April 09, 2010
NIH Podcast Episode #0107
Balintfy: Welcome to episode 107 of NIH Research Radio with news about the ongoing medical research at the National Institutes of Health – the nation's medical research agency. I'm your host Joe Balintfy and coming up in this episode: survey results on who we trust for cancer health information, a doctor or the net; what happens to our diet when we drink alcohol, not exactly balanced; and a special interview to give us a health perspective from the environment, just in time for Earth Day. But first, this news update.
News UpdateBalintfy: Taking vitamin C and E supplements starting in early pregnancy does not reduce the risk for the hypertensive disorders and their complications that occur during pregnancy; this according to a new study. The supplements failed to reduce the risk of preeclampsia, a potentially fatal form of hypertension in pregnancy. The findings are in contrast to suggestions in some previous small studies that the vitamins could reduce the risk of preeclampsia. Those studies were not confirmed in subsequent larger studies. This NIH study, the largest to date and one in which treatment was started earliest in pregnancy, also showed no reduction in pregnancy-associated hypertension and its complications. Researchers say these results are very useful because they show that what originally appeared to be a promising treatment did not actually offer any benefit. The findings appear in the April 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Another recent study shows, the more obese a woman is when she becomes pregnant, the greater the likelihood that she will give birth to an infant with a congenital heart defect. Researchers found that, on average, obesity increases a woman’s chance of having a baby with a heart defect by around 15 percent. The risk increases with rising obesity. Moderately obese women are 11 percent more likely to have a child with a heart defect, and morbidly obese women are 33 percent more likely. Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, affecting 8 in every 1000 newborns. These defects consist of a number of problems in the structure of the heart and range from minor to life threatening. These findings are published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
And finally, an international research consortium has identified more than 800 genes that appear to play a role in a bird’s ability to learn elaborate songs. The male zebra finch, unlike chickens or even female zebra finches, has the ability to communicate through vocalization learned from his father. The researchers also found evidence that song behavior engages complex networks within the brain of the songbird — networks that rely on parts of the genome once considered junk. The finch is the first songbird — and only the second bird, after the chicken — to have its genome sequenced. Researchers say that by comparing the finch genome with the human genome, scientists may now be able to expand their understanding of learned vocalization in humans. Such information may help researchers who are striving to develop new ways to diagnose and treat communication disorders, such as stuttering and autism.
News updates are compiled from information at www.nih.gov/news. Coming up after this break: health survey results on who Americans trust for cancer health information, plus later in the program, chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, how they impact the environment, and may impact us. We’ll be right back.
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Survey shows that the Public Trust Physicians More than the Internet for Cancer Health Information
Balintfy: Which source would you trust more for health information about cancer: a physician, or the Internet? Well, data from a National Cancer Institute survey shows that for most of us trust in physicians remains high – if anything, it increased from 2002 to 2008. During that same time, trust in health information from the Internet or from other sources decreased. Wally Akinso shares the details on the survey’s findings.
Akinso: Despite a decade's worth of exposure to health information on the Internet, the public's trust in physicians as their preferred source of cancer health information has remained high.
Dr. Hesse: People trust physicians more and the information they get from physicians while still going on the internet and they trust the information on the internet less.
Akinso: Dr. Bradford Hesse is the Chief of the National Cancer Institute's Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch.
Dr. Hesse: So we think that link back to physicians, is going to grow, it’s going to be even more important.
Akinso: According to NCI's Health Information National Trends Survey—HINTS, the public's trust in cancer health information from the Internet and other sources has decreased while the trust in physicians has increased. Dr. Hesse explains how they were able to abstract this information using HINTS.
Dr. Hesse: The Health Information National Trends Surveyor or HINTS is a biennial survey, it's a population survey. We have typically used random digit dial to reach all adults in the United States. We also had a paper sample frame, that means a paper based instrument, and we did that through the postal service because we know more people don’t have landlines anymore.
Akinso: Dr. Hesse provides some explanations into possible reasons for increase and decrease of trust between physician information and other sources such as the internet.
Dr. Hesse: As we get into all the questions within the survey, we try to figure out why it is that people not getting away from their physicians but actually express a greater need to talk to their physicians. What we think is going on is that the internet is just the "Wild West". There’s just so much information out there. There's spam. There are people with ulterior motives. There is unleveled quality out there. And because of that, people recognize that they can't rely solely on the internet for credible information that they need for their health. Instead they really value the vetted credibility of a physician and, if anything, want to reach out to that physician that much more.
Akinso: HINTS is a biennial national survey of the American public conducted by the NCI’s Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch. The survey collects nationally representative data about the American public's use of cancer-related information. To view this survey, visit http://hints.cancer.gov. This is Wally Akinso at the National Institutes of Health Bethesda, Maryland.
Diet Quality Worsens as Alcohol Intake Increases
Balintfy: Findings from this next study underscore the importance of moderate alcohol consumption and greater awareness of healthy eating for those who drink. Heavy drinking has been associated with health problems, and dietary factors have been associated with health problems. Wally Akinso is back and explains that diet quality worsens as alcohol intake increases.
