Secrets of the World’s Oldest Living Family

Creatas/Thinkstock(ROME) -- Consolata Melis, whose family has been officially declared the longest-living family in the world, celebrates her 105th birthday today, and it's a party in her small remote hill town on the island of Sardinia.

Four of Melis' eight siblings -- three brothers and five sisters -- are in their 90s, three are in their 80s and "la piccolina" (the little one) is 78. On June 10, all nine -- a combined age of 818 years and 205 days -- received a certificate from the Guinness World Records for "highest combined age, nine living siblings." It took years of research to establish that the Melis' family holds that title.

Melis' family, a crowd made up of her siblings, nine children, 24 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren, gathers for a private celebration at her home this evening to share a large cake topped with candles.

Perdasdefogu, the remote town in the region of Ogliastra where they live, has about 2,000 inhabitants and is set in the wild Mediterranean-brush hills of inland Sardinia. Long life is no novelty to these parts. The Ogliastra region has the highest concentration of centenarians on the island, where there are 370 residents older than 100, or 23 for every 100,000 inhabitants.

The town's mayor, Mariano Carta, delivered a bunch of roses and a silver rosary to Melis this morning. "She seemed very happy today and in great form," he told ABCNews.com, and although she needs assistance when walking, is "absolutely lucid."

Melis, dressed head to foot in traditional black clothing and headscarf, now spends most of her time reading a worn prayer book she was given a long time ago by a missionary father, but she has always kept a wicked sense of humor. "Make love every Sunday" she says with a wink when people ask her for her secret to long life, according to the newspaper Correre Della Sera.

Researchers searching for clues to the elixir of long-life in these lands have studied these ancient island communities for years now, and most conclude the secret lies in a mix of factors: genetic make-up, diet and environment, and a sense of belonging to a community.

Luca Deiana at the University of Sassari on the island has studied the statistics and personal data of people living all over the island. "The only thing one can really say now is that the secret to long life does not depend just on one factor," he told La Republica newspaper. "Genetics are important. This we know because longevity is inherited. We can see that the last names of the over- 100-year-olds on the island are often the same, but then there are other factors, like the goodness of the land and its produce, like the pears and the plums, which have properties that can contribute to long life."

Carta agreed. "Certainly genes matter, but then there is our quality of life, the tranquility, relaxed behavior and very wholesome, simple local food." He said that diet has a lot to do with longevity. "Sardinia is famous for very good but very simple cuisine ... no elaborate recipes and complicated cooking methods, and little use of spices and sauces."

But the mayor says some people believe long life comes from an easy life, but that's not so, he said. "These were very remote towns until recently, with no electricity. The road to the city was only paved about 30 years ago. These people had a really hard and poor life working the land."

Over the years, six members of the Melis' family have lost their spouses, and some of the children have died. Most members of the family now spend their days at home surrounded by children and grandchildren. But all still keep active and are familiar figures in town.

Adolfo returned to Perdasdefogu after World War II and set up the main bar in 1958, where, at the age of 89, he still works. Claudina, who just turned 99, attends morning Mass every day, ever present in her spot in the front row pew. Her doctor has tried, timidly, to give her medicine, but she has always refused, telling La Republica, "I only have one illness, old age, and nobody can cure that!"

Consolata Melis, who received little schooling and speaks in the Sardinian dialect, said, "In my time women had to wash clothes in the river. My granddaughters have washing machines and dishwashers," she told Correre Della Sera. When I hear this new word 'stressed,' I just don't understand."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Man Dies After Losing Fight for Assisted Suicide

Comstock/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- A paralyzed man who fought to overturn Britain's ban on assisted suicide died today from pneumonia less than a week after losing his controversial court case.

Tony Nicklinson had locked-in syndrome after suffering a stroke in 2005. Trapped inside a paralyzed body and forced to communicate by blinking his eyes, the 58-year-old man asked three of Britain's High Court judges to grant him the right to end his "dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable" life with a doctor-administered lethal injection.

"I thought that if the court saw me as I am, utterly miserable with my life, powerless to do anything about it because of my disability, then the judges would accept my reasoning that I do not want to carry on and should be able to have a dignified death," the former corporate manager from Wiltshire said in a statement issued by his lawyer.

But on Aug. 16, the court upheld the law barring Nicklinson from dying with a doctor's help.

"It is not for the court to decide whether the law about assisted dying should be changed and, if so, what safeguards should be put in place," Lord Justice Roger Toulson said in his ruling. "Under our system of government, these are matters for parliament to decide, representing society as a whole, after parliamentary scrutiny, and not for the court on the facts of an individual case or cases."

