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QUICK STUDY : A weekly digest of new research on major health topics

Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page HE08

RADON

Low-level exposure at home may increase lung cancer risk.

THE QUESTION Radon has been shown to cause lung cancer in miners exposed underground to high levels of the radioactive gas. Do people whose homes have far lower concentrations of radon face a lung cancer risk as well?

THIS STUDY analyzed data from seven studies of residential exposure to radon that involved 8,628 people. Compared with people not exposed at home, those who had lived from five to 30 years with residential radon at levels of about 3.0 picocuries per liter of air (a measure of radioactivity) faced, on average, an 11 percent higher risk of lung cancer. Lung cancer rates increased as radon levels and exposure went up.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED BY THESE FINDINGS? People exposed to radon in their homes. An estimated one of every 15 houses in the United States tests at higher-than-recommended levels of radon.

CAVEATS The federal government recommends taking corrective action at 4.0 picocuries, a level higher than this report found to be associated with increased risk. The studies included in this analysis were not randomized. This was a review of data, not a randomized study.

BOTTOM LINE People concerned about radon should consider having the level in their house checked and may want to take corrective action if readings reach 3.0 picocuries.

FIND THIS STUDY March issue of Epidemiology; abstract available online at www.epidem.com(search for "radon").

LEARN MORE ABOUT the health effects of exposure to radon at www.epa.gov(Search for "Citizens Guide to Radon") and at cis.nci.nih.gov/fact(click "Subject").

INSOMNIA

Seniors' use of sleeping pills may decrease the risk of falling.

THE QUESTION People who have trouble falling asleep or who wake up in the night and can't get back to sleep sometimes take medication to induce slumber. But a common perception is that these drugs make people more likely to fall. Is this true among older people, who already are more prone to falling than their younger counterparts?

THIS STUDY reviewed data on 34,163 nursing home residents aged 65 and older, 6 percent of whom had insomnia. During a six-month period, 43 percent of the residents fell. People with insomnia -- regardless of whether they tried any drugs to improve their sleep -- were 90 percent more likely than the others to have fallen, while those who took sleeping pills were 29 percent more likely to have fallen than those without insomnia. Also, people with insomnia who did not treat the disorder were 55 percent more likely to have fallen than were those who took sleeping pills. The risk was higher for people with severe insomnia than for those with moderate cases. People who did not have insomnia but used sleeping pills anyway had no increased risk of falling.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED BY THESE FINDINGS? Older people with insomnia. Sleep patterns often change with age, but insomnia is not considered a normal part of aging.

CAVEATS The analysis did not consider drugs that people may take for insomnia other than those classified as hypnotics. Precisely how insomnia contributes to falls was not evaluated. The study was not randomized.

BOTTOM LINE Older people with insomnia may want to talk with a doctor about the benefits of sleeping pills vs. the risks of not treating their insomnia.

FIND THIS STUDY "Online Early" edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society; abstract available at www.blackwellpublishing.com/journal.asp?ref=0002-8614 (click "View Online Content"; then type "insomnia and hypnotics" in QuickSearch field).

LEARN MORE ABOUT insomnia at familydoctor.organd nihseniorhealth.gov(click "Sleep and Aging").

-- Linda Searing


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