Akinso: A study of more than 15,000 adults in the U.S. has found that increased alcoholic beverage consumption is associated with decreased diet quality.
Dr. Breslow: When people drank more they tended to make poorer food choices.
Akinso: Dr. Rosalind Breslow is an epidemiologist in the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research, and is the study's first author.
Dr. Breslow: It's important to note that our study was not designed to determine whether there was a cause and effect relationship between drinking and food choices rather we were interested in seeing what the relationship might be.
Akinso: For the study, NIAAA researchers analyzed data in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Healthy Eating Index. Dr. Breslow explains that as alcoholic beverage consumption increased, Healthy Eating Index scores decreased, which is an indication of poorer food choices.
Dr. Breslow: What we found was that as men and women drank more they ate less fruit, in particular less whole fruit, which is a great source of fiber, and they took in more calories from the combination of alcohol, unhealthy fats, and added sugars. In addition, the men also ate less whole grain and less whole fat milk products. So overall, big picture, drinking more was associated with a higher calorie less healthy diet.
Akinso: The 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than one drink on any day for women and no more than two drinks on any day for men. She adds it is important for people to consume nutrient-dense foods, like whole fruits and whole grains that provide substantial amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and relatively few calories. Dr. Breslow says the findings raise questions about whether the combination of alcohol and poor diet might interact to further increase health risks.
Dr. Breslow: They underscore the need to for all people to be sure to maintain a healthy nutrient dense diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains just like your mother told you. And avoid the excess calories that come from too much alcohol, unhealthy fats and added sugars.
Akinso: For more information on this study or alcohol research, visit www.niaaa.nih.gov. This is Wally Akinso at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
Balintfy: Coming up next, a discussion about research that broke new ground in the field of environmental toxicology. Stay tuned!
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The Researcher’s Perspective: Reflections of a Pioneer, with Theo Colborn
Balintfy: For this portion of NIH Research Radio, we’re turning to the Environmental Health Perspectives podcast, The Researcher's Perspective. The Environmental Health Perspectives, or EHP, is a monthly journal of peer-reviewed research and news published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
In this April edition, The Research’s Perspective podcasts marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day by talking with a scientist whose study of the wildlife around the Great Lakes began a passionate and sometimes controversial journey toward understanding the chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. Here’s Ashley Ahearn with The Researcher’s Perspective.
Ahearn: Since the '50s biologists had been noticing some weird behavior in wild animals. Gulls in Lake Ontario abandoning their nests. Alligators in a lake in Florida laying eggs that weren't hatching. In Southern California female western gulls were nesting with other females.
And then in the St. Lawrence River in Canada a male beluga whale washed up, and scientists, when they opened him up, were shocked to discover that he had a uterus and ovaries.
Environmental health analyst Theo Colborn was one of the first to connect the dots between the various reproductive health problems in wildlife and then start asking the questions about what those trends might mean for humans.
In 1996, she co-authored the book Our Stolen Future, which laid out the concept of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and ignited a major movement in environmental health research.
Dr. Theo Colborn now heads The Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colorado, and she's professor emeritus at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Dr. Colborn, thanks for joining me.
COLBORN: Oh it's great to be with you.
AHEARN: Let's start with endocrine disruptors. You refer to them as "hand-me-down poisons." What is that? What are they?
COLBORN: Well basically they are chemicals that have been around for quite a while, we just didn't know what they were doing. But they can be passed from the mother to her child when it is in the womb, and these can actually alter how the individual develops. Keep in mind that, you know, practically every day from the minute the sperm enters the egg something has to take place: cells begin to split, then actually cells begin to form a ball. The next thing you know, they're forming the tissue that's going to become the intestinal tract, the brains, the bones. It's all there, and if the chemical one of these chemicals gets into that chemical mix that's controlling how we are constructed, it can interfere with the construction of that system.
And the other thing is the damage may not be expressed until they reach adulthood so it's a very, very difficult situation in a human population to make a link between any particular chemical and any of these alterations that might have taken place in their body.
AHEARN: Now, when we say "endocrine-disrupting chemicals," what types of chemicals are we talking about specifically?
COLBORN: Well we're talking about chemicals that are If you look around you where you're sitting right now you're probably in a studio; practically everything in here is made of plastic. They're in plastics. They're in our toys, the children's toys. If you go to your kitchen sink and under your bathroom sink and look at the cleaning compounds that are there, the cosmetics, the toiletries they're just about in everything because they've made every one of these products much nicer; they last longer. They're preservatives. They're fire retardants.
AHEARN: So Dr. Colborn, when you were an environmental health analyst with the Conservation Foundation back in the late '80s, tell me what you were seeing and what kind of turned you on to the concept of reproductive health problems in the environment.
