In the twentieth century, humanity got a handle on many of the infectious diseases which had previously ravaged our lives – at least in developed economies. Tuberculosis went from being one of the biggest killers to something today that practically nobody has heard of. And it was all made possible by advances in sanitation and antibiotics as well as vaccinations.
But just as those diseases have ebbed, a bunch of new health problems has cropped up. What’s more, they’re not so much 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 in the future, humanity is going to have to take a more holistic approach to managing health.
Many public health officials like to think that they’ve got the tools they need to combat pandemics. They believe that with the right approach, a repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic which wiped up nearly 100 million people will never occur.
Unfortunately, modern technology is creating the perfect environment for deadly pathogens to flourish. The combination of modern, intensive animal farming with liberal use of antibiotics is creating an environment in which new strains are being churned out on a regular basis. Antibiotics are actively selecting for traits that are resistant to our only current defense. And the proximity of humans and animals is making it more likely that animal-only diseases jump over and infect people.
We’ve already seen this happen half a dozen times this century so far already. 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, and 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 its causes all manner of 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: the majority of steel works 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 to clear the atmosphere of pollution once it hit Western countries. But the data today shows that all the soot and cancer-causing particles which come out of chimney stacks in China make their way around the whole Northern Hemisphere, carpeting most of the Western world.
The other policy blunder was the drive to get 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.
The need for people to get up and move around has declined throughout the twenty-first century. Most physical jobs have already been replaced by machines, 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.
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 a number of 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 that 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 feelings of depression.
Equally, much of the anxiety we see today has been linked to the fact that technology now means that we’re always connected. Research has shown that people who check their phones more often 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 see most often 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 rises in the number of cases. Global food chains have already penetrated these markets, and it won’t be long before these countries begin to Westernize their food models.
Feature photo: Air pollution can lead to deteriorated lung health. Photo via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.