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Health Care Compromise; Cancer on the Decline; Heart Disease Impacted by Weather Swings

Aired December 12, 2009 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Good morning. Welcome to HOUSE CALL: the show that helps you live longer and stronger. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks so much for watching.

First off, glad to report some good news on cancer rates -- they are on their way down. There are also some caveats as we dug a little deeper.

And ever since I was a kid, I've always been fascinated by the bionic man. Nowadays, it's not just a fantasy. There is a body part out there that's going bionic.

Plus, do you ever wonder why you seem to be sniffling more than ever before? Maybe your allergies simply don't go away. I think I know why. Tune in for a fascinating conversation with a doctor who has the answer.

You're watching HOUSE CALL.


GUPTA: We start, though, with what your health care may look like in the not too distant future.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, has the latest -- Dana.


DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sanjay, Senate Democrats certainly cleared a huge hurdle in reaching a tentative agreement to drop a public option from their health care bill and replace it with a patch work of ideas, things like not-for- profit private plans and allowing people ages 55 to 64 to buy into the Medicare program.

But, in talking to many of the 10 Senate negotiators, both liberals and moderates, they say it's not a done deal yet because what they're waiting for is the Congressional Budget Office to give them an analysis of how much this is going to cost.

Now, in the case of liberals, what they want to know is if they can reach affordable health coverage and competition for private insurance companies without a public option. And in the case of moderates, they just want to make sure that the cost is still relatively low, deficit neutral, and there's not too much government intervention.

But still, in talking to Democrats, there is a growing sense that they're increasingly willing to drop their philosophical differences, particularly on this issue, in order to get a health care bill to the president's desk soon. And the House speaker even said she's optimistic that could happen by year's end -- Sanjay.


GUPTA: All right, thanks.

You know, one of the hot issues surrounding health care reform, of course, is prevention in the first place -- trying to prevent people from getting sick. And nowhere is that more true than in regard to cancer. Truth is: Americans are making significant progress in the fight against cancer. And that's some good news.

Elizabeth Cohen really dissects the reasons behind the success.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Aggressive efforts to get the cancer rate down in the United States seem to be working, according to a new study from the National Institutes of Health.

(voice-over): Colonoscopies, mammograms -- screenings like these work according to a new study from the National Institutes of Health.

DR. OTIS BRAWLEY, AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY: And we're seeing declines in cancer, incidents and morality, because the right things are being done.

COHEN: Deaths from nearly all types of cancer are down on average 1.6 percent. At the rate things are going, by the year 2020, deaths from colorectal cancer, for example, could be reduced by 20 percent. Breast cancer rates are also down, partly because in 2002, many women stopped taking hormone replacement therapy when they hit menopause because of studies showing a possible link to cancer.

Cancer death rates remain higher for African-Americans than for white Americans. The problem? Access to care.

BRAWLEY: There is a clear problem that we are losing lives because people do not have access to the high quality care that every American should get.

COHEN: But overall, health officials say, the results of this year's report proves screening and early detection are helping the U.S. turn the tables in the fight against cancer.

BRAWLEY: If we actually did the screening that we know saves lives, the number of lives that could be saved is tremendous.

COHEN (on camera): There is a piece of bad news in this study. They found, believe it or not, that fewer women are getting mammograms that in previous years. The concern among experts is that death rates from breast cancer could then be going up in the future.


GUPTA: All right. Elizabeth, thanks.

Now, how a computer chip, a camera, and a wireless device all combined together to give people their sight back. Amazing stuff, some people are calling it the bionic eye.

But first, many scientists believe that your health is affected by global warming. Can you pick which one of these illnesses could be connected to climate change? A, allergies; B, kidney stones; C, asthma; D, all of the above. The answer might just surprise you.

You're watching HOUSE CALL.


GUPTA: We're back with HOUSE CALL.

Before the break, I asked which one of these illnesses do some scientists say can be connected to climate change: A, allergies; B, kidney stones; C, asthma; D, all of the above. Well, the answer is D. In fact, we know that these conditions are on the rise and sometimes in surprising areas. Some scientists say it's because of global warming and the ensuing climate change -- all of that, of course, being talked about in Copenhagen this week.

And Dr. Paul Epstein is the associate director of Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment. He's been studying these connections, seeing these connections, and he joins us now.

First of all, welcome to HOUSE CALL, Doctor.


GUPTA: You know, you say more and more people are developing allergies because of climate change. I found this interesting. Something's a little non-intuitive. You said developing allergies and their worst, how is that connected to climate change?

