Obama tax hikes may total $2.2 trillion

Obama tax hikes may total more than two trillionThere has been no shortage of critical voices in response to President Obama’s new budget proposal, and one organization claims there may be more than a trillion dollar in hidden taxes.

According to Gassfire.org, an organizing center for activists for traditional and conservative values, the official level of new taxation at $1 trillion may overlook as much as $1.2 trillion due to items such as carbon tax being passed off as "climate revenues."

The organization has estimated that the $645 billion in carbon taxes pushes the total tax increases in President Obama’s budget to at least $1.64 trillion.

Referring to a recent speech by President Obama, Steve Elliott, president of Grassfire.org, said, "The president is right that a ‘day of reckoning’ is coming, but that reckoning will take the form of citizens who are fed up with politicians expanding the tentacles of government deeper and deeper into our lives and our pocketbooks."

On February 26, President Obama unveiled his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2010 which predicts that government spending will reach 24.1 percent of GDP, financed by $5 trillion in new debt and $1.4 trillion in new taxes.
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Concerns over drug companies’ political donations

Concerns over drug companies' political donationsConsumer Watchdog (CS) has revealed that politicians in Washington have received multimillion dollar donations from drug and health insurance companies.

According to CS, a nonpartisan and non-profit organization, the health industry contributed more than $5 million to the top 10 recipients in Congress during the last two election campaigns.

The organization’s breakdown shows that those recipients received $2.2 million from health insurers and $3.3 million from drug manufacturers.

Altogether, health insurers and drug manufacturers have contributed more than $24 million to the current members of the Senate and House of Representatives since 2005.

The top recipient is democratic Senator Max Baucus, a leading proponent of health care reform and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He received $183,750 from health insurance companies and $229,020 from drug companies.

"When the engineer of the health care reform train is getting more fuel from the HMOs and drug companies that any other Democrat on Capitol Hill, you have to wonder who is really driving the train and whether average Americans will be tied to the tracks," says Carmen Balber, Director of Consumer Watchdog’s Washington D.C. office.

She adds, "HMO and drug company money will sour the President’s plan for affordable, accessible health care if these industries’ backers on Capitol Hill allow their financial interests to drive the debate."
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President lifts stem cell research ban

President lifts stem cell research banOn Monday, President Obama signed an executive order reversing the Bush administration’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Scientists have hailed the reversal as the dawn of new hope for those suffering from currently incurable diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or spinal cord injuries.

Others, however, have called the move a triumph of politics over science and ethics.

Prior to the signing, Obama talked about the promise such research offers doctors, patients and their families. To allay the fears of his critics, he also underscored the strict ethical guidelines the administration would enforce which will prevent any abuses of the science such as human cloning.

Obama also stressed the promise of new medical technologies as an engine of economic growth.

However, not everyone was convinced. Many Republicans, conservative organizations and church representatives expressed their dismay with the policy reversal.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Republican – Ohio) said in advance of the signing that focus should be on developing promising stem cell techniques that do not destroy human embryos.

Meanwhile, Tony Perkins, President of Family Research Council called the new executive order "deadly."

The new directive supersedes the one signed in 2001 by President George W. Bush that prevented the National Institutes of Health from funding research on embryonic stem cells beyond the 60 cell lines that existed at the time.

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Justice Department releases foreign policy memos

Justice Department releases Bush's foreign policy memos Under pressure from civil liberties groups, a government agency has released documents vital to the understanding of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war of terrorism.

The Justice Department has released nine secret memos and opinions that authorized some of the Bush administration’s national security policies, including a memo written by a department’s lawyer John Yoo that argued the Fourth Amendment does not apply to military activities inside the United States.

"These memos essentially argue that the president has a blank check to disregard the Constitution during wartime, not only on foreign battlefields, but also inside the United States," commented Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.

He added, "We hope today’s release is a first step, because dozens of other OLC memos, including memos that provided the basis for the Bush administration’s torture and warrantless wiretapping policies, are still being withheld."

