A Roundup of Recent Findings

On Child and Family Health

Hormone Injections

May Prevent Preterm Births

Up to one-third of preterm births to women with a history of delivering prematurely could be prevented by weekly injection with a form of the hormone progesterone, reports a research team led by Paul Meis of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

In a federally funded study of 463 women who had previously given birth before the 37th week of pregnancy, weekly injections of the drug 17-alpha-hydroxyprogesterone caproate, beginning about the 16th week of pregnancy, reduced the risk of delivery before the 37th week by 34 percent and the risk of delivering before 32 weeks by 42 percent. This was the first large clinical trial to test the hormone's effectiveness in reducing preterm births.

"This is not the solution to the problem of preterm birth," he said, "but it's a start."

School PE Programs

Short on Exercise Time

American third-graders log an average 25 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity in school physical education classes, a study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) shows.

That's nowhere near the 30 to 60 minutes per day government experts and others recommend for children to maintain health and prevent overweight, says researcher Sarah Friedman of the NICHD. Friedman suggests parents look for ways to boost children's physical activity outside school while they push for more school PE time.

Citing the link between childhood obesity and associated diseases and lack of physical activity, Friedman says, "We should put our emphasis on prevention instead of on fixing problems after they occur."

Scoliosis Prognosis

Not Necessarily Grim

Failure to treat the most common form of scoliosis, or lateral curvature of the spine, with surgery or a back brace doesn't lead inevitably to disability for most patients, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The surprise finding came in a decades-long study tracking 117 people diagnosed with the condition 50 or more years ago, before modern treatments were available.

The University of Iowa study found that people with late-onset idiopathic (of unknown cause) scoliosis -- which affects 2 to 3 percent of children between ages 8 and 16 -- enjoyed life expectancies and overall health profiles that match those of the general population.

Lead author Stuart Weinstein says that the findings don't argue against treatment, but offer a less-grim outlook than practitioners often offer for those with the disease. The fact that most of the study's participants were married and had children and were not paralyzed or otherwise crippled (though many reported chronic back pain and body-image problems) "provides a benchmark for doctors who treat scoliosis to judge the success of treatments," Weinstein says.

Teen Health Care Hampered

By Confidentiality Confusion

Teenagers seeking health care from their pediatricians or family physicians are likely to get mixed messages about whether their interactions with the doctor will remain confidential, a survey of 170 Washington-area doctors' offices has shown.

In research published in the February issue of Pediatrics, information about confidentiality policies given over the phone by office staff conflicted with physicians' written accounts of those policies in as many as 63 percent of practices.

That confusion may have a chilling effect on teens seeking help with contraception and pregnancy issues, substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, says lead author Tina Cheng of Johns Hopkins University. "When a teenager might decide to use your practice based on what you tell them about confidentiality, it's important to get it straight," Cheng says.

Study Finds Single-Parent Children Subject to Psychological Ills

Children in single-parent families face more than double the risk of psychiatric disease, suicide and suicide attempts, injury and addiction compared with those raised in two-parent families, found a Swedish study published in the Jan. 25 issue of the British medical journal The Lancet. To reach its conclusions, the large-scale study examined data from Swedish national registries that provided information about a million children over the course of more than a decade, from their late childhood to their mid-twenties.

"We attribute our findings mainly to the greater time pressure and lesser economic resources that pertain to the single-parent household," says lead author Gunilla Ringback Weitoft of the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare's Center for Epidemiology. She adds, "We are convinced that most single parents do what they can to provide a good upbringing for their children. Most of them succeed very well. It is, however, easier to share a job than to do it on your own."

The study, whose findings were in keeping with those of several U.S. studies, urged preventive efforts including social-policy measures to improve "family circumstances . . . so that children gain access to environments outside the family."

-- Jennifer Huget