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Personal Health: News and Notes

Study shows prevalence of balance disorders

An estimated 35 percent of Americans over age 40 have inner-ear balance disorders, sometimes without symptoms, that dramatically raise the odds of a fall, researchers report.

Dysfunction of the vestibular system - mainly tiny organs of the inner ear that constantly update the brain about the head's movement - often, but not always, shows up as a feeling of vertigo or dizziness. The researchers, all from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said theirs was the first study to estimate prevalence using an objective test of maintaining balance.

Based on test data and questionnaires from 5,086 people in two national surveys, they found higher rates among heavy smokers and people with diabetes or hypertension; the association also increased with age and decreased with level of education. People with measurable dysfunction who also reported symptoms had a 12-fold increase in the odds of falling; those without symptoms were six times more likely to fall.

Given the high rate of impairment and the huge costs of falls, "screening for vestibular dysfunction in assisted living or nursing home facilities, for example, could be a life-saving and cost-effective practice," the authors conclude in the current Archives of Internal Medicine.

- Don Sapatkin

Playing soothing music may ease preemies' pain

Playing soothing music in hospital neonatal units may benefit premature infants by relieving their pain and improving feeding, says a Canadian research team.

University of Alberta pediatricians reviewed nine existing studies that compared preemies who listened to music - mostly lullabies - with those who didn't.

Although the researchers couldn't draw firm conclusions because the studies were so varied, they found beneficial effects on babies' heart rates, oxygen saturation, and sucking. Music also reduced pain during medical procedures such as circumcision.

The review was published online last week in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

- Marie McCullough

Acid-reflux treatment carries risk of pneumonia

Proton-pump inhibitors - the acid-suppressing medicines widely used to treat acid reflux and ulcers - may have an unwanted consequence when prescribed in the hospital: pneumonia.

In an analysis of 63,878 patients admitted to an unnamed Boston hospital, those who were given proton-pump inhibitors were 30 percent more likely to contract pneumonia. That figure is adjusted to take into account other factors, such as age, that might lead to an increased risk of the disease.

Pneumonia was diagnosed in 3.5 percent of the patients overall. The findings were published in the current Journal of the American Medical Association.

The authors wrote that between 40 percent and 70 percent of hospital patients get some form of acid-suppressing medication during their stay, often for uses not supported by medical literature. - Tom Avril

Trying to kick cigarettes? The computer can help

No luck kicking that cigarette habit?

An online or computer-based smoking-cessation program could help, according to a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine that analyzed the results of 22 randomized controlled trials with nearly 30,000 smokers.

Noting that smoking is the biggest cause of preventable illness and death in the world, the researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the National Cancer Center in South Korea reported that smokers were nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to quit with online or computer help than alone.

Smokers who got the computer help were also more likely to stick with quitting after 12 months. Nearly 10 percent of those people did not take up the habit again, while just 5.7 percent of those without the assistance were successful.

Ten of the studies also included additional interventions such as classroom lessons, medication or nicotine replacement patches on top of computer-based programs.

"Web-based smoking cessation programs could become a promising new strategy that is easily accessible for smokers worldwide," the researchers concluded.

Two possibilities: and
- Josh Goldstein