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Politics and Your Genes; Presidential Candidates and Their Ideas for Health Care; Sergeant Making a Difference in Iraq

Aired February 9, 2008 - 08:30   ET


SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: This is HOUSE CALL. We're making the rounds this morning with some of the most intriguing medical stories of the week.
First up, politics and your genes. Could your genetic makeup determine whether you're conservative or you're liberal?

And a woman with three months to live. Find out what she is desperate to tell the candidates.

We'll also take a closer look at what the presidential candidates have to say about the health care system, including their ideas in their own words.

Plus, making a difference in Iraq. A sergeant's quest to manage stress on his own terms.

First up, though, what's shaping the choices we make at the voting booth? It could be more than just the candidate's stump speeches. Researchers are looking at whether genes have an impact on our political views.

Here's CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They look alike, they talk alike, they even vote alike.

JOHN ROBINSON, AGE 42, Yes, I probably am pretty liberal.

CHARLES ROBINSON: Yes, you could probably paint us with the same brush.

COHEN: Identical twins John and Charles Robinson say they pretty much voted for the same candidates in every election since 1984. Are their political views so similar because they grew up together in the same household and went to the same schools? For years, that's what political scientists assumed, that our political views are shaped entirely by the world around us. But now, they're finding our political views might be rooted in something much deeper -- our DNA.

JAMES FOWLER, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA: Nature in some cases is just as important as nurture when it comes to political behavior.

COHEN: So what's the scientific evidence? First, studies on nearly 20,000 twins found that identical twins who share all their genes tend to share political views much more so than fraternal twins, who share only half their genes. Another study done at New York University and UCLA shows liberals and conservatives process information differently when playing a computer game. And how our brains work is to some extent governed by our genes.

FOWLER: We are finding surprisingly strong results.

COHEN: And James Fowler at the University of California- San Diego has found genes may play a role in whether or not you vote. He's just completed research suggesting people who vote tend to have a specific variation of two genes, a different variation than folks who don't vote. As for political views, scientists say they'll never find a Republican gene or a Democrat gene. They say there are probably hundreds of genes and lots of other factors that influence our political point of view.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Atlanta.


GUPTA: Now to be fair, there are some political scientists who criticize this genes in politics research. They think it's soft science.

Some quick medical headlines now. Flu season is in full swing with widespread outbreaks in almost a dozen states, all the way from Hawaii to Massachusetts. Interestingly, this year's most common flu strain seems to be slightly resistant to the front line flu treatment called Tamiflu. Experts say they really aren't sure why, but say those already taking the drug should continue.

And babies may be getting more from their lotion than just soft skin. A new study finds infants, especially those younger than eight months old, may be exposed to a widely used chemical through things like lotions, powders and shampoos. Researchers found elevated levels of phthalates in the urine of babies after those products were applied.

Now some studies show these chemicals may cause allergies, they may cause asthma in children, but there isn't enough research at this point to recommend stop using them.

Now onto a story of hope. Since the beginning of the presidential campaign, one woman's passion has sent her to more than 70 campaign events around the United States. Her mission to change U.S. health care in the time she has left.

CNN correspondent Randi Kaye tells us Kathy Stangl's story.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This 56-year-old mother of two from Des Moines, Iowa should have been dead last April. Instead, she's on the campaign trail grilling presidential hopefuls. KATHY STANGL, DYING IOWA VOTER: It's a big job interview. I wanted to see what they had to say about health care, what they said about research.

KAYE: Kathy Stangl has lung disease. It's untreatable and incurable. She knows one day it will kill her. Before it does, she's doing all she can to change the future of U.S. health care, a key campaign issue, especially for women voters. Kathy has gone head to head with all but two presidential hopefuls. She's attended nearly 70 campaign events, including this one for Democratic Senator Chris Dodd.

One year ago, Kathy was given three months to live. The gift of time has given her the chance to tell candidates about her illness and pushed them to direct more health care dollars toward research, early intervention, and prevention.

(on camera): It's estimated at least 250,000 women may have the same disease as Kathy, but are walking around undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. The disease is called Lymphangiolimitosis (ph) or LAM. It affects women in the prime of their lives, most often in their child bearing years. Breathing becomes a daily battle.

