Biggest health stories of 2012

The year's top health headlines, from federal health policy to celebrity controversy.
Health.com // Health.com

This has been a very busy and occasionally dramatic year in the world of health. In addition to the usual crop of research news, food recalls, and celebrity headlines, 2012 saw a landmark court ruling on health care, controversy over everything from supersize sodas to cancer philanthropy, and the saga of a young woman from Georgia who lost three of her limbs to bacteria but won the nation's heart with her optimism and pluck.

So grab a cup of coffee -- according to a major study released in May, it might just prolong your life -- and click through our recap of the biggest health stories from the past year.

--By Amanda Gardner, Health.com

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New-look school lunches

After years of public outcry about the poor nutritional quality of public-school lunches, Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled the first revisions to the National School Lunch Program in 15 years. Now on the menu: fruits and veggies every day, skim milk, more whole grains, less fat and sodium, and portions tailored to a child's age.

Not everyone was happy with the change, however. Some students, angry at the smaller portions and blander food, staged school-lunch boycotts and registered their displeasure online in Facebook groups and YouTube videos.

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Paula Deen diagnosed with diabetes

Celebrity chef Paula Deen, famous for the fat-laden dishes she serves up on the Food Network, kicked off the year by announcing she had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes three years earlier.

Deen endured some criticism for keeping her diagnosis private while continuing to push buttery, high-calorie fare (being overweight is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes). Even more unseemly, she timed her announcement to coincide with the launch of a promotional campaign for the diabetes drug Victoza.

With this speed bump behind her, Deen is now concocting lighter versions of her signature recipes and says she has lost 30 pounds.

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Mystery illness in Le Roy

In January, TV cameras descended on the tiny town of Le Roy, N.Y., after more than a dozen girls and at least one boy at the local high school suddenly became afflicted with twitches, spasms, and uncontrollable outbursts reminiscent of Tourette's syndrome.

No one -- not even Erin Brockovich, who came to investigate at the request of one of the mothers -- could figure out what caused the symptoms. Environmental toxins, perhaps? Psychological stress manifesting as physical symptoms? Even "mass psychogenic illness" -- better known as mass hysteria? The root cause remains a mystery, but the students gradually recovered with the help of antidepressants, antibiotics, and therapy.

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Red meat shortens lifespan

We've heard many times before that too much red meat is bad for us, but this study of more than 100,000 people still got the nation's attention. For the first time, researchers estimated the effect of red meat on a person's lifespan -- and the news wasn't good.

On average, each additional serving of saturated fat-filled red meat was associated with a 13% higher risk of dying during the 28-year study. Processed meat products such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami were especially hazardous. The antidote? Eating more fish, poultry, whole grains, and low-fat dairy may lower your risk of dying prematurely, the study found.

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Komen for the Cure vs. Planned Parenthood

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which has become one of the world's largest and most visible breast cancer charities thanks to its road races and pink ribbons, set off an uproar when it announced in January that it would no longer fund mammograms and other prevention services run by Planned Parenthood.

Critics of the move accused the foundation of caving to political pressure from groups opposed to abortion (one of the many services Planned Parenthood provides). Although the foundation's leaders denied this, the controversy and widespread outrage led them to reverse their decision within a matter of days.

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Court upholds Obamacare

In June, in one of its biggest rulings in years, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many observers when it upheld the constitutionality of the highly controversial Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- better known as "Obamacare."

As a result, the provision requiring all Americans to obtain health insurance or face a fine -- the so-called individual mandate -- will go into effect as planned on January 1, 2014. Other pieces of the law are already in place, including those that allow young adults to stay on a parent's health plan until age 26 and that prohibit insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

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Aimee Copeland's fight

One of this year's saddest stories -- Aimee Copeland's battle with necrotizing fasciitis, a.k.a. flesh-eating bacteria -- turned into one of the most heartwarming.

The saga began when the 24-year-old received a deep cut on her leg after falling from a homemade zip line. The cut opened the door to bacteria, and within days Copeland's leg had been amputated, her major organs had failed, and she was put on life support. She ultimately lost both of her hands and her other foot.

Yet throughout this ordeal Copeland's remarkably upbeat attitude was an inspiration to many. "I love life," she told Katie Couric in September. "It's a beautiful thing... even more so now."

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New York City soda ban

In September, at the behest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Board of Health approved a controversial measure prohibiting all sales of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces. Industry associations and many concerned citizens cried foul, calling the measure a violation of consumer freedom.

The soda ban -- the first of its kind in the nation -- is merely the latest Bloomberg-led public health initiative to address the city's obesity problem. (Half of all New Yorkers are overweight or obese.) The city has already banned trans fats from restaurant food and requires chain restaurants to disclose calorie counts on their menus.

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Coffee drinking tied to longer life

Is coffee good for our health? Although the research on America's favorite morning beverage has been mixed overall, coffee drinkers received a big boost when the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published the largest-ever study on the topic in May.

A daily cup (or cups) of coffee, the study found, appears to be harmless and may even lower the risk of dying from chronic diseases such as diabetes. People who drank six or more cups of coffee per day were up to 15% less likely than non-coffee drinkers to die during the study, and even a one-cup-a-day habit was associated with a 5% to 6% lower risk.

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