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November 11th, 2008
10:14 AM ET

PTSD: The invisible wounds of war

By Jennifer Pifer
CNN Medical Senior Producer

On Veterans Day, I often think of two men I never knew. Richard Hartman was a pilot during World War II. His plane was shot down over Czechoslovakia in early September, 1944. Around the same time, back in a small southern Illinois town, his wife, Mary, gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Jane. Mary’s family found out while she was in labor that Dick was MIA. They decided to wait to tell Mary that her husband was missing. A few days later, word arrived that Richard had been killed in action. Mary later said that she knew something was wrong when she stopped receiving daily letters from her husband. This event isn’t written in any book, but its part of my history. Mary is my grandmother. Her little girl Jane is my mother.

One soldier survived the plane crash. My cousin Roberta, who is now on the shady side of 90, recently told me a little bit about what happened to him. He ended up in a VA hospital. Richard’s father and brother visited him once when he returned stateside. The soldier told the family that Richard was a hero and that he did everything he could to save the crew. Imagining the horror of such an event, I asked Roberta if knew if the soldier suffered “shell shock” as it was called back then. Roberta was silent for a moment. “The war changed a lot of people,” was all she said.

When I see battle pictures from Iraq and Afghanistan, I often think about the psychological effects of war. A report by the RAND Corporation this spring found that nearly 20 percent of men and women who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Yet – and this is a big deal – only slightly more than half have sought treatment. The reasons vary: Some soldiers are afraid that seeking treatment will ruin their careers. Others don’t have access to care. Some use alcohol and drugs to dull their pain.

There is a bit of good news. Some civilians are helping to fill in the gaps. Give an Hour is non-profit organization that is creating a national network of mental health experts to help soldiers and their families deal with PTSD and other psychological issues related to war. So far, according to the organization, nearly 3,000 experts have agreed to volunteer their services. “It’s a great way to commemorate the service of our military members,” says Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen Romberg, founder and president of Give an Hour.

Now it’s your turn. Have you had personal experience with PTSD either as a soldier or a family member? What happened? Do you think we do enough to help the men and women who defend our country deal with the ‘invisible wounds of war”?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


October 31st, 2008
10:27 AM ET

Cosmos after conception?

By Jen Pifer
CNN Medical Senior Producer


After a particularly grueling editorial meeting a few years ago, one of my colleagues turned to me and said, "I need a drink." Now that's not an uncommon sentiment in many newsrooms, but in this case, it was kind of funny. My colleague was hugely pregnant and she meant it. We laughed, but I got the sense she felt a little bit guilty saying that. After all, who wants to be known as the pregnant woman who drinks?

Truth be told, I understood where she was coming from. Sometimes, a girl just needs a cocktail.

The issue of drinking while expecting comes up often with my other pregnant friends. One told me she asked her obstetrician about it. She says the doctor told her a drink now and then wouldn't hurt the baby. But he was quick to add that he was not recommending it. Another friend of mine was out to dinner when she was six months pregnant and ordered a small margarita. The waiter served her, but not before looking at her big old tummy.

There's a new study out today that is likely to get people talking. British researchers found that children whose mothers who drank up to one to two drinks per week or per occasion (for example at a party or on Christmas Eve) while pregnant are not at an increased risk of behavioral problems or cognitive deficits. It is important to point out that the study did not look at the physical problems associated with drinking while pregnant.”

The researchers are very quick to point out they are not out to set new guidelines; they just want to add to the debate. This has been a huge issue in England. Last year, the Royal College of Obstetrics said drinking one or two drinks once or twice a week is unlikely to harm your baby. (See Study) British public health officials say expectant mothers shouldn't drink, but if they do, it should be with great moderation. (See Study) In the United States, it's all about abstinence. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says drinking at any stage of pregnancy is a terrible idea. (Read More)

Now that the experts have weighed in, I am curious to know what you think. Is it ok to drink a little bit of alcohol while pregnant? Would you do it? Have you done it?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


July 24th, 2008
01:26 PM ET

Taking the fight to the Senate floor

By Jen Pifer
CNN Medical Senior Producer

It is amazing to me how children "speak truth" where adults often fail.  Granted, it usually happens at the worst time possible.  Take for instance a recent situation with my favorite 4-year-old, Arden.  We were on vacation.  A lady walked by.  Arden, with typical preschool honesty said in a very loud voice, "Miss Jen, that lady is FAT."  I wanted to melt into the floor.  I am sure the lady heard what Arden said, but she just kept walking.  Mortified, I felt terrible.  I quickly gave Arden the "words can sometimes hurt" talk.  But you know something? Arden was right.  The lady was not just heavy, she was obese.

In Washington, D.C., some senators are "speaking truth" to a reality many of us would like to ignore: Obesity is an epidemic in the United States.  On Wednesday, a group of senators introduced the Federal Obesity Prevention Act of 2008.  If the bill becomes law, it will create "a federal interagency taskforce responsible for creating a national strategy for combating obesity across America." (See press release)  Obesity isn't a made-up health crisis my friends; according to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 66 percent of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese.  An estimated 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are overweight (More Info).  Being overweight is not just uncomfortable; it can lead to some serious diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

I have been thinking about this bill.  On one hand, I am pleased to see Congress trying to do something about our growing obesity problem.  Yet, I also wonder if it really will get people to change their eating and exercise habits.  Also, does the government have a right to tell us how much we can weigh?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


July 22nd, 2008
01:13 PM ET

Can a bad economy benefit your health?

