The achievements of science, medicine and public health in the twentieth century were prodigious. America became an undisputed leader of quality medical care. There is much to be proud of and more to come.
It has been a big jump from Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the germ theory to the place we are now. His findings opened the door to antiseptic surgery, improved sanitation, cleaner water, safer food and vaccines. All of these impacted infectious diseases, such as typhoid, cholera, poliomyelitis and smallpox. Once a leading cause of death in developed countries, infectious diseases have now been upstaged by the non-infectious degenerative-type diseases, increasingly referred to as modern killer or lifestyle diseases.
Think of the many medical breakthroughs: improved surgical techniques, better anesthesia and safer blood transfusions for starters. Then, the development of antibiotics that have saved millions of lives although their overuse is producing a frightening backlash of super-bugs—resistant strains of bacteria that are often unaffected by present treatments. Or think of the advances in diagnostic technology. The inside workings of various body organs can now be visualized, measured, studied and even thought patterns and emotions can be traced as they travel in the brain.
Molecular biology and genetics are opening doors to more new worlds. Many birth defects can now be detected in advance and some can be corrected in the uterus before birth. Geneticists are learning to pinpoint predispositions to certain diseases in the DNA, and they are looking for ways to affect the outcome. In the years ahead, there is no end in sight for medical technology. As scientists seek to clone spare body parts from people’s own cells, the limiting factors may well be cost and affordability.
As a result, it may be natural to think “No wonder, people live that much longer today.” But that belief is largely a myth. For years people believed that the miracles of modern medicine were mainly responsible for extending our current life span by some 27 years when compared to those who were born 100 years ago.
The fact, often overlooked, is that around 1900 every sixth baby died before reaching the first year of life, mainly because of infectious diseases. This greatly shortened the average life span of their society. Today however, a person age 65 has very nearly the same life expectancy as a person back then who survived that critical first year of life. The average net gain between a 65-year old man then and now may be around seven to nine years, at most.
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Dr. Hans Diehl is the director of the Lifestyle Medicine Institute of Loma Linda, California, who promotes a lifestyle changes to reverse diseases. He founded CHIP, the Complete Health Improvement Program, in 1988 after conducting a four-week lifestyle change program in British Columbia in a community of about 5,000 people. About 400 people took the challenge on and became part of the first CHIP program.