Is the New Medicine in Time for You?

More of us live longer and healthier lives, free from violence, pestilence and famine than at any time in World history. For that to continue all that is required of us is to exercise the individual and collective wisdom to look out for ourselves so we can be around to enjoy what life on Earth and the fruits of our inventive minds have in store for us.

Collective ‘smarts’

Let’s start with the collective. Despite the fact that we retain the means to destroy the world with nuclear weapons, we have not actually done so – yet. If nuclear terrorism remains a potential threat it is not a planet-killer in the way an all-out nuclear war would be.

We now live in a world that is proportionately less violent than any time in the 170,000 years or so that mankind has walked the Earth. Could it be we are actually evolving? It’s too soon to say….

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Of course we can still pollute and cook the planet to the extent that life on Earth, if it survives, returns to a Hobbesian state of ‘nasty, brutish and short’ for all but the most fortunate of us. If that remains a worrying possibility, for the moment at least there is hope we can avoid or take action to prevent it. Again, it’s too soon to say.

The second great achievement is that we all live much longer now - and not just in rich countries. Life expectancy worldwide has grown dramatically since 1970 from 61.2 to 73.3 for women and 56.4 to 67.5 for men in 2010. In some poorer countries life expectancy improved as much as 20% in the last 30 years.

This dramatic increase in lifespan coincides with such fundamentals as the availability of clean water, falls in levels of malnutrition and infectious diseases,

like malaria and tuberculosis, and most particularly the drop in conditions affecting mothers and young children, such as measles, respiratory infections, diarrhea, etc. Even HIV deaths have been contained and are now falling.

For this we have to thank the UN along with various other international bodies and public health programs, honourable mention here to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals launched in 2000 to reduce deaths from such causes by 50% to 75% by 2015. By 2010 we had achieved a 13% reduction. We still have a long way to go but still, a 20% reduction by 2015 is a big step in the right direction.

Despite such significant, albeit qualified progress, there remain two major caveats to bear in mind.

While we are making progress in the fight against infectious disease there remains a huge amount to do and we can’t afford to let up now, particularly in the face of drug-resistant strains of infection and threat of pandemic. A fundamental demographic change also has to be faced as the world’s population lives long enough to develop the chronic non-infectious conditions that afflict the developed world - the cancers, heart failure, diabetes, which they now suffer in worrying numbers.

Second, if we are to lead long and healthy lives what’s required goes way beyond the strictly medical, involving as it does questions of public health, government and international co-operation, that run the entire range of environmental and socio-political issues. And yet, in the past 30 years particularly in the developed Anglo-world, there has been a strong, mean-spirited and ultimately foolish movement to roll back the remarkable achievements of public health that have served us so well since the 1860s. In view of the challenges, but much more to the point, the stunning opportunities that lie ahead of us, choosing life in a gated community behind razor wire in a Green Zone someplace seems somewhat circumscribed, if not selfish and ultimately stupid.

Call to Action….

Individually, once again as with the collective, all that’s needed is the intelligence to look after ourselves, exercising sufficient self-restraint in our life-style choices so we don’t succumb to the chronic and degenerative diseases that afflict most of us as we age. Easier said than done, I know, but the time is fast approaching when increasing numbers of us who are not genetically programmed for a life-threatening disease, who exercise regularly, eat wisely and do not over-indulge unduly in self-destructive habits, can expect to live to 120 years old and still enjoy the experience, retaining marbles and mobility before succumbing to a short final illness.

Now, unless you are under 30 and by conviction if not definition indestructible, that is a prospect that entices, even if one succumbs aged 90, surely? All we need do is exercise some self-restraint and believe there’s a point in doing so.

And, if the will is weak or malfunctioning genes kick-in, all is most definitely not lost because modern high-tech medicine is increasingly coming up with the answers to help us overcome chronic disease and, best of all, they are starting to come on stream. For some of us it is now a case of staying alive long enough to take advantage of what’s in the modern medicine chest. We’re talking here of the new diagnostics, personal gene sequencing with personalized treatments and medication, stem cell therapies, new delivery systems and nano medical technology and lots more in the pipeline. All of which increasingly allow us to identify, prevent and treat the chronic conditions that debilitate and kill us.

That broadly is the opportunity open to us. The big question however, is to what extent will this promise of a better life be available to us all and not just for the rich?

These procedures are currently banned or restricted in most major developed countries and only available in places like Russia, Mexico, China, Brazil, the Gulf States and Thailand, often headed up by or in collaboration with top research doctors from the US, Europe and elsewhere. They are not covered by insurance and are expensive. Oversight and regulation vary widely and potential for exploitation by greedy or incompetent practitioners remains a danger. As with any fast developing new area of medicine there are risks. Increasingly however, public pressure will overcome bureaucratic caution and the new medicine will move progressively into the mainstream.

Your Project Health

The project of your health and wellbeing is now an increasingly complex matter requiring direct participation on your part and sourcing reliable information is key to this, if you and your family are to make the right choices.

Apart from making sensible life style decisions and informing yourself, probably the soundest decision you can make is to select a doctor who practices what is called integrative or functional medicine as your consulting partner. That is a fully qualified MD, who diagnoses and treats the body as a whole and is thus in a position to prevent as well as treat illness. Your wellbeing demands more than the treatment of symptoms via drugs and surgery or the ministrations of an alternative healthcare practitioner, however talented. Proper medical oversight is always required, with prevention as the key to good health with comprehensive diagnostics an essential component in achieving this.

In columns to come this correspondent aims to take a firmly consumerist look at both the big and the small questions that affect our wellbeing, in the firm belief that a level playing field is in the interests of all. Feel free to pitch in.

(Adrian Batten is an ex-Fleet Street journalist and all-round media man has spent the last 40 years in South East Asia. He now divides his time between Hong Kong and Bali, where he lives with his wife, French designer Nicole Moja)