A spokesman for British anti-euthanasia group Care Not Killing applauded the ruling, saying, "it confirms the simple truth that the current law exists to protect those without a voice: the disabled, terminally ill and elderly, who might otherwise feel pressured into ending their lives."

For Nicklinson, the decision was devastating.

"I am saddened that the law wants to condemn me to a life of increasing indignity and misery," he said in a statement.

Nicklinson planned to appeal the court ruling, but his health quickly deteriorated. He "died peacefully this morning of natural causes," according to a tweet posted by his wife, Jane, and daughters Lauren and Beth.

"Before he died, he asked us to tweet: 'Goodbye world, the time has come, I had some fun.' Thank you for your support over the years. We would appreciate some privacy at this difficult time. Love, Jane, Lauren and Beth," they wrote.

Jane Nicklinson added, "I have lost the love of my life but he suffers no more."

In the United States, assisted dying is legal in Oregon, Washington and Montana.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Intersex Experts Question Safety of 'Normalizing' Drug

Courtesy Janet Green(NEW YORK) -- Janet Green was born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition that is one of 36 disorders of sexual development, leaving her with ambiguous genitalia, or intersex.

During the earliest weeks of conception in her mother's womb, Green was bathed in an overproduction of male hormones that caused a masculinization of her body and brain.

Girls with the condition can have clitorises as large as small penises or labia that look like a scrotum, but the internal sex organs are normal.

"I remember people being concerned about my body and a discomfort talking about it," Green, now a 55-year-old real estate agent from New York, said of her grueling medical journey.  "I just wanted to be normal and fit in."

Standard treatment is surgery, which can be painful and leave psychological scars.  But since the 1980s, doctors have prescribed a powerful steroid off-label for pregnant mothers who are at risk for the condition.

Now, in a report published this month in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, researchers call for more investigation into the use of that drug, dexamethasone, which they say is potentially unsafe.

The drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of inflammation, certain forms of arthritis and some cancers.  But off-label, dexamethasone is used to reduce rates of typically boy-like chararteristics, lesbianism and bisexuality in girls -- characteristics clinicians have termed "behavioral masculinization."

There are no requirements by the FDA for off-label use.

Only one in eight children conceived by at-risk parents ever gets any potential benefit from the drug, according to the report, and it has never been scientifically tested in controlled clinical trials.

"Women don't even know it's experimental," said Alice Dreger, lead author of the report and professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Just this year, a Swedish study on dexamethasone reported nearly 20 percent of the children exposed to the drug had a "serious adverse event," including anxiety and mood disorders and problems with memory and verbal processing.

"There is a lot of exposure with little benefit and a fair amount of risk," said Green, who is now a patient advocate as interim executive director of the Accord Alliance in Whitehouse Station, N.J.  "To me, that's a scary thing.  Over time, a lot of things have been done to girls that are experimental and this is another one."

Bioethicists have sounded the alarm because, they say, doctors are bypassing the strict regulations and ethical protocol of clinical trials by offering the drug off-label, then recruiting the same patients for federally funded follow-up studies.

Mothers were told the therapy was "safe for mother and child," Green said, but there has been no scientific evidence.  "Until we get decent studies we can't answer what are the side effects."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Music Lessons Linked to Lasting Brain Benefits

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Music lessons early in life may have lasting benefits on the brain, new research suggests.

The study of 45 young adults found that those with at least one year of childhood musical training had enhanced neurological responses to sound, a trait tied to improved learning and listening abilities.

“There’s good evidence that playing a musical instrument can profoundly affect the nervous system, but most of the studies have looked at people who are still playing,” said study author Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University. “This is the first study, to my knowledge, to look at the more typical scenario of people taking music lessons as kids.”

Using tiny electrodes, Kraus and colleagues measured the brain’s response to sound in Northwestern students with varying degrees of musical training -- from none at all to 11 years of lessons.  After controlling for IQ, they found people with at least one year of musical training were better at processing sound than those with no musical training.

“We know from previous studies that if you have a robust response to sound, you’re generally a better learner,” said Kraus.  “You’re better able to hear conversations in noisy places, your reading ability tends to be better and your auditory memory also seems to benefit.  Those skills are important.”

The small study, published Wednesday in the journal Neuroscience, suggests even a year’s worth of music lessons can have lasting effects on brain function.

“To me -- and this is just my scientific opinion based on converging evidence -- those are dollars well spent,” said Kraus.

