in its early stages.

Andraka’s discovery won first prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, earning him $100,000 in award money. The video of his win is a must-see.


Is “Gaydar” Real? New Study Suggests It Is

I love to tease my brother-in-law about his terrible “gaydar.” Whenever a celebrity comes out of the closet, and most of the country shrugs and says, “Duh,” he is always surprised. But is there really such a thing as “gaydar”? A new study from the University of Washington suggests we can legitimately sense sexual orientation just by reading someone’s face. Researchers showed a group of 129 students photos of people who identified as gay or straight, and asked them to guess their sexual preference. The photos were shown in black and white, and details such as hairstyle, makeup, glasses and facial hair were removed, leaving the students to primarily focus on facial features. The subjects correctly guessed 65 percent of the time when assessing photos of women and 57 percent of the time when identifying men. The results could be useful in determining whether people can successfully conceal their sexual orientation in order to avoid discrimination, the researchers said. 


Task Force Recommends Against Routine PSA Tests for Prostate Cancer

Another day, another opinion on the effectiveness of PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) tests to detect prostate cancer. After drafting a recommendation in October, and subsequently reviewing more than 3,000 comments, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has formalized its opinion that men should not routinely be subjected to the test. The screening, it said, detects levels of the prostate-specific antigen that signals the presence of prostate cancer, but is not able to evaluate how fast the cancer is growing. In many cases, prostate cancer is not aggressive, and treatment like radiation and surgery hinder quality of life. The task force estimated that only 1 in 1,000 men screened benefits from the test.

The American Urological Association continues to recommend PSA screenings, but the American Cancer Society has expressed its support for the task force’s recommendation. Writing for CNN, its chief medical and scientific officer Dr. Otis W. Brawley praised the “scientific rigor” that preceded the task force’s decision on PSA tests, and criticized a rush to “mass screenings” in recent years that have failed to properly inform men of the its risks and potentially caused unnecessary side effects.