According to the ACLU, the full release of requested documents will help bring an end to "a lawless era."

In addition to the ACLU’s request for the memos, a coalition of human rights groups – including ACLU, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch – wrote to President Obama to request access to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

And a number of political and community leaders have called on President Obama to create a commission to investigate the detention, treatment and transfer of detainees during George W. Bush’s administration.

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Value of pension funds continues to fall

Value of pension funds continues to fall A new survey has revealed that the funding status of moderate risk pension portfolios fell by more than six percent in February.

This represented the 14th consecutive month of decline as the value of assets has dropped due to the weakness of the stock market, based on research conducted by the Bank of New York Mellon Asset Management.

"Rapidly falling equity values continue to inflict pain on U.S. pension plans," says Peter Austin, executive director of BNY Mellon Pension Services. "U.S. stocks fell for a second straight month and have dropped 18 percent so far this year."

He added that the international markets have fared even worse.

According to the BNY Mellon Pension Liability Index, over the past year, the funding ratio of the typical pension plan has declined by one percentage point. Since January 2008, the funded ratios for these plans have fallen by 32.3 percentage points.

The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation is a financial services company operating in 34 countries. It has $20.2 trillion in assets under custody and administration, $928 billion in assets under management, services more than $11 trillion in outstanding debt and processes global payments averaging $1.8 trillion per day.
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Massive pharma merger on the horizon

Massive pharma merger on the horizonPharmaceutical company Merck has just announced that it will merge with a major competitor Schering-Plough creating a multinational pharmaceutical giant.

The boards of directors of both companies have unanimously approved the agreement under which they will combine in a stock and cash transaction under the name Merck.

The value of the merger is estimated at $41.1 billion.

"The combined company will benefit from a formidable research and development pipeline, a significantly broader portfolio of medicines and an expanded presence in key international markets, particularly in high-growth emerging markets," says Richard T. Clark, Merck chairman, president and CEO.

He adds, "The efficiencies we gain will allow us to invest in strategic opportunities, while creating meaningful value for shareholders."

According to the Fortune 500 2008 ranking, Merck is the world’s fourth largest pharmaceutical company with total revenue of $ 24.2 billion, while Schering-Plough is ranked ninth at $ 12.6 billion.

The announcement comes on the heels of recent complaints by natural products industry groups about the FDA practice of classifying dietary supplements as drugs if they are an ingredient of newly approved medications.

As such, they can no longer be sold without a prescription, boosting profit opportunities of pharmaceutical companies.

The critics believe that the FDA’s approach favors big pharma interest at the expense of natural supplements producers.
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Criticism grows over FDA supplement regulations

Criticism grows over FDA supplement regulationsIn recent days, critical voices have spoken out against the FDA’s approach to the regulation of dietary supplements which they say overburdens their producers and benefits big pharma.

Commentators have drawn attention to an FDA practice of classifying dietary supplements as drugs if they are an ingredient of newly approved medications, according to Examiner.com.

In January, the agency approved a petition by pharmaceutical company Biostratum to classify Pyridorin as a ‘new drug.’ Since the product contains pyridoxine, a form of vitamin B6, this will effectively prevent natural supplements companies from selling any product that contains it.

In response, food and supplements industry organizations have vowed to challenge the approval as setting a dangerous precedent.

This will mean that "we’re all violating that law each time we eat something with brewer’s yeast, or fish or chicken," because pyridoxine is a naturally occurring compound, says the Examiner.

It also suggests that the price of such supplements is likely to rise once they are only available by prescription, limiting access to them and preventing many consumers from enjoying their beneficial effects.

The FDA has recently met with much criticism from government oversight agencies. A report prepared by the Government Accountability Office and released on March 5 suggested that the FDA does not have the information and resources necessary to adequately regulate dietary supplements.
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Tea may reduce the risk of stroke

Tea may reduce the risk of stroke Scientists have found that both green and black tea may be useful in preventing serious cardiovascular events.