How long do the effects last?  That’s the next study, Kraus said.

“Certainly the hypothesis to be tested now is whether these experiences in childhood continue to have a mark on the nervous system throughout people’s lives,” she said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


CT Scan for Heart Risk Splits Doctors

Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- For hundreds of thousands of Americans, the first sign of heart disease is when their heart stops.  It's a situation that has cardiologists constantly searching for better ways to detect heart problems sooner.

On Tuesday, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that a test using a CT scan could lead to answers for many of the 33.5 million Americans deemed to be at intermediate risk of heart problems.

Yet, the scan is not without its drawbacks -- a fact that has some doctors skeptical as to whether this test should be offered more widely.

The test -- known as a coronary artery calcium score, or CAC -- is found by evaluating the amount of calcium in blood vessels around the heart.  Doctors accomplish this through a CT scan of the chest.

In the new study, a team led by Dr. Joseph Yeboah, assistant professor of internal medicine-cardiology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, found that this test was the most effective of the six different methods to determine someone's risk of future heart problems if they happened to be classified as having an "intermediate" risk of heart disease.

Doctors can tell patients whether they are at high, low or intermediate risk of developing heart disease by using what is known as the Framingham score -- a tool that looks at age, cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking history and gender.  A high-risk patient will likely be treated more aggressively with blood pressure and cholesterol medications than their low-risk counterparts.

But while this approach works well when it comes to high or low risk patients, for the 16 percent of Americans in the intermediate risk category the lines are fuzzier as to when they should start taking these medications.

While the CAC is not currently in wide use, the study authors argue that expanding its use could help guide treatment for these millions of patients.

"The present study provides additional support for the use of CAC as a tool for refining cardiovascular risk prediction in individuals classified as intermediate risk by the [Framingham risk score]," the study authors write.

Specifically, the coronary artery calcium score would have accurately "reclassified" 25 percent of individuals from intermediate to high risk, and another 40 percent to low risk.  This means more than half of the people previously labeled ambiguously as having intermediate risk would now be considered to be at either high or low risk, which would ideally lead to more appropriate care.

The implications of such an adjustment would be considerable.  Heart disease remains the leading cause of deaths worldwide.  Blockage of the arteries of the heart, or coronary heart disease, leads to heart attacks -- a condition that accounted for one out of six American deaths in 2008, according to the American Heart Association.

On the other side of the coin are the out-of-pocket expenses and the increased radiation exposure that this test entails.  Previous studies show that radiation from CT scans has been linked to cancers.

Some doctors say the downsides of this test outweigh these benefits.

"I strongly disagree with the authors' conclusions," said Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.  "CAC scoring is a poor bargain with high costs and real harms."

"The test is potentially worth the cost and small radiation risk only if it is going to change a clinical decision regarding the use of aspirin, blood pressure medications or cholesterol treatment," said Raymond Gibbons, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic.  

So for an intermediate risk patient who has additional risk factors, such as a strong family history of heart disease, he argues that this added test would be pointless, as these patients would be treated aggressively anyway.

Still, some doctors agreed with the idea that CAC could be used more widely to evaluate patients.

"With these new data, we have a much better understanding of the best utility for this tool and can understand much better how to apply this technology," Clyde W. Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University, wrote in an email.  "That coronary artery calcium scoring prevails against these and other candidate risk markers is the news of the day."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Heart Attacks Lead to Depression, Anxiety for Partner

Photodisc/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Spouses of those who experience a sudden heart attack -- what doctors call an acute myocardial infarction, or AMI -- have an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide afterward, even if their partner survives, a new European Heart Journal report suggests.  And they tend to suffer more psychologically than the partners of people who have other serious medical conditions.

In an investigation of more than 200,000 people, American and Danish researchers found that more than three times the number of people whose significant other died from a sudden cardiac attack were using antidepressants in the year afterward, compared to the year before.  Additionally, nearly 50 times as many of the spouses were taking a benzodiazepine, a class of drug used to treat anxiety.

Men were more susceptible to depression and suicide than women, and partners experienced the same level of mental anguish, whether or not they were married.

"Those whose spouse survived an AMI had a 17 percent higher use of antidepressants after the event, whereas spouses of patients surviving some other non-AMI related condition had an unchanged use of antidepressants compared to before," says Dr. Emil Fosbøl, the study's lead author.

Dr. Neica Goldberg, a national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association notes that her experience treating patients mirrors what the study has found.

"For a long time, we've known that there are issues with the psychological health of both the patient who suffers a heart attack and their spouse," she says.  "I've noticed it and patients report it."