COLBORN: Basically I was working on an environmental health assessment of the Great Lakes requested by the International Joint Commission from Canada and the United States. They were very concerned because although they had cleaned up the lakes from physical chemical mess and debris along the shoreline and had stopped the fires in the rivers that were leading into the lakes, the animals around the Great Lakes were not thriving, and these animals were not able to reproduce. Some of the populations actually had been extirpated. But it was interesting, it was among the, among the egg-laying species the birds, the fish, and the reptiles where we found that if they were able to reproduce, the chicks in the eggs didn't hatch. Fish in the Great Lakes weren't reaching sexual maturity. I have pictures of female and male Coho salmon, and you can't tell them apart. The thyroid problem persisted. The thyroids actually were constructed differently, and they were functioning differently, although the animals seemed to be swimming and flying like they should. Behavioral changes in the animals: they did not take care of their offspring. Lack of parenting, female-female pairing, males flying off in fraternities and not protecting the nests. And it was sort of an endless list of the kinds of disorders that we were seeing in the animals. And in every one of the studies, practically, that were done, the concentrations of the organochlorine chemicals now, these are persistent chemicals that build up in body fat, and remember these animals were all at the top of the food web, just like we are the chemicals in the water, from the Lake Superior to the bald eagle who came and sat on the tree on the shoreline, actually biomagnified 100 million times.
We began to realize that the toxicological testing that we had been doing to test these PCBs, the pesticides the organochlorine pesticides did not include looking at what took place in the womb, and it was very apparent that the female animals were transporting or sharing basically the chemicals in their bodies, dumping them into their eggs and right into that environment. And then the few mammal species we looked at, again, we found the same problem.
AHEARN: So tell me now, do you think that what you were seeing in animals, are we seeing similar results or similar effects in human beings?
COLBORN: Well, we're certainly seeing an epidemic of thyroid problems in the nation, but it's this growing list, and I'm going to start with the A's. You know we've got autism, which the link has definitely not been made yet, but it looks like they're closing in on that. But we've got ADHD. We have childhood cancers, early childhood diabetes, and then the adult onset of diabetes. Obesity problems. You've got endometriosis, where we begin to look at the reproductive tract where things don't develop normally. Early onset of testicular cancer in young men. Prostate and breast cancer in the aging community. Then there's Alzheimer's, Parkinson's. Many of these disorders now have been traced back to prenatal or very early postnatal exposure, while we're developing, when all that activity is going on, where all these vital systems that we depend upon for the rest of our life, that will basically help us function at those particular periods in our life as we mature, they're all being interfered with.
AHEARN: I'd like you to read a section of your book Our Stolen Future now. It's the part on page 238.
COLBORN: Well I do have to give credit to Diane Dumanovsky for this because Diane wrote every word in this book.
AHEARN: She's your co-author, right.
COLBORN: She was my co-author, yeah, that's right. She wrote:
"Some might find irony in the prospect that humans in their restless quest for dominance over nature may be inadvertently undermining their own ability to reproduce or to learn and think. They may see poetic justice in the possibility that we have become [unwitting] guinea pigs in our own vast experiment with synthetic chemicals. But in the end it is hard to regard such a chemical assault on our children and their potential for a full life as anything but profoundly sad. Chemicals that disrupt hormone messages have the power to rob us of rich possibilities that have been the legacy of our species and indeed, the essence of our humanity."
AHEARN: Some called Our Stolen Future the next generation of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring. I'm wondering, could you tell me a little bit about how your findings, how this book on endocrine-disrupting chemicals was received when it came out?
COLBURN: Well it was interesting, I've always said that if Rachel Carson only had lived a few years more she would have discovered this then, and we wouldn't be in quite the predicament we're in today. We picked up some very, very elegant attacks. Very outright, straightforward, that this was pure junk science. I guess I didn't take any of it personally, and I didn't let it worry me, but that same kind of very sophisticated public relations effort is still going on today. The same scientists that were hired to debunk our book have been hired to debunk climate change. I see the names coming up all the time. So they don't have the battery of people behind them or scientists anymore, like we do for endocrine disruption. What's happened is the whole concept and all of the assumptions that come with looking at the endocrine system and how it functions has now been picked up by scientists around the world. And I'm not worried that this issue is going to get buried because of opposition or suppression, because you can't keep scientists from telling the truth and seeking the truth.
AHEARN: Dr. Colborn, thank you so much for joining me.
COLBORN: Oh Ashley, it was a pleasure to talk to you.
Balintfy: Dr. Theo Colborn is the founder and president of the nonprofit group The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and co-author of the book Our Stolen Future. She talked with Ashley Ahearn in The Researcher's Perspective podcast. For this and other episodes of The Researcher’s Perspective podcast, visit the website: ehp03.niehs.nih.gov.
Balintfy: And that’s it for this episode of NIH Research Radio. Please join us again on Friday, April 23rd when our next edition will be available. If you have any questions or comments about this program, or have story suggestions for a future episode, please let me know. Best to reach me by email—my address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Joe Balintfy. Thanks for listening.
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