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Heal Thyself

Welcome to 2009!OK, it’s that time of year again. Time to resolve to eat less and exercise more; thus, morphing our Mr. and Ms. Couch Potato figures into something more – well – human. I’ll be striving to achieve a healthier lifestyle right along with the rest of you, especially after the research I’ve done for this article. Reviewing medical discoveries from the last 100 years clearly shows that those of us living in first-world countries are the most fortunate people to have ever walked this earth. Unfortunately, our abundant food supply and all the wonderful technological conveniences we enjoy are now the greatest threat to our health.It’s difficult to comprehend the number of medical advances over the last 100 years, but here’s a little fact that should make us put down the remote and go out and do cartwheels. In 1909, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 47.8 years. Yikes! Now, many Americans can look forward to celebrating their 80th birthday. Compare a time where most physicians didn’t understand the importance of washing their hands to one where robots are used to perform surgery, and it is truly mind-boggling. Think about living when a simple cut, strep throat or giving birth were common causes of death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1909, 10 percent of all infants died before reaching their first birthday, and infectious lung disease (tuberculosis and pneumonia) was the leading cause of death. Since then, infant mortality rates have dropped 90 percent. Improvements in the standard of living and exponential advancements in medicine are the primary reasons for our increased life spans.When I say “exponential advancements in medicine,” I’m not exaggerating. In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered that colonies of bacterium could be destroyed by a simple mold – penicillin. But his findings were almost completely ignored until World War II, when the need to stop the spread of infectious diseases among troops became paramount. Fleming’s miracle drug cured battle wound infections, pneumonia, strep throat and sexually transmitted diseases. After WWII, the medical community turned its attention to finding cures for childhood diseases. Before 1950, diphtheria killed 15,000 children a year in this country. Polio left another 33,000 (mostly children) crippled or dead. After a nationwide immunization program was implemented in 1958, few children died from polio, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) or tetanus. By 1975, inoculations against measles, mumps and chickenpox became available. Within a span of 25 years, most of the diseases responsible for killing children became preventable.Ironically, the next invention credited with extending human life spans was not a drug or vaccine. It is the computer. Back in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick unlocked the secrets to the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. Their research confirmed that DNA carries life’s hereditary information. While their discovery held a lot of promise, deciphering genetic codes was impossible before computers. An all-out effort to map the human genome began as soon as computer memory capacity and speed made the daunting task possible. In January 2008, a multidisciplinary research team began a new study called “The 1000 Genomes Project.” It will create a new map of the human genome designed to isolate genetic variations found in humans. Biomedical researchers will then be able to isolate genes with natural resistance to cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and a multitude of illnesses in order to create new cures.Computers also changed how surgeons operate. Among other things, physicians now can use minimally invasive techniques to remove a gall bladder or perform heart operations. The techniques employed dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes to recover from surgery.Other groups of researchers are reverting back to old-field techniques to find substances in nature that will improve our health. But they too rely on computer power to decipher the chemical compounds found in plants and animals. Last year, a trial study of a pain medication derived from French maritime pine tree bark showed a marked reduction in pain caused by osteoarthritis. Over 40 percent of the drugs prescribed in the U.S. contain chemicals derived from plants, but only 2 percent of the earth’s plant species have been screened for their medicinal benefits, so a lot of research is still needed in this area. According to a recent episode of “Nature,” animal venom, normally responsible for killing people, is now being examined for its curative powers. Researchers found a protein in copperhead snake venom that is effective in attacking cancer cells and preventing their spread in breast cancer patients. A spray is also being developed from sea snake venom that may soon be added to all first responders’ medical kits. It promotes blood clotting and provides a means to stop excessive bleeding in accident victims.While all of this is good news, an extremely bad omen leaps off the pages of scientific journals. Dr. Arya Sharma, an obesity specialist, said, “90 percent of the medicine that we do is related to peoples’ lifestyles.” Another physician quipped, “If I didn’t have patients with bad habits, I wouldn’t need to be practicing medicine.” He certainly wasn’t being facetious. The CDC statistics below show the number of people killed by the top seven causes of death in 2005.

  • Heart disease: 652,091
  • Cancer: 559,312
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809
  • Diabetes: 75,119
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 71,599
With the exception of accidents, many of these deaths could have been prevented if people stopped smoking, reduced their caloric intake and exercised more. Even the latest study on Alzheimer’s disease shows exercise helps to prevent or slow the onset of the disease.It’s a sad fact of life; we all must die. But as scientists scramble to extend life, our bad health habits are undermining their efforts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that “between 1980 and 2000 the prevalence of overweight children doubled, and the prevalence of overweight adolescents tripled.” Soon, the new childhood illnesses may be high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, leading to a shorter lifespan than that of their parents.So, if you need an added incentive to exercise and eat right, think of your children. Make 2009 the year when you teach them, through example, how to live a healthier life.This column does not necessarily represent the views of The New Falcon Herald.

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