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What the Future Could Hold for Your Body and Your Health; Families Fight Against Rare Diseases; How to Pay Your Medical Bills

Aired September 8, 2007 - 08:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Thanks, guys. This is HOUSECALL. We're making the rounds of some of the most intriguing medical stories of the week, including your future reveal.
What if you could know whether you're going to get Alzheimer's or become an alcoholic? I'm going to introduce you to a genetic entrepreneur, who might make it happen for you. Then, saving Ryan, it's a family's fight against their son's deadly disease. He was only supposed to live until he was three. Now he's graduating from high school. And are you having trouble paying your medical bills? CNN's personal finance editor Gerri Willis joins us with some options.

First up, though, it may sound like science fiction, a man's quest to find exactly what the future holds for his body and his health. So would you want to know the dangers lurking inside your own body?


GUPTA (voice-over): This man knows his destiny. He knows which microscopic time bombs are ticking inside his own body. For some, what he knows could pose agonizing choices.

For example, what would you do if you knew one of your genes looked like this? Even if you're healthy, it means you are likely to have heart problems. Or what would you do if you knew your baby had this gene? Years from now, it means she'll be a candidate for Alzheimer's. Or this one, she'll have to worry about going blind at some point. But this man, Craig Venter, a genetic entrepreneur, already faces those questions. He's genetically mapped his own body and Venter has all of those genes.

And you found some things maybe that weren't entirely surprising.

He is one of the first people in the world to map almost all six billion letters of his genetic code, from diseases to personality traits. The genome is a map of how we're hard wired, according to DNA, that we receive from both our parents.

What you're looking at is an actual DNA sequence. Let me show you something here. These colors actually represent the building blocks of an individual's life. This is precisely where Dr. Craig Venter decided to decode his own life.

For Venter, they seemed to warn about a gloomy future. Venter has all three of these genes. All of them are linked to heart attacks. He also has the Apo E gene, linked to Alzheimer's disease. Yet perhaps surprisingly, Venter has absolutely no family history.

It's not saying you are going to develop Alzheimer's or you're not. But it may as well be because you got this information, and a smart guy, but I might develop Alzheimer's disease one day.

J. CRAIG VENTER, DR., VENTER INSTITUTE: I'm not afraid of it in the sense that, you know, I feel that's a sentence because I know it's only a statistical probability.

GUPTA: Now he takes statins to protect his heart and potentially his memory. But there's also that blindness gene. He now gets eye exams more regularly. And the genes seem to pose warnings that are not fail safe.

Take skin cancer. Venter recently battled melanoma, but nothing in his genome would suggest skin cancer. For sure, it's an early science. We can't say what a gene or the absence of a gene truly means, not yet. But soon, we'll be able to factor our genetic maps into the nature versus nurture debate.

(on camera): The technology that may have so much, that within the next few years, I add my own genome sequence for just a thousand bucks in just a couple of hours.

(voice-over): For a thousand bucks, Dr. George Church and his team at Harvard will soon be able to give anyone a genetic test of 1 percent of their DNA.

VENTER: As information flows in, you know, you'll say, I only want to know things of certain type.

GUPTA: That 1 percent will include genes that control obesity, Alzheimer's, heart disease, alcoholism, and other concerns. Those tiny bombs ticking inside all of us.


GUPTA: And to read more on how your genetics affects your health and the future of DNA mapping, check out

Now it may all be in the genes, but knowing what's going to happen doesn't mean you have to accept it. A Massachusetts family found out about their son's deadly genetic disorder. And they chose to change the prognosis. CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has more on how they did it, one golf tournament at a time.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): By all accounts, Ryan Dant shouldn't be here today. When he was three-years old, doctors told Ryan's parents he had a rare genetic disorder called MPS-1. The disease was devastating his body. There was no treatment. And doctors said Ryan would lose his hearing, his sight, and would be in a wheelchair. They said Ryan wouldn't live past his 10th birthday.

MARK DANT, RYAN'S FATHER: We'd carry him to his little bed and put him to sleep and watch him sleep and wonder, is tonight the night that he will not wake up?

COHEN: But incredibly, Ryan lived to see his high school graduation this past spring.

DANT: A lot of golf tournaments. Actually, golf tournaments is what I believe saved Ryan's life.

COHEN: That's right, golf tournaments. Desperate to save their son and frustrated by the lack of treatment options, the Dants went out on their own. They raised nearly $3 million and gave it to a researcher at UCLA, who discovered a treatment for Ryan's disease.

