Vitamin D may not protect black women from bone loss.

* THE QUESTION Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which in turn helps reduce the loss of bone density in older women. Since black women generally have lower levels of vitamin D than white women, presumably because they absorb less from the sun through the skin, might vitamin D supplements slow their bone loss?

* THIS STUDY randomly assigned 208 black, post-menopausal women to take either vitamin D supplements or a placebo daily. The supplement group took 800 international units of vitamin D for two years, then 2,000 IU for a year. All women also took calcium supplements to ensure they took in 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams daily. After three years, bone density overall had declined about the same amount among women who did and did not take vitamin D.

* WHO MAY BE AFFECTED BY THESE FINDINGS? Older black women. About 40 percent of black women over 50 have low bone density, making them more susceptible to the brittle bones and fracture risk of osteoporosis.

* CAVEATS Whether the findings apply to women of other races was not determined. The study did not find that vitamin D had no health value but rather that it may not aid in reducing the risk of bone fragility and fracture.

* FIND THIS STUDY July 25 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine; abstract available online at www.archinternmed.com.

* LEARN MORE ABOUT bone loss and osteoporosis at www.cdc.gov (search for "bone health") and www.nof.org.

common cold

Echinacea treatment does not appear to ward off symptoms.

* THE QUESTION The purple cornflower -- Echinacea angustifolia by its botanical name -- has been used for centuries to treat a variety of woes, from infections and wounds to toothaches, snake bites, malaria and more. Today it's one of the most popular medicinal herbs, often taken to ward off cold and flu symptoms. Does it do that job?

* THIS STUDY randomly assigned 437 adults, who averaged 21 years old, to take one of three echinacea preparations or a placebo daily for a week and then be injected with a rhinovirus, an infectious substance that causes a cold. Within five days, about the same number of participants in all groups contracted a cold: 87 percent of those who took echinacea, 89 percent of the placebo group. Sneezing, nasal discharge, sore throat and cough affected participants equally, and the colds lasted about the same length of time. Gastrointestinal side effects were more common among those who took echinacea.

* WHO MAY BE AFFECTED BY THESE FINDINGS? People of all ages, who develop as many as a billion colds a year in the United States.

* CAVEATS At least 110 different rhinoviruses exist and more than 200 other viruses also can cause cold symptoms; whether echinacea might act against any of those viruses was not tested. Echinacea preparations vary widely, depending on such things as extraction method, the part of the plant that is used and when it was cultivated; different echinacea preparations might yield different results.

* FIND THIS STUDY July 28 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine; abstract available online at www.nejm.org.

* LEARN MORE ABOUT echinacea at www.umm.edu/altmed and the common cold at www.niaid.nih.gov.


A drug used by Parkinson's patients may help quell pain.

* THE QUESTION One theory holds that the chronic muscle pain and sensitivity to touch that characterizes fibromyalgia may stem from abnormal sensory processing by the central nervous system. Might a drug that inhibits nerve responses ease the pain of this disorder?

* THIS STUDY randomly assigned 60 adults with fibromyalgia, mostly women, to take a drug used to treat Parkinson's disease -- pramipexole -- or a placebo daily at bedtime. The participants were allowed to continue other drugs and treatments, such as acupuncture and massage. After two weeks, those taking pramipexole reported less pain than the placebo group, with scores on several standardized pain scales dropping about 36 percent vs. 9 percent. Overall, 82 percent of the medication group reported an improvement in pain, compared with 57 percent of those who took the placebo. Everyone in the pramipexole group reported at least one side effect, most often weight loss or anxiety.

* WHO MAY BE AFFECTED BY THESE FINDINGS? People with fibromyalgia, which affects about one in 50 Americans, 90 percent of them women.

* CAVEATS Pramipexole has been associated with hallucinations and extreme drowsiness among people taking it for Parkinson's disease; those side effects were not reported by participants in this study. Most participants continued taking other drugs during the study; the study did not isolate possible effects of these drugs. Whether the same results would occur with pramipexole alone remains unclear. Long-term effectiveness and safety was not evaluated.

* FIND THIS STUDY August issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism; abstract available online at www.interscience.wiley.com/journal/arthritis.

* LEARN MORE ABOUT fibromyalgia at http://fmaware.org and www.mayoclinic.com.

-- Linda Searing

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.