The research conducted at UCLA suggests that drinking at least three cups of tea each day can reduce the risk of stroke by 21 percent. And three more cups reduce it by a further 21 percent.

"That’s why these findings are so exciting," says lead author Lenore Arab, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "If we can find a way to prevent the stroke, or prevent the damage, that is simple and not toxic, that would be a great advance."

She adds that although scientists are not sure which compounds in tea are responsible for this effect, they suspect that either the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) or the amino acid theanine may do that.

This effect was found in tea made from the plant Camellia sinensis, not from herbal teas.

The study results were published in the online edition of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association. They were also presented at the American Heart Association’s annual International Stroke Conference in San Diego on February 19.
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ISSA offers tips for healthy heart

International Sports Sciences Association has offered tips for a healthy heartThe American Heart Month may have ended last week, but a sports association’s healthy heart tips continue to inform and educate about beneficial lifestyle choices.

The International Sports Sciences Association, the only nationally accredited fitness organization that educates and certifies personal trainers, has set out to contribute to raising awareness about heart disease and listed some simple steps that can prevent it.

They include getting 30-60 minutes of exercise each day, healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables and oily fish, limited consumption of saturated fats, salt and alcohol, as well as quitting smoking.

Furthermore, people should have regular medical check-ups to get necessary feedback from their physicians that can help them stay on the right track, according to Dr. Sal Arria, CEO of ISSA.

He adds that a supervised cardiovascular fitness program can also be of great benefit.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in both women and men in the United States.

In 2009, it is estimated that 785,000 Americans will have a new heart-related coronary attack, and about half a million will have a recurrent attack.
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Organization blasts administration on conscience protections

Family Research Council has blasted administration on conscience protections A Christian organization promoting traditional family values has criticized President Obama for plans to relax the enforcement of the amendments that protect healthcare providers’ right of conscience.

The Family Research Council (FRC) has said that a move against the enforcement of the Church, Coats and Weldon Amendments would be a huge blow to religious freedom and First Amendment rights.

"[For the president to do so would] open the door to discrimination against the choice of healthcare workers who do not want to be complicit in abortion or other controversial practices," Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council wrote in a statement.

He added that relaxing the conscience protection regulation would "result in the government becoming the conscience and not the individual."

This is not the first interest group that has expressed criticism of the new administration’s moves on civil liberties.

In recent days, the National Shooting Sports Foundation responded to a statement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the administration would consider banning semi-automatic rifles by saying that it would have no effect on reducing crime, but would violate gun owners’ constitutional right to own the firearm of their choice.

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Greenspan: Banks need capital for recovery

Alan Greenspan thinks the economy could turn around next yearAlan Greenspan may be currently taking some heat as the man whose policies enabled financial institutions to lend irresponsibly, but he has faith in the U.S. market to recover within the next year – as long as banks receive the capital they need.

In an editorial on the Economist website, the former Federal Reserve chairman blamed the market depression on "fear not experienced since the early 20th century."

To help rebuild the market, Greenspan suggested that "temporary public capital injections" into financial institutions are needed and would be far more effective than "conventional fiscal stimulus."

As investors see more capital on banks’ books, their fear will subside and they will feel confident enough to begin lending to them again, he suggests.

Greenspan also predicted that over the next year, home prices will stabilize, helping banks to accurately judge the relative value of their toxic assets, which will in turn aid economic recovery.

"Human nature being what it is, we can count on a market reversal hopefully within six months to a year," he concludes.

Other economists have not been so hopeful in their forecasts for the U.S. economy, suggesting it could be years before it picks up again.
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Melamine found in cocoa products

Melamine has been uncovered in some cocoa productsThe FDA may have stated that melamine is safe in small doses, but food manufacturers seem to be playing it safe and recalling tainted products.

Melamine, a toxic chemical that has been linked to kidney problems, was discovered in G&J Gourmet Market cocoa products, according to parent company Dorsey Marketing Inc.

The items, which are sold in the U.S. at Big Lots and Shopko, have not caused any known injuries, the firm stated in a news release on the FDA’s website.