Now Ryan's expected to live a long and healthy life. With all the billions of dollars that goes into medical research, the Dants' story raises a frustrating question. Why do patients with rare diseases often have to resort to do-it-yourself fundraising? The cold reality is it's tough to make money off rare diseases. So pharmaceutical companies are sometimes hesitant to invest.

This sounds familiar to Risa Sherman, who's young daughter Lucy has a type of brain tumor so rare, there's little money being spent on medical research.

RISA SHERMAN, LUCY' S MOM: It's just unacceptable. It's not good enough for our kids.

COHEN: So Sherman and these other parents have taken matters into their own hands. In just three years, they've raised $5 million. They hope, like Ryan Dant's family, to some day come up with a cure.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, Needham, Massachusetts.


GUPTA: And for more on Ryan and Elizabeth's weekly column on empowering patients, check out You, too, can empower yourself to get the very best medical care possible.

Sometimes getting that care takes a lot of money, more than you might have. So CNN's personal finance editor Gerri Willis is going to join us next with some ways to pay the bills when the health insurance companies won't. But before we talk money, let's talk stress.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It raises your blood pressure and it makes your heart race.


GUPTA: You voted for stress as a story you'd most like to see this week on HOUSECALL. So coming up in 60 seconds, a quick quiz about what makes you crazy.

What is the cause of stress? A, work, b, family, c, money. You know what pushes your buttons. The answer for everybody else, when we return.


GUPTA: Before the break we asked, what do people say is the cause of their stress? Well, according to the American Psychological Association, money is most often the source of that anxiety.

Now you voted stress as a story you'd most like to see this week on HOUSECALL. And that segment is just ahead.

But first, finding the money to pay medical expenses can also be stressful. In fact, according to the government, people spend on average of more than $3,000 a year on medical bills. And that's just the average. So we asked CNN's personal finance editor to join us with some creative ways to pay those bills and also to give her top tips.

Gerri Willis, thanks so much for joining us.


We see a lot about these credit cards and taking out loans to pay medical bills. Have you heard about that? What do you think about that?

GUPTA: You know, we've seen a lot about these credit cards and taking out loans even to pay medical bills. Have you heard about that? What do you think about it?

WILLIS: It's fascinating what's going on out there. You walk into your doctor's office. You can't pay your bill. And they give you a form. It looks like you're filling out a Macy's credit form. And it's not much different than that, I got to tell you.

Basically, people are using these credit cards. And they often have zero percent offers for elective surgery, for getting your face lifted, for lasik, to pay the dog bills when you go to the vet. They're interesting offers.

I want to tell you a little bit about some of the specific offerings out there. We're talking about if you default, if you don't make your payment ...


WILLIS: can have an interest rate of 29 percent, almost 30 percent.


WILLIS: That's high. But let me tell you -- it's so attractive to be able to pay 0 percent for a period of time that people really like these things. Two companies in here, City Health Card, Care Credit Financing are two companies that are leading the way in this.

GUPTA: So I mean, people are watching and thinking about this, would you say it's a good idea for the average consumer?

WILLIS: Well, look. You know, let's think about what you're going to have to pay for. The average facelift is $10,000. OK? Now if you're going to pay for that over say 12 months, that's going to cost you about I believe $833. OK? You see that?

Now if you don't make a payment, if you miss a payment, you hit these default rates, it's $905 a month. You're paying a lot more money in interest rate over time. I say if you can pay for it and you know you're going to make the payments on time, a 0 percent offer is really attractive.

But I got to tell you -- your doctor may finance this for you and not charge you these rates of interest. And you can always ask them to do it. Medicare may take a part of this for some of these -- if you don't have any insurance. And if you're standing in the doctor's office thinking, wow, do I really want that facelift, maybe a cooling off period would be the thing to do before you actually buy the service.

GUPTA: That's very good advice there. So possibly, you know, letting the doctor's office absorb some of that financing. Medicare, make sure that you're checking with them. What are some other tips if you're -- not necessarily for a facelift, but just some other medical procedures. What are some other ways to finance those?

WILLIS: Well, you can also do a loan. There are also loans offered by some companies just for healthcare costs. And this isn't a bad idea either. But the interest rates really vary. They can be 2 percent to almost 30 percent. You really need to know what you're buying. Check it out. Make sure you understand all the caveats. Because you know how these things work. If your late therapies, if you don't set up the right place therapies, fees, fees, fees ...

GUPTA: Right.

WILLIS: want to know what you're paying for.

GUPTA: Gerri, you know, this is going to come up a lot because people are talking about healthcare insurance and healthcare costs. I hope we can have you back on the show quite a bit.

