In the twentieth century, humanity got a handle on many infectious diseases that had previously ravaged our lives – at least in developed economies. Tuberculosis went from being one of the biggest killers to something practically nobody has heard of today. And it was all made possible by advances in sanitation, antibiotics, and vaccinations.
But just as those diseases have ebbed, many new health problems have cropped up. Moreover, they’re not a result of evolution or foreign biology but an outgrowth of human technology. Medicine can cure many of the diseases of the past, but it’s clear that humanity will have to take a more holistic approach to manage health in the future.
Many public health officials think they have the tools to combat pandemics. They believe that a repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic, which wiped up nearly 100 million people, will never occur with the right approach.
Unfortunately, modern technology creates the perfect environment for deadly pathogens to flourish. The combination of modern, intensive animal farming with the liberal use of antibiotics creates an environment where new strains are regularly churned out. Antibiotics are actively selecting for traits resistant to our only current defense. And the proximity of humans and animals makes it more likely that animal-only diseases jump over and infect people.
We’ve already seen this happen half a dozen times this century. SARS spread quickly before it was brought under control, and so too have new strains of bird and swine flu. Fortunately, the death toll from these diseases has been relatively limited. But repeated outbreaks may become more global; if they do, the entire world could suffer the consequences.
Lung Disease From Air Pollution
Air pollution was supposed to be getting better. After all, we’ve had decades of regulation on polluting industries. But thanks to globalization and policy blunders, air pollution remains stubbornly high, even in developed countries, and it causes all lung problems.
One of the ways that politicians have tried to reduce air pollution historically is by shipping polluting industries overseas. The first part of the plan went well: most steelworks and coal power plants went overseas to places like China and the Far East.
But the second part of the plan, localizing that pollution, didn’t. It was believed that natural air currents would help clear the polluted atmosphere once it hit Western countries. But today’s data shows that all the soot and cancer-causing particles from chimney stacks in China make their way around the whole Northern Hemisphere, carpeting most of the Western world.
The other policy blunder drove people to buy more diesel cars because of their lower CO2 profile. This might have been a good policy from the perspective of climate change, but when it comes to lung health, it was a disaster.
Particles in diesel fumes can get into the lungs and cause conditions like asthma, cancer, and COPD. And this has led to an epidemic of poor lung health in cities like London, Toronto, and New York.
Sadly, water pollution is also a reality. Find out if you qualify for VA benefits because of contaminated water exposure.
The need for people to get up and move around has declined throughout the twenty-first century. Machines have already replaced most physical jobs, and the vast majority of workers earn money by selling their cognitive skills. As a result, physical activity in the workplace is hitting all-time lows.
At the same time, the type of activity we spend most of the day doing is at odds with our basic biology. We spend hours in cramped chairs leaning over computers and phones, typing emails, and filling out spreadsheets.
Even when we’re moving around, we’re prone to text neck if we text while walking. Spinal issues, therefore, are becoming a major problem for the majority of the population and a leading cause of morbidity.
Solutions, like standing desks and walking desks, have been proposed as a solution to sedentary job roles. But these don’t actively solve problems of poor spinal alignment and posture resulting from how we interact with our devices.
Perhaps things will improve once concepts like smart glasses become more mainstream. Several technologies for pain management are also emerging.
Anxiety and Depression
The rate of anxiety and depression among the adult population has exploded in recent years, especially since the start of the century. There are several explanations for this, but the leading thinking at the moment is that it has to do with the modern pressure to meet expectations.
Many people, through no fault of their own, find themselves trapped in situations they have no control over, and these situations get in the way of them making a success of their lives which, in turn, leads to depression.
Equally, much of the anxiety we see today has been linked to technology now means that we’re always connected. Research has shown that people who check their phones and interact more frequently on social media are also more prone to experience anxiety. Connectedness, it seems, has its downsides.
Global Type II Diabetes
Non-insulin-dependent diabetes or type 2 diabetes is perhaps the quintessential lifestyle disease. It’s the disease we often see whenever a country transitions from its traditional setting to a western environment. Increasing diabetes prevalence reflects fundamental changes in the food supply and more sedentary working patterns. As countries move from eating their traditional fare to food made in factories, the prevalence of diabetes goes up.
According to current estimates, there will be more than 400 million people worldwide with diabetes by 2030, nearly double the number today, thanks to the growing number of newly rich. Places like Brazil, Russia, China, and East Asia are expected to see the greatest rise in cases. Global food chains have already penetrated these markets, and it won’t be long before these countries begin to Westernize their food models.
Top photo: Air pollution can lead to deteriorated lung health. Photo via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.