EPSTEIN: Well, in general, since 1980, in the U.S., asthma has tripled. And we haven't seen an increase in cockroaches or indoor air pollutions. So, we look elsewhere.

And overall, summer, winter, seasons have changed. Winter is shortened by 20 days. So we're seeing it early arrival of spring, late persistence of fall, and on average, the change has been 20 days. So, the average -- the allergy and asthma season has extended.

But the other thing that's been surprising is we looked at ragweed and put it under increased carbon dioxide, and it produced a lot more pollen. And in fact, the pollen was more allergenic. So, there's a surprising... GUPTA: You're saying there's more carbon dioxide and the carbon dioxide makes plants produce more pollen and stronger pollen. Is that -- is that how that all works?

EPSTEIN: Indeed. Burning fossil fuels gives you more carbon dioxide. And it turns the weeds thrive on increased CO2. It's true for agricultural weeds.

GUPTA: Fascinating.

EPSTEIN: But particularly, the ragweed and some of the fast- growing plants that are also associated with allergies and asthma in the spring.

GUPTA: Let me ask you about something else that in some ways seems less intuitive, and that's heart disease. The connection between climate change and heart disease -- the biggest killer of men and women in the United States. Is it increasing because of climate change?

EPSTEIN: Well, two dimensions of climate change can affect heart disease. One is the heat waves, where one can get heatstroke, dehydration, and those with heart disease are more prone to the complications.

On the other hand, a really surprising dimension is more severe winter weather that we're seeing today and throughout this season. We're seeing more variable, more intense conditions that can lead to ice storms. We call that orthopedic weather here, but it also adds to the burden of heart disease in shoveling the heavy snow.

So both extremes -- heat waves and severe weather in winter can give you more heart disease.

GUPTA: You know, Dr. Epstein, I'm sure that there's a lot of people who are skeptical about this, skeptical about the science behind climate change at the starting point and maybe some of the connections to health.

Take a listen to this.


STEVEN MCINTYRE, EDITOR, CLIMATE AUDIT: There's no question that it's warmer now than it was in the 19th century. The battleground issue is whether it's warmer now than in the 11th century, and whether the data that we have enables you to say that with any degree of certainty.


GUPTA: So, I mean, I'm sure you hear this argument all the time. What do you say to that? Is this truly something that's happening now? Or is this just a cycle?

EPSTEIN: What's happening now is very unusual. As we look back at the history of ice ages and the warm periods, they're driven by the cycles of the earth around the sun -- its tilt, its wobble, its eccentricities.

What we're seeing in the 20th century -- what we're seeing this century is totally unexplainable by those natural cycles. You can only explain the findings, the data, by looking at what greenhouse gases do. And this is first principles. This is not even modeling or data.

First principles tells us that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. And thank goodness because that makes this planet livable. But too much of a good thing can cause problems and that's what we're seeing today.

GUPTA: All right. Dr. Epstein, fascinating topic. I hope -- I hope I get a chance to talk about it much more in the future. Thanks for being on HOUSE CALL.

And moving on now -- understanding the autistic brain. I'm fascinated by this. There's new research out there that could be key.

And also, legally blind, viewing the world through a gray cloud. We'll tell you how a dramatic operation changed this woman's life.

Work up a serious sweat when working out, and you can cut your stroke risk. But only for men? We'll tell you why.

That's coming up next on HOUSE CALL.


GUPTA: We're back with HOUSE CALL.

You know, we always hear that exercise, of course, is good for us. It can help ward off excessive weight gain, heart disease, high cholesterol. But when it comes to preventing stroke, there's a new study out there that says exercise only helps if you're a man.

And stick with me on this. Columbia University researchers followed about 3,000 older adults for almost 10 years. They found that men who did moderate to high-intensity workouts on a regular basis lowered their risk of stroke by about 63 percent. That's the good news.

Now, for reasons the researchers can't fully explain, when we asked them about this, there didn't seem to be any risk reduction in women. There's also no risk reduction for men or women who did only light physical exercise like walking.

Now, you may be curious as to what qualifies as moderate to high intensity -- swimming, jogging, playing tennis when done 40 minutes a day, three to five days a week.

Now, of course, researches quick to point out this doesn't mean people should cut out the light exercise they're doing and certainly does not mean older women should stop exercising altogether. The benefits, of course, of exercise reach far beyond stroke prevention.

