People sure like to complain about modern medicine.
Unfortunately, these issues can easily distract us from how much better things have become over the last hundred years.
In this post, we’ll take a look at some phenomenal statistics showing just how much things have improved over the last 100 years – lowering all causes of death by nearly half, and almost doubling our life expectancy.
Finally, we’ll look at a short documentary video outlining 200 years of medical history, which tracks the progress of three of the biggest medical topics of our age – surgery, cancer, and AIDS.
Statistics – Top 10 Causes of Death
Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine began celebrating their 200th year of publication. With that celebration comes a sort of celebration of medicine itself. Medical journals inform Doctors all over the world about current research, helping to spread knowledge quickly. NEJM is perhaps the oldest continuously published medical research journal, and since they began publishing in 1812, medicine has changed drastically. And these changes, for the most part, have been positive.
With all our concerns over the medical system these days, I think it’s about time someone showed us the glass half full.
For instance, check out this article published June 21st, 2012: ‘The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine’ 1. It has an interactive chart describing how the top 10 causes of death have changed from 1900 to 2010 in the United States.
Check it out, and play around with the chart. It’s really interesting!
- Overall, it appears the total mortality (death rate) for all causes of death have nearly halved over the last 110 years. Life expectancy has nearly doubled.
- Areas of success predominantly include infectious diseases, especially of the respiratory system.
- Areas of concern remain heart disease and cancer. They’ve become bigger problems.
- Deaths by influenza and pneumonia were once highest cause of death, now just a small blip on the graph (but still one of the top 10). Similarly, tuberculosis was once second on the list, but it’s been off the list since the fifties.
- Heart disease quickly became the number one cause of death – but peaked around the 60’s, and has been declining ever since. Still number one though.
- Cancer has increased steadily over the last 100 years. It’s said that cancer has risen because more people are living long enough to die from it. Still, even cancer deaths have dropped slightly over the last 10 years.
- On the whole, everything on this list is heading downwards, except things that can be attributed to the fact that the population is simply getting older.
Interpret these facts as you will, but I for one am thankful for these advances in medicine. Personally, I had a bad case of pneumonia as a child. My respiratory system still isn’t great, I have minor asthma and am sensitive to many allergens, but on the whole I’m pretty healthy. I probably wouldn’t be typing these words today if it was born in 1900, because I would have had the number one cause of death at the time!
So how have we come to this? – 200 Years of Medicine
Here’s an excellent 45 minute documentary outlining 200 years of medical history, also produced by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The documentary outlines progress in three major topics: surgery (especially sanitary techniques), cancer (especially leukemia), and HIV/AIDS (and it’s social implications):
Health professionals will probably find it an especially nerdy treat. Everyone else, it’s still super informative and useful information on how medical science progresses.
- Medicine was once dirty and brutal, with many techniques barely well researched. Information was scarce. We’ve come a long way!
- Surgery was insane. If you look even farther back into history, it’s even crazier. Ever heard of trepanning 2 – arguably the first surgical technique ever? Look it up.
- Now surgery is an elegant, elaborate procedure at the forefront of medical and technological science – and can have dramatically life saving effects.
- Cancer can be cured – but all cancers are different, and very complex. The science goes right down to the smallest biochemical compounds of our bodies, a scientific domain in which we barely understand even the tip of the iceberg. But there is hope.
- HIV/AIDS isn’t the death sentence it once was. And by lobbying, protesting and generally kicking up a big stink against pharmaceutical companies, it seems we can get them to act right, reducing costs and improving availability. Yes, pharmaceutical companies do crappy things in the name of profit – but this doesn’t mean “mainstream medicine is evil”, it means we need to get louder and hold them accountable.
The recent history of medicine is a hopeful story. In fact, I would go as far as saying modern medical science is one of the great triumphs of the human race.
Of course, there are still many issues in the field of medicine, ranging widely from incurable diseases to issues in professional practice.
But we cannot lose sight of how far we’ve come, nor can we lose hope for the future.
Things are getting better. Let’s hope it continues this way!
Jones DS, Podolsky SH, & Greene JA (2012). The burden of disease and the changing task of medicine. The New England journal of medicine, 366 (25), 2333-8 PMID: 22716973