WILLIS: I'd love to help.

GUPTA: All right.

WILLIS: Thank you.

GUPTA: And make sure to tune in to her show as well. It's called OPEN HOUSE. It's right here on CNN. It's every Saturday at 9:30 Eastern and both Saturday and Sunday on "Headline News" at 3:30 Eastern as well.

On this week, we asked which topic you'd most like us to tackle on HOUSECALL. You voted for dealing with stress. And incidentally, that beat out chronic pain and vision surgery. Thanks to all who voted. And we turn now to Elizabeth Cohen with more on how stress could affect your health.


COHEN (voice-over): Heavy traffic, job pressure, kids, cell phones, e-mails, blackberries, the modern world. Do you ever wonder what all that stress is doing to you?

A survey done by the American Psychological Association finds the majority of working adults are concerned about their level of stress. And research shows they have good reason to be, because while some people thrive in the pressure cooker, some may burn out or end up with long-term health problems.

CHARLES RAISON, DR., EMORY MIND-BODY PROGRAM: There's good evidence that it's a big contributor, job stress, to muscular skeleton problems, carpal tunnel, feelings of a lot of problems in the upper body, headaches., a lot of sort of non specific medical symptoms. There's good evidence that people that are under job stress are more likely to develop hypertension. And then there's a lot of interesting findings showing that the immune system is also affected by job stress.

COHEN: The physical harm caused by job stress, especially heart disease, is so well acknowledged that in New York and several other states, it's considered a work-related injury.

NIECA GOLDBERG, DR., CARDIOLOGIST: I think we really need to start to learn how to say no and to prioritize.

COHEN: Cardiologists like Nieca Goldberg see the physical impact of stress.

GOLDBERG: It raises your blood pressure and it makes your heart race. It also raises a stress hormone known as Cortisol, that makes your arteries vulnerable to build up cholesterol, as well as making you more vulnerable to the build up of fat around the middle.

COHEN: The emotional harm of stress can also be severe. Experts say stress can set the stage for depression and anxiety. So be aware and don't be afraid to seek help.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN.


GUPTA: You also e-mailed us your questions. So we decided to do something new and take them to a stress expert. Dr. Charles Raison of Emory University's Mind Body Program, whom we just saw in Elizabeth's report.

Now this first e-mail question is from Pamela in Ontario. She asked the common question, why do we get so tired when we get stressed out?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHARLES RAISON, DR., EMORY MIND-BODY PROGRAM: Pam has a great question. Because you know, everyday stress is usually about small things. Why should it make you feel so tired?

Your brain and body have been wired through, you know, millions of years of development. Your body doesn't know that it's everyday stress. It's reacting to somebody honking at you on the freeway or these little stressors as if -- it's a make or break life or death situation. And that's not productive.

But when it's activated in response to something really dangerous, it produces energy so you can run or you can fight. That's good. If you're stuck in traffic, if somebody's kind of shouting at you, the exact same systems are activated that use up the energy in your body. They leave you feeling tired.


GUPTA: Patil in New Jersey asks this. "Everyone has stress in their daily life but how can I determine if this is harming my health before it's too late?" So what are acceptable stress levels?


RAISON: If your body and your emotions are showing the signs of stress, what are those signs? If you've got high blood pressure, if your heart is beating too rapidly, if your blood sugar is on the high side, if you're gaining weight, if you're overweight, if you're having trouble sleeping, if you feel anxious all the time, or you're feeling depressed a lot. So an acceptable level of stress would be something that would bring your life into line, into a place where you don't have those physical symptoms or those emotional symptoms anymore.


GUPTA: And we asked Dr. Raison to wrap it all up. So what are some of the best tips to beat stress?


RAISON: Let me give you two general tips. One is focus on things that you can do briefly that are relaxing. Because relaxing things -- tune -- they turn down the stress system. They're good for your health. Naps in the afternoon, even brief naps. Taking brief but targeted breaks from all the activity to clear your mind.

The other thing you can do is actually is to sort of toughen up your stress system by exercising it. And exercise is the best way to do this. It toughens your stress system and helps it better cope with the kind of things that the modern world tosses at you.

GUPTA: Now still to come on HOUSECALL, it's your chance to ask me some questions. Today's "Ask the Doctor" e-mail, well, it gave me something to chew on. But right after this break, find out why eating together as a family is more important than just catching up with one another. Stay tuned. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: We're back with HOUSECALL. Let's check in with Judy Fortin. She's here with this week's medical headlines. Judy?