What it does mean, though, is that older men have another incentive to be getting a decent amount of exercise to stay healthy, and to ward off strokes.

Now, you can bring your exercise to a whole new level now. You can join the "Fit Nation" triathlon challenge. We're looking for five people around the country who are ready to make some sort of change. Commit to our six-month challenge and you could be in the New York City triathlon with me. For more information, log on to

Now, imagine a day when we can implant computer chips into blind people to help them see. You may have thought about this. It seemed like it was a fantasy for a long time. But there are chips that simulate the brain to detect lights and detect shapes. That sounds like science fiction, but it's happening right now. There's a new implant out there being tested in people who have completely lost their sight and have some exciting early results.

Take a look.



GUPTA (voice-over): Barbara Campbell's vision began to dim when she was just 13. The first hint, it came at school.

BARBARA CAMPBELL, STARTED LOSING VISION AT 13: The teacher called my parents in and said she's just not seeing stuff on the page. So...

GUPTA: Years later, it got much worse.

CAMPBELL: There was like an open manhole I was about to go into. So, it was really very scary. And that was a huge wake-up call.

GUPTA: And then one day, Campbell's vision was gone.

CAMPBELL: Everything kind of looks like a gray foggy haze.

GUPTA: Cells on Campbell's retina that detect light had deteriorated. Until five months ago when she began seeing glimpse of light, using what some are calling a bionic eye.

DR. LUCIAN DEL PRIORE, OPHTHALMOLOGIST: This is an artificial device that essentially stimulates the retina electronically.

GUPTA: First, an operation to implant the tiny computer chip directly into the eye.

(on camera): And here's where Campbell's story starts to sound like science fiction. Take a look at this animation over here. We have a specifically outfitted pair of sunglasses here looking at a standard eye chart. That letter E is registered by the camera. That's the first step.

After that, the camera sends a signal wirelessly to the back of Campbell's retina, to the back of her eye, again transmitting the information of that letter E. Here's where it's even more interesting. That E then subsequently goes from the back of Campbell's eye all the way to the back of the brain, to a part of the brain that is actually responsible for sight.

So, you have a camera, a microchip, and all of Campbell's brain allowing her to see once again.

CAMPBELL: Now, I -- I can see that the lights are on.

DEL PRIORE: For patients that have really had no vision for just years and years, these are really major milestones for them.

ARIES ARDITI, LIGHTHOUSE INTERNATIONAL: We can now take someone totally blind and turn them into someone with very, very poor vision. That's really the first time in history that we've been able to do that.

GUPTA: Doctors caution that retraining Campbell's eye and brain to see could take years. Her vision is in black and white. It's never going to be perfect.

Still, Campbell has dreams.

CAMPBELL: I'm sure it's going to happen, I'm seeing colors. That's what I was -- my number one thing. If I could see colors again, my plan was to go to the Grand Canyon.



GUPTA: There's a news out this week suggesting soy is safe for breast cancer survivors and may even help prevent breast cancer recurrences. It's important. It's something that comes up a lot, a concern that soy could become fuel for estrogen positive breast cancers because it's full of naturally-occurring estrogens. The most common forms of breast cancer rely on estrogen to grow.

So, for a long time, experts fear soy could rev up breast cancer cells. This new research not only shows that that's not true, but, in fact, that scientists found eating soy could prevent the recurrence of breast cancer, as well. So the key amount seems to be about 9 1/2 to 15 grams of soy. That's the sweet spot, or about a cup of edamame.

Now, are you looking to lose weight? I'm going to tell you whether substituting honey for sugar might possibly help.

And it's a heartbreaking diagnosis. Your child has been diagnosed with autism. We'll tell you about some medical advances designed to unlock the autistic brain.


GUPTA: Welcome back to HOUSE CALL.

Time for my favorite segment of the show, "Ask the Doctor." Let's get right to it.

A question from Cyrus in Pittsburgh asks this, "Can obesity be linked to Alzheimer's disease? And can physical activity help ward off the disease?"

Two important questions here. The quick answer, of course, is yes.

But obesity, as you might imagine, just one part of the whole puzzle. First, most things that are bad for your heart are often bad for your brain as well. Elevated blood pressure, high triglycerides, high cholesterol -- all those can increase your chance of developing Alzheimer's disease later in life.

The good news is, to the second part of your question, we know a lot about what we can do to prevent or delay the onset the disease as well. As you ask, being physically active has shown to improve mental function and also keep your brain healthy as you aged. It's also essential for maintain good blood flow and encourages new brain cells.