"No injuries have been reported and only a few samples have, in fact, been found to include melamine," the statement reads.

The products in question include G&J Hot Cocoa Stuffer, G&J His and Hers Hot Cocoa Set and certain flavors of G&J Cocoa.

Earlier this year, melamine was responsible for sickening and killing babies in China who were consuming the chemical through their baby formula.

There have also been trace amounts found in U.S. baby formula, but the FDA insists that doses are too low to cause any harm to infants.
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Could we be facing another Great Depression?

The economy needs to turn around fastInternational economists are warning that unless the U.S. economy sees signs of a turnaround in the near future, the country could be headed for a deeper recession – or even a depression.

The IMF’s top economist, Olivier Blanchard, told French newspaper Le Monde that the next few months are likely to be "very bad."

"It is imperative to stifle this loss of confidence, to restart household consumption, if we want to prevent this recession developing into a Great Depression," he said, according to Agence France Presse.

His comments come after the U.S. government announced that the country’s economy contracted by 0.5 percent in the third quarter.

If the GDP contracts during the fourth quarter as well, it will embody the traditional definition of a recession – two consecutive quarters of negative growth. There is little doubt that this criteria will be met.

During the third quarter of 2008, personal consumption fell by 3.8 percent, while exports and imports stalled and the construction industry suffered losses.

Gross domestic purchases, which reflect purchases made by Americans for all goods and services regardless of where they were made, also decreased by 1.5 percent, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.
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MRSA found to be common among ER workers

Nurses have one of the highest rates of MRSA infectionTwo recent reports reveal that the rate of MRSA positivity among emergency room workers is more common than previously thought.

The findings, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, indicate that the proportion of ER workers testing positive as MRSA carriers is higher than that of the general population, Reuters Health reports.

In one study, researchers at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Illinois collected nasal swabs from ER personnel and found that 15 percent tested positive.

The other research study, at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Emergency Medicine, discovered that 31.8 percent of nasal cultures were positive for the bug Staphylococcus aureus, while MRSA was present in 4.3 percent of those tested.

Nurses, nursing assistants, and radiology and respiratory technicians were most likely to test positive.

"The varying prevalence among the different healthcare workers was unexpected," lead researcher Dr. Brian P. Suffoletto told the news provider.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as 2 million people contract an infection in a hospital each year, with around 90,000 dying as a result.
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McConnell to Congress: Take caution before spending taxpayers’ money

Congress has promised a quick stimulus packageSenate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned Congress not to rush plans for an early 2009 stimulus package, in order to avoid "wasting" taxpayers’ money.

His comments come after one of President-elect Barack Obama’s advisers said that the total cost of an economic stimulus plan could reach $775 billion.

McConnell suggested that instead of immediate consideration, any proposals should be considered for at least a week by Congress and the public due to its enormous price tag.

"As a result, it will require tough scrutiny and oversight. Taxpayers, already stretched to the limit, deserve nothing less," he said.

Meanwhile, Representative John Boehner has also urged Democrats to be cautious about pork-barrel spending during these challenging times.

As an alternative to Obama’s plan to spend on infrastructure, Boehner has suggested increasing the child tax credit for families and cutting the capital gains, small business and corporate taxes.

Democrats said that a stimulus package will be a priority during Obama’s first 100 days in office.
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Natural remedy offers relief of common cold

Natural remedy offers relief of common cold In a climate where pharmaceutical drugs and traditional OTC medications can cause side effects and dangerous interactions, consumers are increasingly looking to alternative and natural products for relief of flu symptoms.

One such product, which is based on a pelargonium extract, has just been made available in the U.S.
Pelargonium sidoides is a medicinal plant native to South Africa that has a proven track record in treating upper respiratory tract infections.

The new product called Zucol is thus naturally safe and clinically proven to shorten the duration and reduce the severity of symptoms associated with the common cold.

Dr. David Riley, a clinical professor at the University of New Mexico Medical School and founder of the Integrative Medical Institute, says that given recent warnings about conventional cough and cold medications, the product provides an attractive alternative.

Side effects associated with some OTC cold remedies include rash, swelling, difficulties breathing, sleep disturbances, stomach bleeding and many other.

In recent months scientists have also issued a warning against using such medications in children under 6 years of age because they may cause dangerous reactions including hallucinations.

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Obama budget unrealistic, says RNC

Obama budget unrealistic, says RNCThe Republican National Committee has blasted the Democratic administration’s $3.6 trillion budget proposal as too lavish and based on unrealistic economic expectations.

Reminding Americans that President Obama promised to produce a budget that honestly accounted for the money the government would spend and would be free of gimmicks and deception, the RNC has set out to warn that the bill does not offer an accurate picture of the country’s financial situation.

Citing a wealth of research, the RNC claims that the economic forecasts in the budget are much higher than private forecasts.

In particular, it emphasizes that in order for the government to reduce the deficit to $600 million by 2012 the economy would have to grow by more than 4 percent a year.

However, most economists believe that it will fall by 2 percent this year and grow by between 2-3 percent during subsequent years.

The RNC also questions Obama’s predictions regarding the future direction of unemployment. While his administration assumes that it will stabilize at 7.9 percent in 2010, the committee cites expert opinions which suggest that it will far exceed 8 percent.

The Republicans have also expressed their dismay at the fact that the budget proposal will increase taxes on businesses and on individuals who make more than $250,000 a year.
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FDA approves drug from genetically engineered material

FDA approves a drug derived from genetically engineered animal milkThe Food and Drug Administration has issued its first approval for a medication that is produced using material from genetically engineered (GE) animals.

ATryn, as the drug is known, is an anticoagulant used for the prevention of blood clots in patients with a rare disease known as hereditary antithrombin (AT) deficiency.

It is formulated as a protein derived from the milk of goats whose genes have been manipulated by introducing a segment of DNA (called a recombinant DNA or rDNA) with instructions to produce human antithrombin in its milk.

Antithrombin naturally occurs in healthy people and prevents blood from clotting.

To preempt the expected criticism from the natural products industry, the FDA quoted scientists from the Center for Veterinary Medicine who said that based on their observations of seven generations of the GE goats they have not discovered any adverse effects from the rDNA or its expression.

According to the National Alliance for Trombosis and Trombophilia, about 1 in 5,000 Americans has AT deficiency, and these patients are at high risk for clotting during surgery and childbirth.

Until now, the only AT drug available in the U.S. was derived from human blood donors.

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Herbal supplement may lower risk of prostate cancer

Scientists investigate the potentially beneficial role of isoflavones in lowering the risk of prostate cancer Scientists suspect that isoflavones may be able to reverse the androgenic effects of a steroid synthesized in the human body and play a role in prostate cancer prevention.

Researchers at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health are looking into the role of isoflavones in countering the effects of DHEA, a steroid compound which stimulates the production of testosterone.

High testosterone levels are known to be adversely associated with prognosis in men with prostate cancer.

During a NCCAM laboratory study, cell cultures were subjected to DHEA and an increase in testosterone production was noted. However, when they were treated with red clover isoflavones, the androgenic effects of DHEA were reversed.

"Something is happening in the prostate tissue microenvironment that is illustrating a potential cancer prevention effect from this supplement," says Dr. Julia Arnold, a staff scientist at NCCAM.

However, she cautions that more research needs to be conducted before the effects of compounds and their interaction with DHEA are fully understood.
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Association responds to GAO supplement guidelines

Council for Responsible Nutrition has issued a statement in response to GAO supplement guidelinesA recent Government Accountability Office report on the supplement market regulation has met with a mixed response from a leading industry association.

The GAO’s January 2009 report acknowledged the progress that has been made in the area of regulation of dietary supplements, but stressed that the FDA should take further steps to improve oversight and consumer understanding.

In response, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) has praised the agency for highlighting the positive developments such as the adoption of the FDA Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) which the industry itself advocated and promoted.

