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Senior Citizens May Have Been Smart to Delay on Cell Phones: Use May Effect Brain

Study finds mobile phones do effect brain activity but consequences unknown - see video

Feb. 22, 2011 – Senior citizens, the age group that has been the slowest to adapt to cell phone use, may have been right in exercising caution, suggests a new study. The report in the February 23 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association says 50 minutes of cell phone use increased brain activity in the region closest to the phne antenna.

The low-level radiation from the phone increased the brain glucose metabolism, which is a marker for brain activity. Consumer Reports also published a report in January on this topic - How risky is cell-phone radiation? See more about the CR report below this news story.

"The dramatic worldwide increase in use of cellular telephones has prompted concerns regarding potential harmful effects of exposure to radio frequency-modulated electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs),” say the authors of the report in JAMA.


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“Of particular concern,” they say, “has been the potential carcinogenic effects from the RF-EMF emissions of cell phones. However, epidemiologic studies of the association between cell phone use and prevalence of brain tumors have been inconsistent (some, but not all, studies showed increased risk), and the issue remains unresolved."

These researchers were also motivated to pursue the study because studies performed in humans to investigate the effects of RF-EMF exposures from cell phones have yielded variable results, highlighting the need for studies to document whether RF-EMFs from cell phone use affects brain function in humans.

The randomized study, conducted between January 1 and December 31, 2009, by Nora D. Volkow, M.D., of the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., and colleagues, was aimed at determining if cell phone exposure affected regional activity in the human brain. It included 47 participants.

Cell phones were placed on the left and right ears and brain imaging was performed with positron emission tomography (PET) with fluorodeoxyglucose injection, used to measure brain glucose metabolism twice - once with the right cell phone activated (sound muted) for 50 minutes ("on" condition) and once with both cell phones deactivated ("off" condition).

Analysis was conducted to verify the association of metabolism and estimated amplitude of radiofrequency-modulated electromagnetic waves emitted by the cell phone. The PET scans were compared to assess the effect of cell phone use on brain glucose metabolism.

The researchers found that whole-brain metabolism did not differ between the on and off conditions.

However, there were significant regional effects. Metabolism in the brain region closest to the antenna (orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole) was significantly higher (approximately 7 percent) for cell phone on than for cell phone off conditions.

"The increases were significantly correlated with the estimated electromagnetic field amplitudes both for absolute metabolism and normalized metabolism," the authors write.

"This indicates that the regions expected to have the greater absorption of RF-EMFs from the cell phone exposure were the ones that showed the larger increases in glucose metabolism."

"These results provide evidence that the human brain is sensitive to the effects of RF-EMFs from acute cell phone exposures," the researchers write. They add that the mechanisms by which RF-EMFs could affect brain glucose metabolism are unclear.

"Concern has been raised by the possibility that RF-EMFs emitted by cell phones may induce brain cancer. ... Results of this study provide evidence that acute cell phone exposure affects brain metabolic activity. However, these results provide no information as to their relevance regarding potential carcinogenic effects (or lack of such effects) from chronic cell phone use."

"Further studies are needed to assess if these effects could have potential long-term harmful consequences," the authors conclude.

Consumer Reports expert says test conservative

Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumer Reports, notes that the test used in the study was fairly conservative, since people weren’t talking during the test, notes the senior editor of Consumers Report, Doug Podolsky, in a blog today.

“Radiation increases when the cell phone is sending an audible signal, and also when you’re talking,” said Hansen. “So this study mimics simply listening to a muted voice for 50 minutes. That’s not normal cell phone use, unless you have a very talkative friend and you have laryngitis.”

Podolsky also reports, “Some observational research has suggested that some cell-phone users might have a slightly increased risk of certain types of brain tumors. But a spokeswoman for the Food and Drug Administration said in an e-mail that the Agency evaluates the ‘weight of scientific evidence,’ and concluded that ‘heating is the only confirmed mechanism by which radiofrequency energy interacts with biological systems.’”

He writes she also said, “… a large body of scientific literature demonstrates that the exposure limits in place protect against adverse thermal effects.”

And he reports a representative of CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade association, said in an e-mail that “the peer-reviewed scientific evidence has overwhelmingly indicated that wireless devices, within the limits established by the FCC, do not pose a public health risk or cause any adverse health effects.” (The Federal Communications Commission, which also regulates cell phones, declined to comment on the report, Podolosky writse.)

Editorial says maybe more brain functions are altered

The authors of an editorial in the same issue question of these findings may be a marker of other alterations in brain function from radiofrequency emissions, such as neurotransmitter and neurochemical activities?

"If so, this might have effects on other organs, leading to unwanted physiological responses. Further studies on biomarkers of functional brain changes from exposure to radiofrequency radiation are definitely warranted," write Henry Lai, Ph.D., of the University of Washington, Seattle, and Lennart Hardell, M.D., Ph.D., of University Hospital, Orebro, Sweden.

They also say, “An important question is whether glucose metabolism in the brain would be chronically increased from regular use of a wireless phone with higher radiofrequency energy than those used in the current study. Potential acute and chronic health effects need to be clarified. Much has to be done to further investigate and understand these effects."

The study was carried out at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) and was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and by infrastructure support from the Department of Energy.

How risky is cell-phone radiation?

Consumers Report, January 2011

Consumers Report, January 2011 issue coverThe Food and Drug Administration says the "weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems," including brain tumors from the low-level radiation that phones emit in normal use, according to a report in Consumers Report in January.

“Yet in the past year San Francisco lawmakers have enacted an ordinance requiring that cell phones disclose the amount of radiation emitted, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) announced plans to push for radiation warnings on all cell phones,” according to CR.

Phone manufacturers are required by federal law to package every cell phone with information about its specific absorption rate (SAR) values. The higher the SAR value, the more radiation the body absorbs. But there's usually no explanation provided with those numbers, not even the fact that all phones sold have levels lower than what the FDA considers a concern.

In September 2010, the Federal Communications Commission revised its Web page to address some of the confusion about SAR values. The updated FCC fact sheet ( states that SAR values indicate the maximum possible exposure from a given phone, not the varying levels of exposure in normal use. So a phone with a lower reported SAR value isn't necessarily safer than one with a higher value, and SAR values can't be used to reliably compare cell-phone models. The FCC says it requires SAR values only to ensure that maximum radiation exposure falls below the level at which experts agree there could be adverse health effects.

Still, consumers are caught in the middle, trying to resolve conflicting messages from regulators and legislators. (The latter include those in the European Parliament who have called for stricter limits on exposure to cell-phone radiation, which have been criticized by many scientists.)

Consumers Union believes a number of measures would benefit consumers:

   ● The U.S. needs a national research program on cell phones and health. Rep. Kucinich has called for such an effort as part of his cell-phone safety proposals.

   ● The FDA and the FCC should step up their efforts to provide better and more visible guidance to consumers on the risks, if any, of cell-phone radiation.

   ● The FCC should mandate that the SAR information included with phones be more consistent. The information that's currently provided varies greatly in its format and detail, as the photographs below illustrate.

>> Read the complete report and updates in CR

>> More on Cell phones and services at Consumer Reports




Buying Advice

>> Click to read the complete blog by Consumer Reports editor Podolsky

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