JUDY FORTIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Sanjay. Here's one more reason to kick the habit. Smoking leads to increased risk of Alzheimers and dementia in people 55 years and older. A new study out this week found that current smokers are 50 percent more likely to develop these devastating conditions compared to those who have never smoked and people who have quit.

An estimated 2.4 million children in the U.S. could have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD, but fewer than half receive treatment new research finds. A study of more than 3,000 children shows only 32 percent of those who meet the diagnostic criteria receive medication, although treatment is more likely in older children.

ADHD is marked by inattention and hyperactivity, inappropriate for one's age. Study authors say the condition is underdiagnosed.

Doctors have released an autopsy of wrestler Chris Benoit's brain. What they found is damage in his 40-year-old brain resembling the sort you'd see in an 85-year-old. That's raising questions about what caused Benoit to kill is wife and child and then himself.

Now Sanjay, you're a neurosurgeon and you've seen the brain scans. What was so surprising about them for you?

GUPTA: Yes, you know, it was really remarkable, Judy. We actually have some of the slides. They actually did the autopsy, as you know. They got Chris Benoit's brain. Let me show you something here.

First of all, this image over here on the left is normal brain. And these cells, they sort of have a normal border around them. You can tell that.

On this side, which is Chris Benoit's brain, these brown clumps, first of all, sort of jagged edges. These brown clumps represent deposits of protein that sort of muck up the brain. These various proteins can actually make it difficult for him to store memories, to translate signals back and forth through the brain. Pretty remarkable to see these sorts of images. And again, as you said, Judy, this is what you'd expect to see in an 85-year old. And this is much more of a normal brain. So something clearly was going on in his brain there.

FORTIN: I'm sure we'll hear much more about this story coming up in the future.

GUPTA: And there's much more to come on HOUSECALL. You know, one thing we've really gotten away from in this country is eating with our families, but it might be a good thing. There's new research out there that might surprise you. Stay tuned.


GUPTA: We're back with HOUSECALL. A fit nation may start at the dinner table. New research shows that children of families that sit down and eat together may have a healthy edge later in life.


GUPTA (voice-over): Remember the classic American family dinner? Everyone sitting down at the same time every night. Today, it's not so common. But the Lee family makes sure it's a priority.

Crystal and Wayne both work but manage to have dinner with their daughter Erin. Their strategy, prepare meals ahead of time, freeze them, and reheat during the week.

CRYSTAL LEE: If I had to prepare a meal, we probably would not eat until 6:30. And then Erin has homework.

GUPTA: Erin's glad for the home cooking.

ERIN LEE, STUDENT: Sometimes the stuff that you eat every single day at restaurants is greasy, first of all. And they're salty.

GUPTA: And they're eating better foods.

WAYNE LEE, ERIN'S DAD: We try to select foods that are lower in fat and high in fiber.

GUPTA: University of Minnesota researchers questioned 1,700 high school students on their eating habits and found those who ate with their families had more fruits and vegetables, fewer sodas, and most sat down for breakfast. More importantly, they discovered that the same teens continued those healthy lifestyles into adulthood.

NICOLE LARSEN, UNIVERITY OF MINNESOTA: Those teenagers who were eating with their families, seven or more times per week when they were in high school, had almost a full serving more of fruits and vegetables when they were young adults.

GUPTA: And for families who can't always eat together, nutritionists say a couple family meals, even on weekends, can help young people develop better eating habits.


So even the small changes can make a big difference for families. Just some food for thought.

Straight ahead, our new ask the doctor segment. You get to ask me some questions. And I've been given something to munch on. Stay tuned.


GUPTA: It's time for our new segment called "Ask the Doctor." We hit the streets to find out the medical questions that are on your minds. Here's a question that a viewer had for me.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My question is if I swallow chewing gum, does it really stay in my stomach for seven years?


GUPTA: Well, I'm sure you're not the only one who's been wondering about that. We get that type of question quite a bit here.

Well, here's the good news. You can chew on this. Gum does not sit in your stomach for seven years. And it's not harmful if swallowed.

It's true now the body can't digest the synthetic fibers used to make gum, but if you do swallow it within a few days, it's going to pass harmlessly through your body, if you know what I mean.

An interesting note as well, the American Dental Association says chewing sugar free gum can actually help your mouth produce saliva, which can help rinse acid off your teeth. So chewing certain types of gum might actually be good for you.

Well, unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today. Remember, this is the place for the answers to all of your medical questions. Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Stay tuned now for more news on CNN.