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Health Highlights: Oct. 10, 2012

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

U.S. Annual Death Rate Reaches Record High as Population Ages

The number of Americans who died passed the 2.5 million mark for the first time last year, mainly due to a population that is both growing and aging.

Statistics released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that U.S. deaths in 2011 rose by 45,000 over 2010, but the trend reflects a growing population, not a decrease in Americans' health.

"If you have an older population, of course you have more deaths," Qian Cai, a demographer at the University of Virginia, told the Associated Press. "That doesn't mean the population is less healthy or less vital."

In fact, the rate of deaths per 100,000 people has fallen to a record low, the CDC noted.

Also in the report:

  • Life expectancy for a child born in 2011 is now 78 years, 8 months, unchanged from 2010.
  • The gap in life expectancy between women and men is shrinking. In 1979 women lived an average of 8 years longer than men, but that shrank to 5 years by 2011.
  • Half of Americans die from either heart disease or cancer, but death rates from both illnesses have continued to decline, as have death rates for stroke, Alzheimer's disease and kidney disease.
  • Infant mortality remains low, dropping slightly to just over 6 deaths per every 1,000 births.
  • Deaths from pneumonitis are rising -- not surprising, experts say, since it is often an illness of old age.

Even though the number of Americans who are dying is on the rise, the population is continuing to grow due to the number of births and influx of immigrants, the AP said.

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Agency Says Armstrong at Center of Doping Scheme

American cyclist Lance Armstrong was at the center of the most sophisticated and professional doping scheme in recent sports history, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said Wednesday.

Its investigative file on Armstrong includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including nearly a dozen former teammates on the U.S. Postal Service team. Those teammates have confessed to their own doping and say that Armstrong doped, encouraged doping and administered doping products to team members, The New York Times reported.

The more than one thousand pages of evidence, which also includes financial statements and laboratory results, would be the most detailed and groundbreaking description of Armstrong's alleged doping, the agency said. It will release the findings Wednesday afternoon on its website.

"The U.S.P.S. Team doping conspiracy was professionally designed to groom and pressure athletes to use dangerous drugs, to evade detection, to ensure its secrecy and ultimately gain an unfair competitive advantage through superior doping practices," the anti-doping agency said. "A program organized by individuals who thought they were above the rules, and who still play a major and active role in sport today."

Armstrong has consistently denied doping and, through his spokesman, said he had no comment on the agency's statement.

Teammates who came forward and submitted sworn affidavits include George Hincapie, one of the most respected U.S. cyclists in recent history, along with Levi Leipheimer and Tyler Hamilton, who were among the best U.S. cyclists of Armstrong's generation, The Times reported.

The testimony by those close to Armstrong is viewed as the most extensive attempt to break the long-time code of silence in cycling that has made it difficult to eliminate doping from the sport.

"It's shocking, it's disappointing," Travis Tygart, chief executive of the anti-doping agency, told The Times. "But we did our job."

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U.S. Scientists Win Nobel Prize for Work on Cell Receptors

Two American scientists have been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on protein receptors that enable body cells to sense and respond to outside signals -- research that plays an important role in developing more effective drugs.

Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka made groundbreaking discoveries on an important family of receptors called G-protein-coupled receptors, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Associated Press reported.

About half of all medications act on these receptors, so knowing more about them helps scientists create better drugs.

Lefkowitz, 69, is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Kobilka, 57, is a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, the AP reported.

It was long a mystery how cells interact with their surroundings and adapt to new situations, such as when adrenaline boosts blood pressure and heart rate, the academy noted. It was believed that cell surfaces had some type of receptor for hormones.

Lefkowitz identified such receptors, including the receptor for adrenaline, and started delving into how it works. Kobilka's research helped scientists realize that there is an entire family of receptors that look alike - the family of G-protein-coupled receptors, the AP reported.

The Nobel Prize is "fantastic recognition for helping us further understand the intricate details of biochemical systems in our bodies," said American Chemical Society President Bassam Z. Shakhashiri.

"They both have made great contributions to our understanding of health and disease," Shakhashiri told the AP. "This is going to help us a great deal to develop new pharmaceuticals, new medicines for combating disease."

The important role played by receptors is now taken for granted, noted Mark Downs, chief executive of Britain's Society of Biology.

"This ground breaking work spanning genetics and biochemistry has laid the basis for much of our understanding of modern pharmacology as well as how cells in different parts of living organisms can react differently to external stimulation, such as light and smell, or the internal systems which control our bodies such as hormones," Downs said in a statement, the AP reported.

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Feds Ask for Full Appeals Court Rehearing on Cigarette Warning Labels

A petition asking a federal appeals court to rehear a challenge to a Food and Drug Administration requirement that cigarette packages carry large graphic health warnings was filed Tuesday by the U.S. Justice Department.

The warnings are meant to show consumers that smoking can disfigure and kill people. In August, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington affirmed a lower court ruling blocking the requirement, saying it contradicted the First Amendment's free speech protections, the Associated Press reported.

The federal government wants the full appeals court to rehear the case, but the court rarely grants such appeals.

Some of the nation's largest tobacco companies sued to block the requirement for the nine graphic warnings, which included photos of dead and diseased smokers, such as a man exhaling cigarette smoke through a tracheotomy hole in his throat and a cloud of cigarette smoke surrounding an infant receiving a mother's kiss, the AP reported.

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Graco High Chairs Recalled

Graco Classic Wood high chairs are being recalled in the United States and Canada because the chair's seat can loosen or detach from the base, posing a fall hazard to the child.

The recall by Graco Children's Products Inc. of Atlanta, Ga. covers about 86,000 chairs in the U.S. and 3,400 in Canada. The company has received 58 reports of chair seats loosening or detaching from the base, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said.

There have been nine reports of children falling when the seat detached from the base, resulting in injuries such as bumps, bruises and scratches. There was one report of a child in Canada suffering a concussion.

The recalled chairs have the following model numbers printed on a label on the underside of the seat assembly: 3C00BPN, 3C00BPN TC, 3C00CHY, 3C00CHY TC, 3C00CPO or 3C00CPO TC. The chairs were sold at retail stores across the U.S. and online between September 2007 and December 2010.

Consumers with the high chairs should immediately stop using them and contact Graco for a free repair kit. For more information, phone Graco at 1-800-345-4109 or go to the company's website, the CPSC said.

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