(voice-over): Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. don't have health insurance. Presidential contenders on both sides of the aisle are promising to change that. The Democrats are offering broader and more immediate changes, including subsidies and mandated insurance. The Republicans generally oppose any mandate but favor making insurance affordable through tax credits. Still, healthcare has rarely been front and center on the campaign trail.

Kathy says Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney blew her off when she approached them about it.

STANGL: Giuliani said to me that health care is good, everybody, you know, likes good health, and health care is good. And good health is good, some variation on that, permutation of that I've played over and over again in my mind over and over without giving me any specifics.

KAYE: Kathy wants a universal health plan. While she campaigns, the candidates, especially the Democrats continue to hash it out on health care.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He said it was universal, he said it was sort of universal, he said it wasn't universal.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Clinton still hasn't explained what exactly this mandate is.

KAYE: And amid the he said/she said, Kathy just wants to be heard.

STANGL: The legacy that I want to leave is a legacy for my daughters and for people in general, but for my daughters to lead that one person can make a difference, that every decision you make in your life is important. And you can make a difference and you can make a change. And that I don't know how long I have. Nobody knows how long I have.

KAYE: And if Kathy Stangl isn't here to hold candidates accountable for what they've promised, she hopes someone else will be.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


GUPTA: And that's what this primary season is all about, voting on the issues that are closest to your heart. Thanks, Randi.

And the high cost of health care. Who's going to foot the bill? We take a hard look at what the candidates themselves are saying.


GUPTA: If something catastrophic happened and you couldn't make your own medical decisions, who would make them for you? Well, in this week's "Empowered Patient," we have some advise on making those in case of an emergency decisions before an emergency happens.

And CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is back with some tips. Interesting.

COHEN: It is interesting. And it's something that no one really likes to think about, but it's so important. If you got hit by a bus tomorrow, would the emergency workers know who to call? And would they know your medical history?

So on, we have some advice for you. One piece of advice is you need to keep emergency medical information handy. That means a little card that has the name of who to call in case of an emergency and also ought to have things like the medicines you're taking and the medicines that you are allergic to.

Also, designate a health care decision maker. That means that you need to say this person is going to be making decisions for me if I'm incapacitated. It needs to be a legal form. And if you look on our story on the web, we'll explain how to go on different Internet sites, and find that card and find that form.

GUPTA: Now the decision maker, does that person always need to be your spouse?

COHEN: You know, most of the time, people do choose their spouse. But I was talking to a lawyer who specializes in this. And she said you know what, there are times where you might not want your spouse. You should talk about it first. If you don't get along, that might be one instance. But also, sometimes people have a tough time making decisions. Sometimes people get very emotional under stressful situations. So in those situations, you might want to choose a sibling or a parent. Talk to your spouse about it. GUPTA: And Rebecca, you can definitely make those decisions. I think she has my best interest in mind. I'm not sure, though, sometimes. Yes, and blood type too you mentioned. It's always a good opportunity to figure out your blood type and put that down as well.

COHEN: Right, put that card in your wallet, card in your appointment book. You can put the information in your cell phone. Put it lot of places.

GUPTA: Amazing how many people don't know their blood type, but this is maybe a good reminder.

COHEN: A good time to find out, right.

GUPTA: All right, thanks a lot, Elizabeth. Great stuff as usual. Find more tips on this very topic by checking out Elizabeth's column at Every week, she writes about ways you can empower yourself to get the most out of your healthcare.

Our health care system stands at a crossroads. And we're going to take a closer look at the candidates and how this election might shape a solution. We'll be back in 60 seconds. Stay with us.


GUPTA: Well, as you can see there, health care is a critical issue this election season, ranking just behind the economy and the war in Iraq as a top issue on people's minds. Healthcare costs are rising. And approximately 47 million people in this country are uninsured. There are big differences between Republicans and Democrats on this issue. So we've decided to bring you their plans in their own words.

We start with the Democrats.


