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The Top Public Health Stories of 2016

by Berkeley Wellness  

When it comes to big health news, 2016 had more than its fair share—some encouraging, some disappointing, and some a bit of both. From the Zika outbreak to soda tax victories to a crackdown on sodium in restaurant foods, here are 11 of the year’s developments we considered especially significant.

1. Zika spreads misery

Previously confined mainly to countries in Africa, Asia, and Micronesia, the mosquito-borne Zika virus commanded headlines this year as it exploded through Latin American countries—particularly Brazil—and into the southernmost parts of the U.S., prompting travel advisories for pregnant women and aggressive mosquito-control efforts in Florida. The virus causes generally mild symptoms in adults but can be devastating for the developing fetus, which can contract the virus through the placenta and develop serious birth defects. In addition to mosquitos (primarily the Aedes aegypti type, which also spreads yellow fever and dengue), Zika can be transmitted through sex.

2. Women’s heart attacks get more attention

Cardiovascular disease—which includes coronary heart disease, the top cause of heart attacks, as well as strokes and heart failure—kills ten times as many women as breast cancer, yet “Coronary heart disease remains understudied, underdiagnosed, and undertreated in women,” according to a Scientific Statement released in January by the AHA. Women’s heart attack symptoms can be different from men’s, leading some women to not realize when they are having a heart attack—and some doctors to incorrectly diagnose them. This helps explain why, while fewer American women have heart attacks than men each year, they are more likely to die when they have one. Read more about how heart disease is different in women.

3. Risky antibacterial ingredient banned at last

In September the FDA issued a final rule banning 19 antibacterial ingredients, including triclosan and triclocarban, from body washes and soaps. The agency cited a lack of evidence that antibacterial washes work any better than plain soap and water, as well as data suggesting that long-term exposure to the active ingredients in such productsmay contribute to antibiotic resistance or cause hormonal effects. We warned back in 2014 that antibacterial soaps may do more harm than good.

4. FDA proposes sodium limits

In June the FDA released draft guidelines setting voluntary targets for food companies and chain restaurants to reduce sodium in their products. This may prevent as many as half a million premature U.S. deaths over the next decade, researchers have estimated. National dietary guidelines, along with most medical and public health organizations, recommend a daily limit of 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day (the amount in a teaspoon of salt). But the average American consumes nearly 50 percent more than that—about 3,400 mil­ligrams a day. Some 75 percent of our sodium intake comes from processed or commercially prepared foods.

5. The new nutrition guidelines are adopted—finally

Yes, it took until January 2016 for the government to officially adopt the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The final version of the guidelines had some noteworthy (and disappointing) departures from the proposed ones we wrote about last year, namely the removal of a limit on red and processed meats, which are linked to higher rates of colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other disorders.

6. Hypertension declared bad for the brain

Here’s another big reason to reduce high blood pressure. A growing body of evidence suggests that hypertension, especially in middle age, contributes to cognitive decline and possibly dementia, prompting the American Heart Association to publish a Scientific Statement on the topic in October. High blood pressure may affect cognition by disrupting the structure and function of cerebral blood vessels, leading to damage of the brain’s white matter. Learn about how hypertension is diagnosed and treated.

7. It was the hottest year on record. Again.

Scientists from the World Meteorological Organization predicted in November that 2016 would top 2015 as the hottest year on record for global temperatures, due largely to green­house gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels. That would mean that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been in the 21st century (the other one was 1998). On a more positive note, the Paris Agreement on climate change was signed this year by 194 UN member states—but was then possibly thrown into question by the election of Donald Trump (see #11). Read our article on the health consequences of climate change.

8. The FTC cracks down on homeopathic products

In November the Federal Trade Commission issued a strong report concluding that homeopathic products should “be held to the same truth-in-advertising standards as other products claiming health benefits.” Our reaction? It's about time. Here's our discussion of the history, principles, and claims of homeopathic remedies, plus our bottom-line advice on this form of alternative medicine.

9. Legumes get love

You probably know that beans and other legumes are a superb source of fiber, protein, and other nutrients. But those humble plant foods finally got their day (or year) in the spotlight, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses (pulses are the seeds of plants in the legume family and include beans, lentils, chickpeas, and dry peas). Read more about the health benefits of pulses.

10. Soda taxes gain still more momentum

In June Philadelphia became the second U.S. city—and the first large one—to approve a tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, despite millions of dollars spent by the soda industry to defeat it. And on the November election ballots, soda tax measures passed in three California cities (San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, a small town next to Berkeley) as well as Boulder, Colorado. Illinois’ Cook County, which includes Chicago, also passed a beverage tax this year that’s similar to Philadelphia’s. Do soda taxes really reduce soda consumption? The research says yes.

11. There was an election. A big one.

And its results have public health advocates worried about rollbacks to the Affordable Care Act, discounting (or even vilification) of vaccines, and other potential changes under the new administration that could have serious implications for public health. With a month to go before the presidential inauguration, it remains to be seen what exact changes will transpire and when under the incoming Trump administration. But be assured we’ve got our ears to the ground and remain committed to bringing you the best, most practical advice for living your healthiest life—physically and mentally—amid whatever changes are to come.