Top Health News Stories of 2013

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From contaminated supplements to new statin guidelines, 2013 was a big year in health news. Here’s a look back at the most important studies and announcements from each month of 2013. See if you’ve stayed on top of this year’s most surprising health headlines and find some tips to keep you healthy and happy in the year to come.

January
Berries May Lower Heart Disease Risk: A study based on the diets of over 93,000 women found that eating at least three servings of blueberries and strawberries a week could reduce the risk of heart attack. The women who ate the most berries were 32% less likely to suffer an early heart attack, even compared to women who ate diets high in other fruits and vegetables. The results held true after researchers adjusted for other risk factors like age, family history and smoking. Researchers think dietary flavonoids called anthocyanins may be responsible for the berries’ heart-protecting effects.

February
Mindfulness Meditation Can Change Brain Waves: Neuroscientists found that mindfulness meditation appears to alter alpha rhythms – brain waves, which may regulate “how the brain processes and filters sensations” like pain or bad memories – in the brain. The practice of mindfulness meditation is centered on being in the present moment by focusing on immediate sensations, emotions and thoughts without judging or reacting to them. Researchers used brain scan technology called magnetoencephalography to show that brain waves changed when people focused on present sensory experience. Researchers suggested that people with chronic pain or mood disorders could potentially benefit from the ability to change their own alpha waves.

March
Processed Meats Linked to Increased Risk of Death: Eating processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, salami and bologna was linked to an increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease in a study based on the diets of nearly 500,000 Europeans. These meats are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which are known contributors to heart disease. They also often contain nitrates, additives that help preserve meat which have been linked to stomach cancer and degenerative diseases like dementia. The researchers believed that 3.3% of the 26,000 deaths that occurred during the study period could have been prevented if participants reduced processed meat consumption to less than 20 grams a day (about one strip of bacon).

April
Breast Cancer Drug Recommended for Women at High Risk: The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) issued a draft recommendation that doctors offer the breast cancer drugs tamoxifen or raloxifene to some women at high risk for breast cancer. These drugs lower risk of estrogen-fueled cancers by blocking estrogen’s effects on the body. The USPSTF suggested that women with an estimated 5-year breast cancer risk of 3% or greater might benefit from the drugs, which may themselves increase risk of blood clots, strokes and hot flashes. Breast cancer risk is estimated based on factors such as age, family history, BRCA positivity, previous breast lesions and dense breast tissue. The recommendation was ultimately finalized in September.

May
Vitamin D May Reduce Your Risk for Fibroids: A study published in the journal Epidemiology found that women with adequate levels of vitamin D were 32% less likely to develop uterine fibroids compared to women with a vitamin D deficiency. Sufficient vitamin D is anything above 20 nanograms per mL of blood. Researchers believe that an active metabolite of vitamin D works to inhibit the growth of fibroid cells and may reduce fibroid size. Fibroids are the most common pelvic tumor in women and are thought to occur in about 70% of all women. Though many never cause symptoms, they can lead to pain, bleeding, fertility problems and very rarely cancer.

June
U.S. Abandons Effort to Limit Sales of Morning-After Pill: The Obama administration abandoned an attempt to block over-the-counter sales of Plan B One-Step, a common form of emergency contraceptive pills. The decision meant that any woman or girl would be able to buy the pills without a prescription, regardless of age. The medication can be taken up to 72 hours after sexual intercourse and works to prevent pregnancy mainly by suppressing ovulation – the release of an egg from the ovaries.

July
FDA Seeks to Limit Arsenic in Apple Juice: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed to limit the acceptable level of arsenic in apple juice to under 10 parts per billion, the same level set for drinking water. The FDA stated that while it believed most apple juice to be safe, they enacted the new limits to “help prevent public exposure to occasional lots of apple juice with arsenic levels above those permitted in drinking water.” In 2011, The Dr. Oz Show conducted its own test of store-bought apple juice and found levels of arsenic exceeding those recommended for drinking water. Following further correspondence with the FDA over these findings, the FDA agreed to review the issue and subsequently issued the new arsenic limits. Arsenic is a known carcinogen also associated with skin lesions, developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes. You can read Dr. Oz’s thoughts on this story here.

August
New Screening Method May Catch Ovarian Cancer Early: A study published in Cancer found that a simple blood test tracking levels of protein CA-125 might provide an effective screening method for ovarian cancer. The study, which included over 4,000 women between the ages of 50 and 74, classified the subjects as low, intermediate or high risk based on their initial CA-125 levels. High-risk women were referred to get a transvaginal ultrasound and consult with a specialist, and 10 women ultimately underwent surgery. Four of those women were found to have invasive ovarian cancer, which was caught early. All women survived treatment. A similar but larger study including about 200,000 women should have results by 2015, after which screening recommendations could potentially change.

September
23,000 People Killed Yearly by Drug-Resistant Germs: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated and released for the first time the number of Americans infected and killed by drug-resistant bacteria every year. The government organization reported that approximately two million people were infected and 23,000 killed by dangerous bacteria that aren’t susceptible to commonly used antibiotics. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), drug-resistant gonorrhea and Clostridium difficile were identified as “urgent” threats and 12 others were identified as “serious.” The CDC cited overuse and misuse of antibiotics as the largest factor contributing to the development of drug-resistant organisms.

October
Herbal Products Full of Contaminants and Fillers: Many herbal supplements contain fillers and potentially dangerous ingredients not listed on the label, one study found. Researchers tested 44 different products manufactured by 12 different companies and discovered that nearly 60% contained plant material such as black walnut and Senna alexandrina (which may cause laxative effects, liver damage or other health problems) that were not listed on the label. Twenty percent contained unlabeled fillers like rice, soybeans and wheat that could potentially trigger serious allergic reactions. Of the 12 companies tested, only two had products without any substitutions or unlisted substances, but the researchers did not release the companies’ names.

November
Number of People Taking Statins Could Significantly Increase Per New Guidelines: The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology released new guidelines that could potentially double the number of Americans who could be offered the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins. Per the new guidelines, people who should take a statin include people with a history of cardiovascular disease, people ages 40 to 75 with a 10-year risk of heart attack or stroke that is 7.5% or higher, people over 21 with an LDL level of 190 or greater and people ages 40 to 75 with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. You can read Dr. Oz’s thoughts on the new guidelines here.

December
Energy Drinks Make the Heart Beat Harder: A small study used MRI scans of heart function to show that the heart beats harder up to an hour after consuming energy drinks high in caffeine and taurine. The researchers warned that people with certain medical conditions (arrhythmias in particular) and children should likely avoid such drinks in light of the findings. The researchers said the amount of caffeine in a typical energy drink is about three times higher than the amount found in other caffeinated drinks like coffee. Long-term effects of energy drink consumption are not known, but increased work for the heart’s left ventricle may lead to potentially dangerous arrhythmias, or irregular heart rhythms.