When we look back on 2015, we may remember it as the year women got their own "little pink pill," sugar and bacon got a bad (okay, an even worse) rap, and one lucky firefighter got a whole new face. These past 12 months have certainly produced their fair share of fascinating medical newssome stories that taught us new lessons about our health, and others that reinforced beliefs we've suspected for years.
Thanks to recent discoveries and breakthroughs, we're more informed than ever about how to live happy, healthy lives. Here are some of the biggest health stories of the year, and what they can teach us about our bodies, our minds, and our lifestyle choices.
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We probably drink more than we should
Hot off the heels of New Year's festivities, 2015 started off with a bang: According to a CDC report published in January, alcohol poisoningcaused by consuming too much alcohol in too short a timekills six Americans a day. Adults 35 to 64 make up three-quarters of these deaths, the report noted, while another study found that people who work long hours may be more likely to drink to excess.
But one or two drinks a day is still good for us, right? Maybe not. A British study published in February found that the supposed health benefits of moderate drinking may be overblown, and another study from August reported that even one drink a day was associated with an increased breast cancer risk for women. And don't even think about drinking while pregnantnot even a little: The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new warning in October that "no amount of alcohol intake should be considered safe" during any trimester.
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Vaccines are (still) safe
The supposed link between vaccines and autism has been debunked many times, but a study published in April that looked at the medical records of nearly 96,000 children offers perhaps the most definitive proof that there is no relationship between the two. Parents shouldn't worry about other adverse side effects from vaccine shots, either: A government report released in October found that out of 25 million vaccinations given last year, only 33 people had serious reactions.
Still, many parents still choose not to vaccinate their childrenleaving roughly 1 in 8 American kids vulnerable to deadly diseases like measles. More than 100 measles cases were reported in the first month of 2015, with outbreaks occurring in California (at Disneyland) and Arizona, among other states. In June, California governor Jerry Brown signed a mandatory school vaccination bill, eliminating the right for a parent to refuse a child's vaccination on the grounds of "personal belief."
The news isn't all bad, though. Just two minutes of walking every hour can reverse some of sitting's harmful effects, according to a study published in April. And in July, Australian researchers reported that standing for an extra two hours a day, rather than sitting, was linked to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Even fidgeting may offer some protection, says a British study published in September.
Hopefully, 2016 will see fewer outbreaks of harmful bacteria like listeria, E. coli, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, thanks to new regulations finalized by the FDA in November. The rules establish enforceable safety standards for produce, and make importers accountable for food brought into the United States.
If you avoided the ocean last summer because of an uptick in shark attacks, you may be worrying about the wrong hazard. Yes, there were more Jaws-style incidents this year than normal, but according to a September report from Mashable, more people died this year while attempting to take "selfie" photos than from swimming in shark-infested waters.
Speaking of selfies, they've also been linked to narcissism and alienation from friends and family, even when they're not causing physical danger. And they're not the only risky smartphone behavior we learned about this year: Being separated from our phones can cause anxiety and cognitive impairment, found a study published in January. On the other hand, paying too much attention to them can cause our loved ones to feel "phone snubbed," or "phubbed", according to an October study. One good bit of smartphone news? Texting bans seem to be saving lives.
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Breastfeeding is beneficial, but still controversial
The bottom line about coffee and health has notoriously see-sawed over the years. But in the past few months, the news has been overwhelmingly positive for java lovers.
Drinking coffee may protect against melanoma and liver cancer, reported studies in January and March. Also in March, the government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded that moderate coffee consumptionthree to five 8-ounce cups a dayisn't linked to any long-term dangers for healthy people. In November, a National Institutes of Health-funded study found that drinking coffee (even decaf) may help people live longer. Just go easy on the sugar and cream, say the study authors.
We read plenty of news about Lyme disease this year, including how difficult it can be to get a diagnosis, and the mysterious long-term effects it can have on some people. But we also learned about other tick-borne diseases that are just as scaryif not more so. Ticks in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes can transmit the Powassan virus, which can cause meningitis and encephalitis, scientists warned. And in Oklahoma this summer, a woman diagnosed with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (also spread by ticks) developed a life-threatening infection that required amputations of both her hands and feet.
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Beauty comes in all sizes
This was the year of the plus-size model: In January, Tess Holliday became the first woman of her size (22) to be signed by a major modeling agency. In February, Sports Illustrated announced its first ever size-12 woman to appear in its swimsuit issue. Plus-size clothing chain Lane Bryant made headlines with its #ImNoAngel campaign in April, and Women's Running magazine got in on the action with a plus-size runner on its July cover. With all of these firsts, it only makes sense that a documentary on plus-size models is underway for 2016.
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Contact sports can have real consequences
Sports with high rates of concussions and head trauma have been worrying doctors for years. In January, a study on former National Football League players found that those who began playing tackle football before age 12 faced a higher risk of memory and thinking problems as adults. Another study published in September found that 96% of deceased NFL players tested positive for the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
To make a potentially dangerous situation even worse, two new studies this year found that many middle-school and high-school coaches don't know how to recognize and respond to concussions properly. But some steps are being taken to protect kids: In November, the governing body for U.S. soccer issued new guidelines stating that players under age 10 should not head the ball.
