One in every five prescription drug users also takes alternative medicines, setting the stage for potentially serious drug interactions, according to a review by researchers at George Washington University and the National Institutes of Health.

More than 40 percent of American consumers took alternative remedies in 1997--a 34 percent increase from 1990, the review noted. Alternative therapies are most commonly used to control pain, fight fatigue, alleviate anxiety and for other long-term ailments. Consumers pay millions of dollars annually for herbs and dietary supplements, which can be beneficial in some cases for treating depression, anxiety and insomnia, the review found.

But the findings, which are drawn from an extensive review of the scientific literature, show that most users of alternative remedies place themselves at risk by not talking to their doctors about their use of these substances.

"This raises the concern of herb-drug, herb-herb and nutrient-drug interactions, about which little is known," said Jerry Cott, a psychopharmacologist at the National Institutes of Health and co-author of the review, which appears this month in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Among the most serious potential problems are using an herbal medicine and a prescription drug for the same illness or condition. "If you're taking an antidepressant and add Saint Johnswort, now you're taking two drugs for the same indication without supervision," Cott said. "You shouldn't be taking two medicines for the same purpose without your doctor's knowledge."

Herbal remedies, dietary supplements and alternative medicines, while often safe, "are not risk-free," he and his co-author, Adriane Fugh-Berman, a physician with the Department of Health Care Sciences at George Washington, conclude.

"Consumers should discuss these medications with their doctors and educate themselves as much as possible," Cott said.

--Sally Squires


Breast-feeding infants for the first four months of life may protect against the development of asthma and allergies, according to a new study by Australian researchers.

The team studied 2,187 newborns from Perth and followed their progress until they turned 6 years of age. Infants who were exclusively breast-fed for the first four months of life had significantly less asthma and allergies at age 6 than children who began drinking other types of milk before 4 months of age.

The findings, which are published in the Sept. 25 issue of the British Medical Journal, are consistent with other studies that have pointed to a beneficial effect of breast-feeding in protecting against asthma and allergies.

"Like others, we found that it was the age that other milk was introduced rather than the duration of breast-feeding that was more closely associated with asthma or atopy [allergies]," concluded the team, which was led by Wendy H. Oddy, senior research officer at the TVW Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Perth.

Why breast milk may help protect against asthma and allergies is not known, but the team suggests that human milk may contain important nutritional, anti-inflammatory or other substances that could help guard against the development of asthma and allergies.

--Sally Squires


Contrary to their slow-witted and sickly image, Neanderthals were surprisingly robust, according to a study of prehistoric bones discovered 100 years ago in Croatia.

"Their bones were as healthy as [those of] modern humans," said University of Pennsylvania radiology professor Morrie Kricun, a bone specialist who studied the X-rays of 874 Neanderthal bones that came from more than 75 individuals.

Neanderthals--ancient hominids replaced by modern humans about 30,000 years ago--suffered from age-related osteoarthritis and back problems but were not disease-ridden, Kricun said. Earlier studies had suggested that Neanderthals may have died out because of dietary deficiencies or other health problems, he said.

The findings were released by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology one century after the bones were found in a cave in Krapina, Croatia. The X-rays were taken by researchers at the University of Zagreb in Croatia in 1989 and 1997, when they were sent to the museum for examination.

--Associated Press


Contradicting the popular belief that boys become more physically aggressive as they grow, a new study has found that most boys with behavior problems in kindergarten grow out of their early aggressiveness by mid-adolescence.

In a 15-year study of 1,037 white boys who lived in Montreal, researchers found that only one in eight boys who were unusually physically aggressive in kindergarten were still that way in high school.

In addition, the study concluded that hyperactive boys were not nearly as likely to become juvenile delinquents as boys who showed high levels of physical aggressiveness when young.

The study, conducted by Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University and Richard Tremblay of the University of Montreal, assessed the boys seven times between the ages of 6 and 15.

The boys were rated on three types of disruptive behavior: physical aggression, including hitting, biting, bullying and intimidating; oppositional behavior, including disobedience, blaming others and not sharing; and hyperactivity, including fidgeting and not keeping still.

The researchers found that 15 to 25 percent of boys never exhibited problem behavior. Half of the boys showed "low-level" problem behavior at age 6 that had largely stopped by age 12. Another 20 to 30 percent scored relatively high in problem behavior at 6 but at age 15 scored much lower. And finally, 5 percent of boys started out scoring high on disruptive behavior and continued to do so through adolescence.

"We have the impression that the boys on the overt delinquency or physical aggression path are those who did not learn to regulate the physically aggressive reactions that approximately 50 percent of boys manifest from the middle of their second year of life to the middle of their third year," the study said.

Regarding hyperactive children, the study concluded "that boys who show high levels of hyperactive behavior from kindergarten to high school are much less at risk of juvenile delinquency than those who show high levels of physical aggression or opposition." It reported that only 13 percent of the chronically physically aggressive boys and 23 percent of the chronically defiant boys were also chronically hyperactive.

--Marc Kaufman