Goldberg says it's common for doctors to overlook how a caregiver is holding up because the caregiver is focused on prolonging the life of the patient.

"We don't always take the time to focus on quality of life or what the family is going through," she points out.

Caregivers are often reluctant to talk about their own feelings because it's their partner who is sick and in need of immediate attention.  Personal problems tend to come up in the context of their spouse's illness.  For example, Goldberg says, a partner will take her aside to ask whether the patient can climb stairs, walk up hills or return to sexual activity.

"That gives me the opportunity to ask about how they're doing and whether or not they need anything," she says.

Goldberg also makes sure that close family members are present when she speaks to patients about their condition to ensure everyone has an opportunity to ask questions and talk about all the issues, including their own.

Even if they are aware the significant other of a patient is depressed or anxious, cardiologists can't prescribe medication for them.  But, Goldberg says, the doctor can and should recommend therapy.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Teen at Center of Abortion Debate Dies After Chemo Delay

Comstock/Thinkstock(SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic) -- A pregnant 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic took center stage in the abortion debate when she died last Friday of leukemia complications amid reports that doctors had delayed chemotherapy out of fear that it could terminate her pregnancy. The Dominican Republic has a strict anti-abortion law.

But the young woman's doctor at Semma Hospital in Santo Domingo told ABC News that the hospital had postponed chemotherapy not because of the country's abortion ban but because they were waiting for her bone marrow test results to come back from a hospital in New Jersey to determine what kind of leukemia she had.

The young woman, whose name has not been released, was admitted to the hospital on July 2, Dr. Tony Cabrera told ABC News. She told doctors she'd missed her period, and they immediately gave her a blood test and pelvic sonogram to determine she was pregnant.

Since chemotherapy interrupts tumor progression by halting the rapid division of cancer cells, "it's likely to also have an adverse effect on a rapidly dividing organism, such as an embryo," said Christina Chambers, at the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists' Collaborative Research Center in San Diego.

Dr. Lauren Streicher, an obstetrician at Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago, said doctors practicing in the United States generally recommend that cancer patients requiring chemotherapy terminate their pregnancies in their first trimester, "given the limitation of information about what generally happens at 10 weeks."

The young woman's mother, Rosa Hernandez, had urged doctors to give her daughter an abortion so she could undergo chemotherapy immediately, according to CNN, but Article 37 of the Dominican Republic's constitution prohibits abortion, claiming "the right to life is inviolable from conception until death." The doctors did not perform an abortion.

"My daughter's life is first. I know that [abortion] is a sin and that it goes against the law...but my daughter's health is first," Hernandez told CNN in July.

Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez, an archbishop in Santo Domingo, spoke out about the case after a Mass in late July, saying that a "direct abortion" was wrong, but "everything possible" should be done to save the life of this young woman, according to the news organization Dominican Today.

"Her situation can be saved, but we don't agree with performing an abortion directly," Rodriguez said.

Once the doctors received the test results from the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center in Morristown, N.J., they learned their patient had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which Cabrera said had a "very poor prognosis," especially for children more than 10 years old. (For its part, the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center has not confirmed that it ever processed these tests.)

The doctors started chemotherapy when the young woman was nine weeks' pregnant, just as her first trimester was ending, in late July, Cabrera said.

Speaking generally, said Dr. Brian Druker, an oncologist at the Oregon Health and Science University, a short delay in administering chemotherapy should not in itself drastically affect a patient's outcome.

"A delay of a couple of weeks should have no bearing on the outcome unless there was a complication that made someone's medical condition less able to handle therapy," said Druker.

But last Thursday night, the young patient had begun to cough up blood and was moved to the intensive care unit, where she was placed on a respirator, Cabrera said. She also had vaginal bleeding and severe respiratory distress.

She underwent a blood transfusion, but by 2 a.m. Friday, she'd miscarried, Cabrera said. A few hours later, she went into cardiac arrest. Doctors were able to revive her, but she died at 8 a.m. Friday.

Death was attributed to hypovolemic shock (not enough blood or fluid), alveolar hemorrhage, acute respiratory distress syndrome and acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Cabrera said.

After her daughter's death, Hernandez told CNN, "They have killed me. I'm dead, dead. I'm nothing....She was the reason for my existence. I no longer live. Rosa has died. Let the world know that Rosa is dead."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Rosie O'Donnell Lucky to Be Alive, Heart Doctor Says

Michael Tullberg/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A heart attack-surviving cardiologist says that comedian Rosie O'Donnell is lucky to be alive today, after she delayed seeking help for an impending heart attack, ignoring flu-like symptoms before seeing a doctor.