By Jennifer Pifer
CNN Medical Senior Producer

My fiancé, Mark, is becoming a walk-a-holic.  Every day, he walks at least two miles.  Is it to get in shape?  Not necessarily.  It's because gas prices are getting too freaking high. 

Mark now takes MARTA, the public transportation system in Atlanta, to work every day.  We are not eating out as much as we use to. Since we’re eating in more often, we look for healthier bargains – like fruit that’s in season.   It seems I am becoming my grandma: clipping coupons, buying only things on sale and limiting my driving.  We also have two homes on the market (any one want to buy a condo?) and are planning a wedding.  The "perfect storm" of stress and anxiety is brewing and threatens to waterlog our lives.

Yet, strangely, we are both feeling healthier than we have in a long time.  We’re doing more things that don’t cost money, which often involves being more active. 

The other day, I stepped on the scale and was surprised to find I had actually lost 5 pounds.  I haven't been dieting. I've just downsized. Simple things now bring me more pleasure.  I had no idea a group of African immigrants meet every week to play traditional music and dance in our local public gymnasium.  What a wonderful treat to see as I walked to our town square recently to run an errand.  I left feeling happy and less stressed.

There seems to be a little science behind what I have observed.  In 2003, a North Carolina researcher found "smoking, height-adjusted weight, and leisure-time physical inactivity decline when economic conditions worsen." (read study

So is possible that the bad economy is actually good for your health?  What do you think?

 
Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


July 4th, 2008
11:34 AM ET

Young life with diabetes

By Jennifer Pifer
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Imani Lesane is one smart cookie. Three years ago, when she was 13, Imani started feeling yucky.  She was thirsty all the time and just didn't feel like herself.  So she started doing a little medical sleuthing on line and figured out what was wrong: She had diabetes.  When Imani told her family, they thought she was crazy. "Old people get diabetes," her mom said.

But Imani was persistent as 13-year-olds are apt to be and persuaded her mom to take her to the doctor.  Turned out, Imani's self-diagnosis was right on: She did have diabetes.  But instead of feeling sorry for herself, Imani took action. She lost 50 pounds and got serious about exercising.  It's not always easy.  Imani injects herself with insulin four times a day.  And if people are eating candy, says Imani, "Oh my goodness ... I have to go to another room."

I thought of Imani the other day while reading a new Centers for Disease Control report on diabetes in America (link to report).  The news isn't good: The number of people living with diabetes has gone up 15 percent in two years.  That comes to about 24 million Americans or about 8 percent of the population.  The news is especially bad for minorities: More than 16 percent of Native Americans, 12 percent of African Americans and 10 percent of Hispanics suffer from the disease. 

So what's going on?  "It is multi-faceted," says Dr. Ann Albright at CDC.  Obesity is a huge part of the equation, for some people it's genetics and for others it has to do with what Albright calls 'the social determinants of health."  For example, if you live in a neighborhood where it's hard to find affordable fresh fruits and vegetables at the local store, it's difficult to make healthy food choices.  And of course, personal choice also plays a role.  "It's hard," says Imani with a sigh.  She has to watch her diet and keeps active.  Dancing is her passion.  The excitement of making her own diagnosis has her thinking about going to medical school.  Her advice to her fellow diabetics: "don't give up."  I have a feeling Imani never will. 

I'd love to hear what you think: why do you think the diabetes rate is going up so quickly? And why do you think it is hitting minorities particularly hard?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


May 5th, 2008
10:43 AM ET

Dishing on folic acid

By Jennifer Pifer
CNN Medical Senior Producer

I am getting married in October.  Since my fiancé and I got engaged, most of our free time has been spent planning the wedding, selling our individual homes and looking for a new home to buy together. Getting married in your 30s seems much more complicated than getting married in your 20s. There are lots of balls to juggle.  Just when I think I'm getting into a rhythm, something else comes up.

Take what happened a few weeks ago.

My future in-laws were over helping us get my fiancé's house ready to put on the market.
My future mother-in-law and I were in the kitchen organizing the cabinets.

"Now I know it's none of my business," she said as she deftly sorted orphan silverware and mismatched mugs, "but if you are thinking about starting a family in the next year, you need to start taking folic acid."

I haven’t even found a wedding dress. Now I have to start planning for a baby?

Turns out, my betrothed's very wise mother is right. Doctors have known for years that women who take folic acid before they get pregnant cut down the risk of serious birth defects such as spina bifida. Now new research suggests women who take folic acid supplements for a least a year before they become pregnant can slash their risk of having a premature baby by half. That, in turn, can lower the risk of things like cerebral palsy, physical disabilities like blindness and mental retardation.

Intrigued and new to the world of all things prenatal, I called Dr. Radek Bukowski at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He's the doctor leading this research. "Folic acid has a lot of powerful effects," Dr. Bukowski says, but "nobody really knows why folic acid works." One of the leading theories, says Dr. Bukowski, is that if it is taken before conception and during the first few months afterwards "maybe it protects against infection."

Dr. Bukowski also told me the average woman, with no history of having children with birth defects, can get enough folic acid in a multivitamin. It seems like a simple step all women can take to increase the odds of having a health baby. Moms out there – what other things would you suggest? And what do you wish other moms had told you before you got pregnant?

As for me, I have some more research to do. Wonder if folic acid can help me lose 10 pounds in time for my wedding?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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