So, exercise does a lot more that you might think, significantly reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes. So, stay active. Keep your body and your brain healthy in the process for those later years.

Let's get another quick question in. From Tim in Minnesota, writes this, "I was wondering if substituting honey for sugar is a healthy trade-off? I'm trying to lose weight, should I cut out sugar altogether, including honey?" Another great question.

You know, our sugar consumption overall has increased by approximately 30 percent in the past few decades alone. A recent guidelines from American Heart Association suggest limiting added sugar intake to about six teaspoons per day for women, nine teaspoons per day for men. Of course, depending on your weight.

There are -- there's one way to think about it. There are three teaspoons of sugar in one tablespoon of honey. Even though honey contains slightly more nutrients than sugar, the extra 70 calories per day, whether from sugar or honey, could prevent you from losing weight.

So, I guess, Tim, to answer your question, if you try to lose weight, lose the extra pounds, I would limit both honey and sugar intake all together.

Now, doctors are using brain scans to help children with autism. Could this test reveal the causes of this mysterious disorder? Something I'm fascinated by.

Stay tuned to HOUSE CALL.


GUPT: We're back with HOUSE CALL.

Autism remains a medical mystery. It's something that we talk about a lot here on HOUSE CALL. And I can tell you, as the neurosurgeon, it's one of the more elusive mysteries inside the brain. But there are new research techniques right now that allow us to look in the brain in ways that we've never done before. And all that together may be giving children a different future.

Here's CNN's Kiran Chetry.





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That is a big word.

CHETRY (voice-over): Eight-year-old Zander Pridy has no trouble reading big words.

(on camera): What are you favorite things to read?

PRIDY: Well, I read books of science and watch this cool show called "Nova."

CHETRY (voice-over): Today, Zander is helping scientists make some discoveries of their own.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, this is the MEG machine.

CHETRY: Zander has an autism specter disorder known as Asperger's syndrome. Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia are using this MEG machine, short for magnetoencephalography to study the brain waves of children like Zander with autism disorders.

TIM ROBERTS, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: We're trying to study how the children's brain responds to stimuli, to sounds, to words, to speech.

CHETRY: Hoping to unlock the mystery of how an autistic brain works.

Lead researcher Tim Roberts says new clues are already emerging.

ROBERTS: When you hear a sound, the brain responds. When a child with autism hears a sound, that brain responds, too, but a little bit later. CHETRY: For Zander, those delays mean that too many sounds can be a real distraction, especially in the classroom.

TARA PRIDY, ZANDER'S MOTHER: His teacher has an amplification device she wears and he has a speaker on his desk.

CHETRY: Tara Pridy says her son also struggles with conversation.

TARA PRIDY: He monologues, he'll get going. And, you know, someone has to tell him like the person is not interested anymore. They weren't interested by you're speaking for too long about this subject. So we say, TMI, too much information.

CHETRY: It's an example of some of the difficulties that kids, like Zander, have in relating to their peers.

ROBERT SCHULTZ, CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: Kids with autism really have a difficult time with social perception, understanding people's expressions, what does that mean, what are they thinking and feeling.

CHETRY: Robert Schultz is head of the hospital's Center for Autism Research.

SCHULTZ: So this is going to be just like the actual MRI.

CHETRY: He's introducing 13-year-old Garrett Hammond to a mock MRI, to help him relax for the real test. Schultz is using MRIs to understand the biology of the autistic brain.

SCHULTZ: When we ask children with autism to do specific tasks that we know they have difficulty on, those areas of the brain which normally do those tasks are under active.

CHETRY: In this scan of a typical brain, the red areas show activity in the parts of the brain that understand faces and expressions. This research won't answer the question what causes autism, but Dr. Schultz says it may lead to better diagnosis and earlier intervention.

Zander has his own idea about what test on his brain will reveal.

(on camera): So when they look at your brain with the MEG machine, what did they see?

ZANDER PRIDY: Geniousness.

CHETRY: Kiran Chetry, CNN, Philadelphia.


GUPTA: You know, as things stand now, there are lots of genes that are associated with autism, but there is no particular genetic marker. And therein lies part of the problem. The goal of this research is to try to find some sort of marker, some sort of indication that a child has autism. The thought is simple -- you can try and diagnose autism earlier, you can have intervention earlier as well. And that's the key.

If you missed any part of today's show, be sure to check out my podcast,

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks so much for watching.

More news on CNN starts right now.