CLINTON: I am the only candidate left in either party who has a universal health care plan that will cover everyone. And there will be financial health through health care tax credits, and limiting the amount of percentage of income that anyone ever pays for a premium.

People will be signed up when they come in contact with various agencies like schools, or even at the workplace, or their health care providers. Because if we don't have everyone covered, we will number one, not be doing what we should in America to take care of our people, but also we'll be wasting money, because we know we spend more money than anybody in the world.

And my plan has actually been evaluated independently by a number of experts who have said that it would cover everybody. And the cost would be affordable. And I'd tell you how I would pay for it.

OBAMA: Well, let's break down what she really means by a mandate. What's meant by a mandate is the government is forcing people to buy health insurance. And so she's suggesting a parent is not going to buy health insurance for themselves if they can afford it.

Now my belief is that most parents will choose to get health care for themselves and we make it affordable. Here's the concern. If you haven't made it affordable, how are you going to enforce a mandate? I mean if a mandate was a solution, we could try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody buy a house.

The reason they don't buy a house is they don't have the money. And so our focus has been on reducing costs, making it available. I am confident that if people have a chance to buy high quality health care that is affordable, they will do so. And that's what our plan does. And nobody disputes that.


GUPTA: Now Republicans take a different approach, including tax incentives to entice people to buy their own insurance and expanding health savings accounts. Here are the candidates in their own words.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The problem with healthcare in America is inflation. You know that as well as I do. Medicaid inflation last year was 10 percent. We need to have outcome based payment for care for people.

There's five chronic diseases that consume 75 percent percent of the health care costs in America. Let's treat those illnesses on an outcome basis. In other words, if someone has diabetes, treat them for a year, and then pay that provider after a year. And if that person, that patient is in good health, give them a bonus for doing so. Let's have incentives for good care.

Let's have medical malpractice reforms. We need to have community health centers. We need to have walk in clinics so that people don't have to go to the emergency room.

We need to encourage wellness and fitness. I want to say we need to encourage home health care. Wellness and fitness, wellness and fitness, my friends, the most disturbing news we've seen recently is the rise amongst young children of obesity, high bloop and diabetes. You should know what the school lunch program is at your children's school. You should know whether there's a physical education program.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To be fair, some of the Republicans say, no, we want the private insurance companies to make all the decisions about your health care. I'm going to be honest with you, folks, I don't trust the government or the private insurance companies to take care of me. I want to take care of me. I think our health plan ought to empower you as an individual citizen to make your health care choices.

So you decide with your doctor what's best for you. Because if somebody else is making the decision, they're making the decision how it affects their own pocket, not how it affects your future, your life, your health. And the health care system that I dream of in this country is one that's personalized and it's owned by you. And you have a say in it. And the healthier you live, the less expensive it is for you because your choices would result in benefits that you can live with.


GUPTA: And for more complete coverage on the presidential candidate's views on health care, go to and click on the issues button.

Making a difference in Iraq.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody just loves him. It takes the edge off, I guess, makes you feel like you're back at home.


GUPTA: A special sergeant on patrol helping U.S. troops deal with stress. That's next.


GUPTA: We're back with HOUSE CALL. You know, we've talked on the show about combat stress, both the physical and the psychological repercussions.

Now, a pair of special sergeants are being brought in to help. We first met Budge and Bo in December preparing for their deployment.

Well, CNN Michael Holmes tells us now that two specially trained dogs are in Iraq, providing support for U.S. troops.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Bo is out for a walk, but she's no ordinary dog. And her daily walks aren't ordinary either, because you see Bo is based at Camp Spiker in northern Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A couple of places we've been, they had dogs that they adopted. And everybody just loves them. I mean, it takes a little edge off, I guess, makes you feel like you're back at home.

HOLMES: That's the idea. You see, Bo, or more accurately First Sergeant Bo 85th Medical Detachment is a combat stress dog, flown in from the U.S. after months of specialist training. And she's good as what she does.

CAPT. JOY BALDWIN, U.S. ARMY SOCIAL WORKER: It's almost like she smells out their stress. And if a soldier is very stressed, she will go up to them and calm down her behaviors and just relax in front of them.

