Health Buzz: Rainfall's Autism Link and Other Health News

Fibromyalgia, drinking coffee during pregnancy, and the limited appeal of limited-benefit health plans.


Might More Rainfall Lead to More Kids with Autism?

Kids who live in counties that have heavy precipitation may face an elevated risk of developing autism, a new study suggests. Researchers found that autism's prevalence increased as rainfall amounts rose, HealthDay reports. That doesn't mean precipitation, by itself, causes autism, experts say. There are several possible explanations for the new findings, which were published this month in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Airborne chemicals in homes or in the upper atmosphere that rainfall can bring to the ground may lead to autism, for example. Or the disorder may be caused by vitamin D deficiency in children who spend too much time indoors; rainy weather might encourage kids not to play outside, where their bodies can turn sunlight into vitamin D.

Earlier this year, U.S. News's Nancy Shute wrote about finding music in autism, and she reported that genes—not vaccines—are linked to autism. In April, Bernadine Healy explored the autism-vaccine war.

Brain Scans Show Abnormalities in Fibromyalgia Patients

Fibromyalgia appears to be related to a dysfunction in sections of the brain responsible for processing pain, according to a new study published this month in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine. French researchers found that compared with healthy study subjects, people with fibromyalgia had blood flow abnormalities in the brain. In the past, some experts thought that the pain fibromyalgia patients experience was due to depression, but the new study failed to show a connection.

The study involved 20 women with fibromyalgia and 10 healthy volunteers who answered questions about pain, disability, anxiety, and depression, and underwent a brain imaging scan known as single photon emission computed tomography to detect blood flow abnormalities in the brain. In fibromyalgia patients, researchers observed increased blood flow to parts of the brain that help the body sense pain, and they saw decreased blood flow to a part of the brain thought to play a role in emotional response to pain, WebMD reports.

In April, U.S. News described the role of antiviral drugs in easing fibromyalgia symptoms.

Caffeine and Pregnancy

A British Medical Journal study out yesterday warns that pregnant women who indulge in one or more daily cups of caffeinated coffee—or the caffeine equivalent in chocolate, tea, and soft drinks—are more likely to have low birth weight babies, who often have respiratory problems and learning disabilities. The British government decided, on the basis of this study, to lower the recommended daily limit of caffeine consumption from 300 mg to 200 mg, Deborah Kotz reports. Other studies, like this recent one, suggest that drinking a cup or two of coffee a day increases the risk of miscarriage. While there is no such recommended limit in the United States, even for pregnant women, many doctors tell expecting moms to reduce their caffeine consumption.

Last year, Kotz reported that nourishment in the womb may matter decades later.

AARP Limited-Benefit Health Plans Scrutinized

Fans of limited-benefit health plans, which often cap coverage for certain types of services, such as hospitalization, or exclude coverage altogether for conditions like pregnancy, tend to argue that "something is better than nothing." But many healthcare experts disagree, Michelle Andrews reports. The whole point of health insurance, these critics maintain, is to protect people from the possibility of falling seriously ill and being stuck with enormous bills. Limited-benefit policies, they argue, give people a false sense of security. USA Today reported this week that Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is asking questions of AARP about that organization's limited-benefit plan offerings, which cover about 1 million people, according to the story.

Andrews previously explored pitfalls to watch out for with limited-benefit plans.

—January W. Payne