Healthcare, medicine & pharmaceuticals

Longevity trends in the UK

According to the annual compendium of health statistics produced by the Office for Health Economics (a UK research institute), the life expectancy of men is increasing faster than that of women and this is primarily due to lifestyle changes over the last 30 years. For example, the number of men dying from cancer has dropped by 21% since 1974, versus a 10% drop for women. More strikingly, the level of male deaths from lung cancer (presumably primarily caused by smoking) has halved over the same period, while the rate for women has increased by 45%.  In some respects male and female lifestyles seem to be converging - for example more women are now drinking to excess - but it is unlikely that the average male lifespan will exceed that of women in the foreseeable future. One reason for this is increasing male obesity levels. In 1994 15% of the male population in the UK was obese compared to 18% of women. The figures are now 21% and 22% respectively. The average lifespan of a boy born in Britain in 2002 is 76.2 years while that of a girl is 80.7 years.
Ref: The Guardian (UK) 16 September 2005, 'Changing lifestyles help men reduce the longevity gap', J.Carvel.

Medical tourism in India

Globalisation has been one of the most powerful trends for quite a while,  but some of its effects are still relatively new.
Take medical outsourcing.  This is a trend whereby various services that used to be conducted in your local hospital (or at the very least your own country) are now being outsourced to low cost countries such as India much in the same way that banks are outsourcing their call centres. An example is that hospitals in the US that are sending X-rays to India overnight via the Internet for initial screening. A linked trend is medical tourism where patients take themselves off to another country (eg India) to have world-class surgery at bargain basement prices. Interestingly, according to the UK based Taj Medical Group, it is time saving that attracts most patients to this idea not cost savings.
Ref: Weekly Telegraph (UK) Issue No. 736. 'Briton's flock to India for fast, cheap surgery', P.Foster.
See also Wired (US) August 2005, 'In-N-Out Surgery'

Intergenerational health

It's well known that the health of a mother during pregnancy affects the health of the baby, but new research suggests that what a baby's forebears ate and how they lived may also have a significant impact. For example, a study by the Centre on Ageing at Chicago University (US) found that, for girls, the age of your father at the time of conception is a greater influence on how long you'll live than the age of your mother. For boys it's irrelevant. Another example is some Swedish research published in the European Journal of Human Genetics that found that environmental factors, such as whether or not there was a famine at the time of your father's puberty, had significant effects on diabetes rates in later generations. If this is true the implications are quite profound, because it's not just the health and state of mind of your own parents that influence your health, but also that of your grandparents. So looking forwards, what are the health implications for future generations of today's overweight and stressed teenagers?
Ref: The Times (UK), 20 November 2004, 'Just blame it on granny', J.Burne.

Therapeutic inoculation

Pharmaceutical companies have historically developed vaccines to prevent future infections, but a number are now developing vaccinations to treat conditions that have already taken hold and may be the result of earlier lifestyle choices. Future vaccines could therefore include shots to help people resist food, alcohol and cigarettes by helping the body to resist addictive agents such as nicotine and ghrelin.  Other future vaccines in the pipeline include jabs for cocaine addition, asthma, arthritis and high blood pressure. Obviously there are problems. For a start, it may be difficult to persuade pharmaceutical companies to invest in the development of treatments, which, if successful, may only be used once. More fundamentally, what are the consequences of modifying the immune system to fight against a perfectly natural bodily reaction?
Ref: The Times (UK) 13 August 2005, 'The burger and fags jab', S. Lister.

The body electric

It's been known since the late 1700s that the human body is awash with electricity and that muscles twitch when exposed to a static charge. Cardiac pacemakers that work by using electricity to stimulate the heart have been around for half a century, but until recently further medical developments have been held back due to the size of devices, reliability and battery life. However, thanks to developments in consumer electronics, miniaturisation and battery technology a wave of new innovations is about to be unleashed. According to some thinkers we are also on the cusp of the period in history where there is a unification of man (flesh) and machine (silicon). One of the major benefits of using quick bursts of low-voltage electricity to treat the symptoms of serious illness is that the side effects are almost non-existent compared to standard drug treatments. For example, using electricity to treat epilepsy results in a real drop in the number of seizures but side effects include little more than hoarseness and a need to clear one's throat. So what's next? As devices become smaller the opportunities increase in size, especially in the areas of muscle dysfunction and pain.

Ref: The Times (UK) 17 September 2005, 'Running on electricity', J. Burne. See also chips with everything (money section) What's Next issue 7.