HOLMES: Bo's primary job is to be with soldiers clinically stressed either by problems back home or the things they've seen and experienced on the battlefield. She has a secondary role though, wandering the base and simply being there for any soldier who passes by.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People love dogs. I mean, regular dogs are happy to see you. When they just come up, they're just excited to see you. I mean, it makes you feel good inside.

BALDWIN: Dogs have this unique way of not judging humans. And instead of being someone that you have to be afraid of what they think about you, you can just kind of relax around the dog and allow them to absorb your stress like a giant sponge.

HOLMES: And it seems to work. First Sergeant Bo provides a few laughs as well when soldiers notice she outranks them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know how she got promoted so fast.

HOLMES: Bo has a partner currently based further north in Mosul. Captain Baldwin hopes more dogs will be posted to Iraq and travel to other bases. Judging by the soldier's reaction to Bo, they will be welcome reprieves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it brought a smile to my face, though. And that was it.

Michael Holmes, CNN, Tikrit, Iraq.


GUPTA: Michael Holmes, thank you very much.

Coming up, the story of a woman whose job was determined by the number of stairs in the office, and what she did to fight her battle one step at a time.


GUPTA: Welcome back to HOUSE CALL. You know, every week, we bring you stories of weight loss success, proving that whether you have 20 pounds or 120 pounds to lose, you can succeed.

Well, this week, we're profiling Lynn Bering. Despite weighing nearly 300 pounds, Lynne denied having a problem until reality struck with the truth she could no longer ignore.


GUPTA (voice-over): Lynn Bering was never overweight, but a sluggish thyroid gland quickly changed all that. In four years, she gained 100 pounds.

LYNN BERING, REPORTER LOST 168 POUNDS: I was the features editor at our local newspaper. And I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how I looked. And I was giving up stories actually to interns so I didn't have to be out in public as much.

GUPTA: When a local antique store went up for sale, Lynn jumped at the chance.

BERING: I became basically a hermit for about three, four years. I didn't want to be seen. My antiques store had 19 stairs. And I thought what if I got sick? How would they get me down those stairs?

GUPTA: Lynn's doctors were concerned about her health. But beyond Lynn's almost 300 pounds, it was those 19 stairs that motivated her.

BERING: I was 296 pounds at my highest weight. And I had had enough. I was tired of being fat, tired of not taking care of myself.

GUPTA: She joined Weight Watchers, participated in online forums, started her own weight loss blog, and began walking at the local school.

BERING: The one thing that's really helped me is journaling. And I'm not talking just journaling food. Journaling your journey, journaling how you're feeling, journal why you eat. Journal while you don't eat. It's taken a lot of work to get to where I am, but I love it. I love that feeling. I think about those 19 steps a lot. I'm Lynn Bering and I lost 168 pounds.


GUPTA: And you can read more about Lynn's story online at Also, share your own weight loss success story by submitting an i-Report on the fit nation Web site. You could just end up in profiles.

Coming up, we answer your health questions in our "Ask the Doctor" segment. Stay tuned.


GUPTA: Well, it's time for our segment called "Ask the Doctor." We dipped into our mailbag to find out the medical questions on your minds.

Here's a question a viewer had for me. "I'm tall and lanky and have a hard time gaining and maintaining my weight. I know I am not alone, however, it seems that there is only help for people who are overweight. Any suggestions?" Catherine from Illinois.

Thank you for asking that question. You know, being too thin can sometimes be just as difficult a problem as being overweight. There are some things that you can do.

First, check with your doctor to determine whether you're just slender or you're actually underweight. Adding foods with unsaturated fats and certain sugars such as fruits and granola give you extra calories, while still providing nutrients that you need for your body. Also, eat more frequently, adding healthy snacks between meals or eating six small meals a day gives you the calorie boost for weight gain and also adds some balance and variety to your diet. And finally, some strength training can help increase your lean muscle mass, add weight, and convert all those extra calories into muscle rather than flab. Catharine, I hope that helps.

Unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today. Remember, this is the place for the answers to all of your medical questions. Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Stay tuned now for more news on CNN.