O'Donnell reported that she had suffered what her doctors called the "widow maker," a 99-percent blockage of the left descending artery that feeds the heart.

"The first thing we women do is become stupid," said Dr. Kathleen McNicholas, a former heart surgeon and medical director of performance improvement at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del. "She could have died. Sudden death in women is a reasonable presentation."

The former talk show host, 50, wrote on "Rosie Blog" that last week she had helped an "enormous" woman out of a car: "A few hours later my body hurt, I had an ache in my chest both my arms were sore, everything felt bruised."

Two-thirds of women and one-third of doctors don't recognize the symptoms of heart attack in females, McNicholas said.

"These symptoms are often more subtle than the classic 'elephant sitting on your chest,'" she said. "The universal sign of a heart attack, clutching your chest, often doesn't apply to women."

O'Donnell likely had ischemia, or a "heart cramp," McNicholas said. "We can get through heart cramps, but she could have gone on to total occlusion," or obstruction.

But she gives the comedian a pat on the back for taking aspirin, a move that might have saved her life.

McNicholas, 64, knows all too well how hesitant women are to believe they are having a heart attack. She had one herself 10 years ago, undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery to repair blockages in her arteries.

Like O'Donnell, she delayed getting help for weeks, continuing to perform heart surgery, but feeling exhausted and carrying a "sense of dread."

"It's very typical of women," she said. "The symptoms are not quite as classic and we really don't want to believe it. We are queens of denial.

"And when you don't have a good story [the piercing elephant on the chest pain], you really don't want to go to the cardiologist and waste his time....You are just so tired and dragging yourself around and think you have the flu."

McNicholas said her doctor was just as bad. "I couldn't convince my cardiologist, who could have turned around and convinced me," she said.

"We just suck it up."

An estimated 400,000 women die every year of heart disease, 10 times more than die of breast cancer annually, according to the American Heart Association. Symptoms can include pressure, a tightening or heaviness, not necessarily pain. Flu-like symptoms, nausea, shortness of breath and excessive fatigue are also common. Some women just stay at home because it is not painful enough to seek help. Others even say their earlobes hurt, McNicholas said. And the risk increases as women reach menopause, "catching up" with men's risk.

McNicholas was in her "prime" when she had a heart attack at 54, working 100 hours a week as a surgeon and going to law school at night. "I had every reason to feel fatigued," she said.

"My back and shoulders ached," she said. "I looked gray, but we don't ask other people how we look or say how terrible we feel. We lay on the couch and figure it's going to pass.

"The point is we don't want to go to the emergency room and make a fool out of ourselves if we don't have a good story."

She didn't seek help for a month, but came to her senses while on holiday at the Jersey Shore when her sister reminded her that both her parents had died of heart disease.

"My sister slept on the same floor as me, and the next morning she said, 'You coughed all night....Mom coughed like that when she died.'...That's what pushed me. You have to have someone else notice."

McNicholas began a program at Christiana Care called "No Heart Left Behind," encouraging teens to educate their middle-aged mothers about heart disease.

One of her students saved her mother-in-law's life on a ski vacation, insisting she go to the emergency room, even when everyone else around her said it was altitude sickness. The woman was perfectly fit, walking five miles a day.

As for O'Donnell, McNicholas said the comedian likely "sure looked like hell and should have said to her partner, 'How do I look?' and gone to the hospital."

O'Donnell is recovering. She is "resting at home and doing fine," according to her publicist. She also tweeted her support for the American Heart Association campaign "Go Red for Women": "Sign me up," she wrote. "Let's get the word out there -- count me in."

"I am lucky to be here," O'Donnell wrote on her blog. "Know the symptoms ladies, listen to the voice inside. The one we all so easily ignore. CALL 911."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Todd Akin Challenged by Doctors on Rape and Pregnancy

Michael Tullberg/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Missouri Representative Todd Akin contradicted medical statistics with his statement that “women who are victims of ‘legitimate rape’ rarely get pregnant.”

After a media storm — during which Mitt Romney called his words “indefensible” and President Obama said “rape is rape” — Akin has now released an ad in which he admits, “The fact is, rape can lead to pregnancy.”

There are also numerous studies regarding rape and pregnancy.  Some data show that rape can not only result in pregnancy, but it may even lead to higher rates of pregnancy than consensual sex.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and on average there are 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of sexual assault every year.