"These kinds of improvements in industry regulation are the cornerstone of producing safe, high-quality dietary supplements used by more than 150 million Americans each year," said Steve Mister, president and CEO of CRN.

However, the association has criticized the report for its recommendations to submit all adverse event reports, and not just serious adverse effects under the current regulations, for FDA review.

"The agency is already overburdened and understaffed, and we are opposed to creating more bureaucratic paperwork that would not result in true benefits for consumer safety," added Mister.

He concluded by saying that the FDA should concentrate its limited resources on tighter enforcement with a view of ensuring that all companies live up to their commitments to protecting consumers and producing beneficial supplement products.
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CIA destroyed interrogation evidence, say government lawyers

Government lawyers have revealed that the CIA destroyed interrogation evidenceAs civil rights advocates fight for the release of the Bush administration documents related to the war on terrorism, a group of government lawyers has revealed the CIA has destroyed videotapes of interrogation proceedings.

They made the revelations in a letter to U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein from New York who issued an order in 2004 to preserve the material.

A lawyer for the ACLU was quoted by Bloomberg as saying that this demonstrates a "systematic attempt" to cover up the mistreatment of suspects.

In responding to the news, President Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs said that under the new leadership the agency will have "the tools they need to keep us safe, but do so in a way that also protects our values."

Meanwhile, the ACLU has scored a victory in its attempt to obtain the release of records documenting the Bush administration’s policies regarding detainees in the so-called "war on terror."

The group filed a petition to that effect with the Justice Department last January.

On Monday, the department released nine secret memos written by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that authorized some of the former administration’s national security policies. One of the memos was written by OLC lawyer John Yoo and argued the Fourth Amendment does not apply to military activities inside the United States, according to ACLU.

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Natural remedies may also be effective against high cholesterol

Natural remedies may be effective against high cholesterol These days, it is all too easy to rely on potent drugs to reduce cholesterol levels, but one analysis has pointed out that pharmaceutical companies do not always have all the answers.

Cholesterol-lowering medications known as statins have been shown to cause serious side effects and adverse drug interactions in some people. They include muscle fiber or liver damage as well as neurological and cognitive disruptions.

That research has prompted editors of Natural Solutions magazine to explore healthy lifestyle choices and alternatives therapies.

"Medical experts agree that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and whole grains is the key to keeping cholesterol low," says the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Linda Sparrowe.

She adds that although challenging at first, lifestyle changes such as exercise and healthy diet that includes supplements should be the first choice of patients facing high cholesterol problems.

The article concludes with suggestions for natural sources of low cholesterol and for cholesterol-lowering supplements, including niacin, omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil and red yeast rice extract, many of which have the dual benefit of reducing LDL, the "bad" cholesterol, and increasingly the levels of the healthy HDL.
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Human studies to explore vitamin link to hearing loss prevention

Scientists will conduct tests on humans to explore the link between hearing loss prevention and vitamin supplementsScientists have demonstrated that antioxidants may shield animals from hearing loss due to noise exposure. Now they are trying to establish if this would also work in humans.

Researchers from the universities of Florida and Michigan have been building on earlier findings that hearing loss is caused not only by loud noises that tear the structures of the inner ear, but also by the presence of free radicals.

That is why they fed animals beta carotene, vitamins C and E as well as mineral magnesium, the latter used to preserve blood flow to the inner ear and aid healing.

They theorized that the antioxidants will prevent hearing damage by neutralizing the free radicals, and their theory was fully confirmed by subsequent results.

Now they have set out to study the effect of supplements in college students at UF who wear MP3 music players and noise-exposed military troops and factory workers in Sweden and Spain.

Positive results would enable researchers to produce a pill supplement for factory workers or a nutritional bar included in soldiers’ rations.

According to Colleen Le Prell, a researchers at UF, "ear plugs [are the best protection against] noise-induced hearing loss, but in those populations who don’t or can’t wear [them]… supplements could provide an opportunity for additional protection."
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