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Catching cold: Exercise foils the sniffles

The elusive "cure" for the common cold may be as simple as regular exercise.

A new U.S. study suggests that people who routinely do a moderate amount of exercise are less likely to catch a cold than those who lead a sedentary life.

For the study, researchers recruited 115 postmenopausal women, most of whom were either overweight or obese. About half were asked to engage in a moderate exercise program such as a 45-minute brisk walk, five days a week. The other women took part in a non-strenuous stretch class once a week and served as the so-called control group.

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Over all, the stretchers were twice as likely to come down with colds during the 12-month study.

"The effect of exercise grew stronger over time and, in the final three months of the study, there was greater than a threefold difference between stretchers and exercisers in terms of their risk of getting a cold," said the lead researcher, Cornelia Ulrich at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash.

She speculates that regular physical workouts rev up the body's production of immune cells -- such as leukocytes -- that help fight off infections.

But she warned that too much exercise may be counterproductive. Other studies have indicated that athletes are more likely to get a cold or another type of infection after a major competition. "We know that very exhaustive, excessive exercise is immuno-suppressive . . . so, you have to find the right balance," Dr. Ulrich said.

Aside from being less likely to catch a cold, those in the exercise group also lost weight, thereby reducing their chances of developing heart disease, diabetes and breast cancer. "There are clearly many reasons to exercise," noted Dr. Ulrich, whose study was published in the American Journal of Medicine.

Migraine relief

Migraines aren't necessarily lifelong afflictions. A study shows that many children who suffer from the excruciating headaches eventually outgrow them.

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Italian researchers at the University of Palermo identified a group of young migraine sufferers -- 11 to 14 years old -- and followed their medical progress over a decade. The study revealed that 38 per cent no longer had headaches, including migraines, at the end of the 10-year follow-up period. Another 20 per cent were migraine free, but they got less debilitating tension-type headaches instead.

"This is great news for children and teens who are dealing with migraine headaches," lead researcher Rosolino Camarda said in a statement released with the study in the journal Neurology. "Most of them will no longer have to deal with these disabling headaches by the time they are adults."

Patients with a parent or sibling who also suffers migraines stood the greatest chance of still having the headaches at the end of the 10-year study.

Genes galore

Genetic discoveries have become so common in recent years that they rarely make big news any more.

But a discovery being unveiled today in the prestigious journal Science is still worth noting.

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A team of U.S. and Canadian scientists has found a gene that plays a key role in inflammatory bowel disease, which includes Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

The researchers hope their finding will eventually lead to better treatments for the chronic disorders that cause abdominal pain, diarrhea and gastrointestinal bleeding.

However, what make this announcement really important is the method used to discover the gene.

The researchers used a relatively new technique called "genome-wide association." Rather than searching individual genes in the hopes of finding a mutation, the entire genome -- essentially all of person's genes -- are scanned at once.

The process has been automated and computerized. A machine scans 300,000 specific markers that are scattered throughout the genome.

"Each one of those markers represents a region that will cover a number of genes in that area," researcher Mark Silverberg of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto said. By analyzing data from many patients with the same disease, researchers can zero in on the common mutations that are responsible for the condition.

"It's a massive amount of data that can be generated in one study," said Dr. Silverberg, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. He expects many more research teams will soon be using the technique. And, of course, that means the pace of genetic discoveries will accelerate at a faster clip than before.

A growing burden

The obesity epidemic is taking its toll on Canadians' knees and joints.

The annual number of hip and knee replacement procedures has leaped by 87 per cent in the past decade, according to a report released this week by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Knees and joints tend to wear out with age.

However, "the baby boomer age group accounts for the biggest boom in new surgeries," the report says -- hip replacements have doubled over the past decade in the 45 to 54 age group and knee replacements have nearly quadrupled.

The report attributes the trend to the growing the number of overweight and obese middle-aged Canadians. Carrying around the extra weigh causes the knees and hip joints to give out sooner.

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