How many become pregnant?  A 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) reported that “among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year.”  This study said the rate of becoming pregnant after sexual assault is considerable, estimating that “the national rape-pregnancy rate is 5.0 percent per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45).”

In response to Akin’s comments, ACOG released a statement on Monday: “Each year in the U.S., 10,000-15,000 abortions occur among women whose pregnancies are a result of reported rape or incest.”

The statement said this is a fraction of the total number of rape-pregnancies, given that “an unknown number of pregnancies resulting from rape are carried to term.”

A 2003 study using data from the United States National Violence Against Women survey found that the rate at which women get pregnant after an incident of sexual assault is more than double that of a single act of consensual sex.  In this report, published in the journal Human Nature, the per-incident rape-pregnancy rate was 6.42 percent, and as high as 7.98 percent with statistical correction. Of women having consensual sex, the per-incident pregnancy rate was 3.1 percent.

Dr. Lauren Streicher, an assistant professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, said she was not surprised by the data.

“Women that have consensual sex are usually aware of where they are in a cycle…part of consensual sex is being able to say no.  It makes sense,” she said.

In response to Akin’s statement that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down,” Streicher said, “You let me know if you find the doctor that knows how a uterus knows which sperm to ward off.”

In its statement, ACOG refuted Akin’s original comment: “To suggest otherwise contradicts basic biological truths.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Lawyer Who Beat Big Tobacco Targets Food Industry

Jupiterimages/Pixland/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A Mississippi lawyer who landed a multimillion dollar settlement from "big tobacco" is taking on the food industry, claiming some food makers mislead consumers about their products' health effects.

Don Barrett, a trial lawyer from Lexington, Miss., said his firm has filed 27 cases and counting, hoping to quickly whip another "deceptive" industry into shape.

"The food industry has realized that the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] has no teeth," said Barrett, arguing that FDA rules that prohibit food misbranding are routinely broken. "You can't use euphemisms and you can't disguise ingredients by calling them something people can't understand. If you do, your product's misbranded. And if it's misbranded, it's illegal to sell it."

Barrett -- a relative newcomer to the world of food industry fraud, having filed his first case in April -- is drawing on his past battles with tobacco companies. In 1998 he was part of a major legal victory over the tobacco industry.

"The health claims they made for tobacco, and the denials they made about it being bad for you, they affected people's health," he said. "Perhaps the food industry doesn't affect people's health as directly, but people have the right to know what they're getting."

More than a third of American adults are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And obesity-related conditions like diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers are among the country's top killers.

"The three major determinants of all our ills are tobacco, poor diet and lack of physical activity," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. "And there's no question the problem of poor diet has been aided and abetted by those profiting from the status quo."

Katz said some food companies blatantly trick consumers into thinking a product is healthier or more natural than the competition's. He cited a jam-maker that listed apricots as the first ingredient by using five different forms of sugar -- so that it would not be required to put any one of them at the top of the list.

"You have to list the ingredients in the order of abundance, and there was more apricot than any one type of sugar," said Katz, adding that, generally, "the shorter the ingredient list, the better."

But some companies use different names for ingredients that might be perceived as unhealthy, according to Barrett, who recently sued the Greek yogurt maker Chobani for calling sugar "evaporated cane juice."

"It's so deceptive that it's really kind of funny. But it ain't funny if you're a mother whose child has juvenile diabetes," said Barrett. "It's a crime to misbrand food in that way, so we want them to quit selling it and pay everyone back."

Calls to Chobani were not immediately returned.

The slew of suits from Barrett and other trial lawyers targeting "big food" are a welcome boost for food industry watchdogs like the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"We need all the help we can get," said Stephen Gardner, the center's director of litigation.

Gardner has filed suits against Splenda Essentials and Nature Valley granola bars, alleging the high-priced products fall short of their health claims.

"Companies consider the consumer responsible for checking out all the facts; for assuming the ads they're seeing are lies," he said. He pointed out that "natural" Nature Valley granola bars contain maltodextrin -- a chemical that's "fresh from the factory."

"The 'natural' claim is a good example of something that may or may not matter to a food scientist, but it does matter to the consumer," he said.

But Gardner said the comparison between "big food" and "big tobacco" is a little far-fetched.

"All tobacco companies are evil killers of human beings, but there are a whole lot of food companies that sell food that's good for you," he said. "And even that stuff that's bad for you isn't going to kill you if you consume it in moderation. ...That's not to say I don't welcome people who had the skills and inventiveness to bring tobacco to its knees."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio