The biggest health news of 2011

We dug through this year’s blog posts and news releases to put together the 10 most talked about health stories of 2011. Here are the stories that made the cut

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pregnant woman with fries

1. Your pregnancy diet could determine your child's weight

We know eating well, avoiding alcohol, getting rest, exercise and avoiding stress are all key to a healthy baby and a healthy mom. But a recent study put even more importance on what you choose to put in your mouth when you're expecting and how those choices can affect your child's tendency towards obesity later in life.

The international study, which included researchers from the U.K, New Zealand and Singapore, found that a mother's diet can alter her child's DNA-a process called epigenetic change, which can lead to the child laying down more fat. And, the study showed that this process is not impacted by how fat or thin the mother is, or what the child's weight was at birth.

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brain

2. EEG detects awareness in some vegetative patients

Researchers discovered that they are able to detect conscious awareness in some patients thought to be in an unresponsive state, reported CBC News. Using an EEG machine, researchers gave commands to 16 patients considered to be in a vegetative state following brain injury, and recorded any electrical signals in their brain. Three of the patients (nearly 20 percent of those assessed) produced brain activity similar to the responses seen in healthy participants.

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cellphone

3. Cellphones classified as "possibly carcinogenic"

Cellphone bills are not the only reason consumers will want to limit their talk-time. Scientists now say that cellphone radiation could increase the risk of certain types of brain cancers, Time.com reports.

After reviewing scientific evidence on cellphone radiation and brain tumors, a team of scientists from the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has declared that hand-held cellphones are "possibly carcinogenic" to humans.

"A review of the human evidence of epidemiological studies shows an increased risk of glioma and malignant types of brain cancer in association with wireless-phone use," Dr. Jonathan Samet, chairperson of the IARC, told reporters.

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birth control pill

4. The birth control pill won't make you gain weight

Last year, the birth control pill celebrated its 50th anniversary. Despite half a century of being on the market, it's still a source of controversy, and possibly, just as much misunderstanding. It's commonly believed that the pill can lead to weight gain-and that's one of the leading reasons why some women avoid it, leading to unplanned pregnancies.

This year, two studies have been published that finally separate fact from fiction: Taking the birth control pill does not lead to increased weight. In January, researchers in Oregon released a study in Human Reproduction that demonstrated that the weight of their test subjects-rhesus macaque monkeys-remained stable during the year they were on the pill. (The wild bunch were used so that variables, such as food intake could be controlled.) Some of the obese monkeys even lost weight while taking the medication.

And more recently, a student from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, Ingela Lindh, reported on a long-term study of 1,749 women. She found that women who took the pill for more than 10 years didn't gain more weight than their peers who had never been on it.

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french fries

5. Study reveals the foods that are making us fat

Allowing yourself to eat any type of food in moderation may not be the way to weight-loss success after all. According to new research, there most definitely are good foods, which should be eaten more often, and bad foods, which should be avoided as much as possible in order to limit weight gain.

And the results of the study mean bad news for french fry and potato chip lovers, reports the New York Times. These two popular snacks led in the list of foods which cause weight gain. French fries were number one, linked to an average weight gain of 3.4 pounds over a four-year period. Potato chips were second with an average weight gain of 1.7 pounds, while sugar-sweetened drinks were linked to an average weight gain of one pound per four-year period. Red and processed meats, other forms of potatoes, sweets and desserts, refined grains, other fried foods, 100-percent fruit juice and butter were also linked to weight gain.

The study, conducted by nutrition and public health experts at Harvard University, monitored the eating habits and weight of participants over a 12 to 20 year period. With participants gaining an average of a pound a year, the study found the type of foods eaten to have the greatest effect on weight. Those participants who ate more bad foods gained weight, whether they increased exercise or not.

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woman vacuuming and cleaning

6. Every minute of exercise counts

Every little bit counts. At least that's what researchers are saying about exercise. We've previously been told that a minimum of 10 minutes or more of physical activity was necessary to be beneficial but new research from a Queen's University study suggests that any form of "incidental physical activity"-think sweeping the floor, taking the stairs, vacuuming, gardening-could add up to significant health gains. These bouts of micro-exercise could be as short as one minute.

In an article from The Globe and Mail, Ashlee McGuire, a recent PhD graduate in kinesiology and health studies at Queen's University says the benefits from these "micro-bursts" of activity should be encouraging to sedentary people who find exercise daunting.

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News: What's the No. 1 killer in Canada?

7. Cancer becomes the number one killer in Canada

It's official. Cancer is now the leading killer in Canada. StatsCan just announced the results of a 2008 study, which shows cancer accounting for 30 percent of all deaths. Heart disease is the second largest killer, causing 21 percent of Canadian fatalities annually.

Each and every one of us has been affected by the big C word. And for the first time, if you're between the ages of 35 and 84, cancer is the top cause of death.

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mamogram breast cancer

8. Breast cancer screening guidelines advise against mammograms

New guidelines for breast cancer screening suggests routine mammogram tests are not of significant benefit for women aged 40 to 49 with an average risk of breast cancer. Who's at an average risk? According to the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care, women at average risk have no previous breast cancer, no history of breast cancer in a first-degree relative such as a mother or sister, no known mutations in the BRCA gene and no previous exposure to radiation of the chest wall.

For women aged 50 to 69, CBC News reports that previous recommendations suggested a mammogram every two years, whereas that time between tests has now been expanded to every two to three years. The task force is also advising against self-exams at any age.

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man desk job back pain

9. Your desk job is making you fat

An article from The Globe and Mail notes that the average person spends 9.3 hours a day sitting. And, "people who sit for six or more hours per day are 40 percent more likely to die within 15 years compared to someone who sits less than three hours a day, even if they exercise." Those are alarming statistics, especially when you consider that exercise may not combat the health effects of sitting.

And there's more: experts say that the "pressure put on areas of the body used for sitting or lying down produces up to 50 percent more fat in those parts." An article from the Telegraph reports that even those with a healthy diet and exercise habits are affected by hours of sitting.

According to Professor Amit Gefen, from Tel Aviv University, when fat cells are exposed to static stretching (the weight we put on our body tissues), they produce more triglycerides (the major form of fat stored in the body), and at a faster rate.

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japanese flag

10. The nuclear radiation crisis in Japan

All eyes were nervously on Japan this year as the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant unfolded. Prime Minister Naoto Kan had asked that people living within 20-30 km of the plant stay indoors as radiation released by the facility's explosion wafted southward towards Tokyo. The Globe and Mail reported (via the Kyodo news agency) that radiation levels just south of the plant were at one point 100 times higher than normal (though those levels have since dropped) and that those levels are "far from fatal."

But what exactly does that mean for the people who live in affected areas? What are the health risks of exposure to nuclear radiation?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people living or working near a nuclear power accident are exposed to potentially harmful radiation through the air and contaminated food and water. Immediate health effects of high radiation levels in the environment could include burns, hair loss and acute radiation syndrome. However, the general public isn't likely to be exposed to the extremely high levels that would cause these symptoms.

The greater health concern are the long-term health effects of radiation exposure, which could include increased risk of cancers, including leukemia and thyroid cancer (risk of the latter can be decreased by taking potassium iodine pills, as many people have done in Japan).

Health risks from nuclear radiation depend on a number of variables, including time of exposure, distance from the plant and even the weather. So the exact health implications of the situation in Japan are difficult to assess at this point. And the long-term effects won't be apparent for several years.