Over-the-counter supplements aren't regulated by the FDA, so there's no way of really knowing if a pill or powder actually contains the vitamins or herbs it claims to. In February, an investigation by the New York State attorney general's office found that many supplements sold at Target, Walmart, GNC, and Walgreens contained nothing but cheap filler ingredientssome of which could be harmful to people with allergies.
That's not the only problem with these "natural" remedies. More than 20,000 Americans are hospitalized each year because of side effects from dietary supplements, found a study published in October. (One example: Pills sold for energy or weight loss can cause chest pains or heart palpitations.) In fact, criminal and civil charges were filed against 117 supplement manufacturers for knowingly selling products that could be harmful.
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It's never too late to be your true self
Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic champion and reality TV star formerly known as Bruce Jenner, announced in April that she was in the process of transitioning to living as a woman. Soon after, Jenner made her debut as Caitlyn in a Vanity Fair profile. Her story showed us both the challenges and rewards that a late-in-life transition can bring, and sparked conversations about how to talk about transgender issues.
Jenner wasn't the only transgender person to make headlines this year: Teenager Jazz Jennings became a new face of Clean and Clear skincare brand, and 27-year-old Aydian Dowling became a finalist in Men's Health magazine's cover-model search. Planet Fitness made the news, too, for revoking the membership of a woman who made inappropriate comments about a transgender member.
It may not be as trendy as the latest fad diet, but study after study has shown that following a Mediterranean-style food planrich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats like olive oil and nutsis one of the healthiest ways to eat. This year, we learned that it may protect against uterine cancer and breast cancer, boost thinking and memory, and increase levels of healthy fatty acids in the gut.
High-fructose corn syrup is often considered less healthy than "natural" added sugars like honey and agave. But now, scientists and dietitians are speaking out against other types of sweeteners. Any source of excess sugar contributes to obesity and diabetes, they say, and singling out HFCS might encourage people to simply replace it with other types rather than cutting sugar intake overall.
Another study, published in October, looked at the changes in children's health measures (like cholesterol and blood glucose levels) when added sugar in their diet was replaced with nonsugary foods. The authors say their results prove that sugar is "definitely toxic," even when it doesn't cause weight gain. Other new research on sugary soft drinks backs up these claims, showing that drinking soda can raise the risk of diabetes and heart attacks.
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GMOs are safe, says the FDA
Chipotle announced in April that it would stop using ingredients containing genetically modified organisms, causing many consumers to wonder what exactly GMOs areand whether they're safe to eat. According to the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization, they are.
GMO consumption has had no proven effects on human health, experts say, and genetically modified produce must meet the same safety standards as regular crops. (There is some concern, however, about GMO-related overuse of chemical herbicides on farms.) In November, the FDA approved the first genetically modified animal for sale in the United States: a hybrid breed of salmon that's active year-round and grows at twice the rate of non-GMO salmon.
But we may be replacing our cigarette habit with a different type of smoking. A study published in September found that marijuana is now more popular on college campuses than cigarettes. And an October report found that, as laws and attitudes about pot have loosened in the past 10 years, Americans' marijuana use has doubled.
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There's a 'female Viagra'
After being rejected twice in previous years, Flibanserina prescription medicine for low female sex drive sold under the brand name Addyiwas approved by the FDA in August and hit the market in October. Dubbed the "female Viagra", the drug has been long awaited by some, but heavily criticized by others.
Proponents say that Flibanserin can help women who suffer from hypoactive sexual desire disorder, and that it will help "even the score" with men, for whom 26 drugs are approved to treat sexual dysfunction. Critics have concerns with the drug's safety and effectiveness, and say there are better ways to rev a woman's libido.
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Bacon (and other meat) causes cancer
The link between processed meats and cancer has been established for years, but that didn't make October's warning from the World Health Organization (WHO) any easier to digest. And it's not just bacon, sausage, and hot dogs; eating red meat also seems to raise colorectal cancer risk, found the WHO's review.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is defined as anything above 140/90. But a National Institutes of Health study published in October found that lowering systolic pressure (the top number) below 120 for people over 50 could reduce rates of heart attack and stroke by about a third, compared to the current target of 140. The investigators called the news "potentially lifesaving information," and say that future blood pressure guidelines will likely reflect these findings.
Unfortunately, many Americans haven't even reached the current systolic target of 140. About 47% of people have not lowered their blood pressure to a "normal" range through lifestyle changes or medication, according to a study published in November. That's an improvement from 1999 (when more than 68% of people had uncontrolled high blood pressure), but it's still a long way from the government's goal of fewer than 40% by 2020.
The transplant recipient was told he had about a 50/50 chance of surviving the surgery, but so far he is recovering well and has not faced any serious complications. Within a month, he'd begun to grow scalp and facial hair, and in November he returned home to spend Thanksgiving with his family.