Are you ready for a little good news for a change? According to a recent study conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington titled "The Global Burden of Disease," globally, health is improving and life expectancy is rising. According to the study, the world population gained more than a decade of life expectancy since 1980. The current number: 69.0 years in men and 74.8 years in women.
The study analyzed 249 causes of death, 315 diseases and injuries and 79 risk factors in 195 countries and territories between 1990 and 2015 and showed a large decline in death rates from communicable or infectious diseases. The rate of people dying from cardiovascular disease and cancers has also fallen. But these gains are far from uniform across nations and continents.
According to Reuters, the study also revealed that while healthy life expectancy had increased in the vast majority of countries studied, it has not risen across the board as much as overall life expectancy. When looking at health span as opposed to life span among the world's wealthier regions, for example, North America was shown to have the worst healthy life expectancy at birth for both men and women. Yes, we are living longer, but living with the consequences of more years stricken with illness and disability.
Seniors today, not surprisingly, constitute the fastest growing portion of society. We have never had so many living centenarians as we currently have. And, as you may have seen in the news recently, a current study is now suggesting that we have reached the upper limit of human longevity — estimated to be about 115 years. The record for human longevity currently belongs to Jeanne Calment, who passed away in a nursing home in France on August 4, 1997 at the age of 122. Experts consider her a rare exception.
"We cannot break through that [115 year] ceiling," Dr. Jan Vijg, an expert in molecular genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and author of the life expectancy study, recently told NPR. "The take-home message essentially is this whole ever-increasing life expectancy of humans cannot go on."
The debate among scientists as to whether there's a limit to life span is not a new one. And not all agree with the current study's conclusions. Science describes the underlying biology of the aging process as the accumulation of damage to DNA and other molecules. Our bodies are wired to repair this damage, but, in the end, it becomes too much to fix. Dr. Vijg and others believe it's better to focus not on extending our life spans, but lengthening our years of healthy living; with the hope that with healthy habits and advanced drug treatments some of the biological damage that comes with time can be repaired.
Yet others believe it's time we look at the way we are attacking the problem and begin making changes to the process. At present, science is geared to combat diseases essentially one at a time. Little attention and investment is being made into looking at ways to fight the underlying causes of aging. Find that answer, and it would be a game changer.
Some scientists are conducting a range of research to try to do just that, including approaches such as studying the genes of multiple family members who live unusually long lives. Others are trying to identify beneficial substances in the blood of young people that might improve their chances of having a long life moving forward.
Meanwhile, the medical world's choices of antibiotics to treat disease and slow aging are thinning out. To confront this problem — and the fact that few truly novel antibiotics have made it to market since 1980 — scientists have at last begun turning more and more to Mother Nature and prescriptions from the past in finding needed reinforcements.
According to a recent report by Ferris Jabr of the New York Times, this pursuit has given rise to a relatively new field of study — "ethnobotany." A historically small and obscure offshoot of the social sciences, this area of study focuses on the ways indigenous peoples use plants for food, shelter, clothing, art and especially medicine. Many in this field of study are now trying to use the knowledge they have gained of botanical treatments long overlooked by Western medicine; to mine their secrets toward finding answers to current threats to public health. At the top of that list is the increasing number of disease-causing bacteria that are rapidly evolving immunity to existing antibiotics. Without effective antibiotics, common bacterial diseases that are curable today could become impossible to treat. According to the New York Times report, resistant bacteria are already responsible for 700,000 deaths a year globally. This number may reach 10 million annually by 2050 if effective treatments are not found.
"Nature is a superchemist," Simon Gibbons, a medicinal phytochemist at University College London reminds us. Think penicillin, an antibiotic that most famously came from fungi.
Since the 1970s, the large pharmaceutical companies turned away from nature as a source of antibiotics, diverting their focus and finances to the field of synthetic drug development. Yet it's hard to argue with the historic power of plants as effective organic drug factories.
"The kind of evolution that happens in living things gives rise to unusual chemistry that is not straightforward to synthesize," says Gibbons. "...It's been doing this for a lot longer than we or even mammals have been around. Plants have been doing this for about 400 million years."
Maybe this is an opinion that comes with being someone who's been on this planet a good while, but it's about time science and pharmaceuticals begin doubling down on the past.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.