Health Buzz: Increasing Fatal Drug Errors and Other Health News

Statins and dementia, weighing the need for so much exercise, and a new sweetener arrives

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Fatal Medication Errors at Home Are on the Rise

The number of fatal medication mistakes at home skyrocketed between 1983 and 2004, the Associated Press reports. Largely to blame is the rising use of prescription painkillers and other powerful medications, which in the past were mainly given inside hospitals. The research, published yesterday in Archives of Internal Medicine, was based on nearly 50 million American death certificates. In the two decades studied, more than 224,000 of those deaths were the result of fatal medication errors such as overdoses or mixing medications with street drugs or alcohol. There were 1,132 deaths from medication mistakes at home in 1983, compared with 12,426 such deaths in 2004. When adjusted for population growth, those amounts account for an increase of more than 700 percent during the two-decade period, the AP reports.

Earlier this year, U.S. News listed four ways to avoid dangerous drug errors and, following the death of actor Heath Ledger from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, offered several medication safety tips. Last year, Nancy Shute reported that shoddy and fraudulent pharmaceutical products are a growing threat.

Statins Might Help Prevent Dementia

Older people who took cholesterol-lowering statin medications saw their risk of dementia cut in half, according to a study published today in Neurology. Nearly 1,700 Mexican-Americans—age 60 and older and at high risk of developing dementia because of diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease—were tracked for five years. Overall, 130 participants developed dementia by the end of the study period. But the incidence of dementia among the 27 percent of participants who took statins was half that of those who didn't take the drugs. The study's authors caution that because this research and previous studies were based on observational data, a randomized, controlled trial is still needed to determine if statins help ward off dementia.

U.S. News's Adam Voiland recently listed seven reasons not to dismiss statin-caused muscle pain, and Deborah Kotz offered the smart take on statins.

Weighing the Need for So Much Exercise

A new study of about 200 women given advantages most dieters don't have—like free group meetings, telephone support, and even a home treadmill—showed that only about a quarter of participants were able to keep off 10 percent of their body weight after two years. Those who did keep it off exercised about 275 minutes a week, which translates to 40 minutes every day or 55 minutes five days a week—chunks of time that may be difficult to fit in for those who already have trouble finding time to exercise. The study was published yesterday in Archives of Internal Medicine.

U.S. News's Katherine Hobson talked to study coauthor John Jakicic, from the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh, about what the research means for dieters. She previously wrote that a low-carbohydrate diet works, if it suits your lifestyle.

The Zero-Calorie Sweetener Stevia Arrives

There's a new sugar substitute on the market with a really sweet pitch: zero calories, zero carbohydrates, and zero chance of a spike in blood glucose levels, Adam Voiland reports. After decades of controversy about the safety of stevia, which is already sold as a dietary supplement in health food stores, companies are now rolling out new products derived from the Latin American herb. Arizona-based Wisdom Natural Brands began aggressively marketing packets of its powdered SweetLeaf earlier this summer. Also on store shelves is Truvia, a powdered sweetener jointly developed by agribusiness giant Cargill and Coca-Cola. Stevia, whose leaves are up to 40 times more potent than sugar, is still awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval as a food additive. But Oscar Rodes, the founder of sweetener producer Stevita Stevia, expects the herb could eventually take over as much as 20 percent of the $935 million nonsugar sweetener market.