Advances in medical science have dramatically improved our ability to understand, diagnose, treat and prevent disease. People today live longer and are healthier than at any point in human history. But new challenges to our health relating to our lifestyles, ageing, growing population, and climate change, also need to be tackled.

The transformation of human health

The ongoing development of new drugs, surgical techniques, diagnostic technologies and medical implants has led to unparalleled improvements in our health. Someone born today can expect to live 25 years longer  than a person born in 1950. Insights into genetics, neuroscience and nutrition are giving us new tools to tackle health problems. 

But our longer lives and lifestyles are leading to other diseases such as dementia, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. Antimicrobial drug-resistance also poses a global threat, while the spectre of new infectious diseases emerging and quickly spreading around the world has been brought into sharp focus by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Climate change will bring new challenges to our wellbeing and the people working to keep us healthy.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw unprecedented scientific collaboration as part of the global effort to tackle the disease. Intensive research on the biology of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the rapid development of vaccines against it undoubtedly helped to control the pandemic and save lives. Yet, the long-term impact of the disease, and the decisions made to contain its spread, are still being felt today by individuals, societies and entire economies. 

Yet, the threat has not diminished.  However, the growing human population and international travel is only increasing the risk posed by new emerging infectious diseases by making it easier for them to spread. Existing threats such as Ebola, influenza, zika, and other coronaviruses require heightened attention, while climate change will see infectious diseases spread to new areas.

The Royal Society and other scientific academies around the world have highlighted the need for better global surveillance of infectious diseases, along with improved planning, cooperation and infrastructure to ensure future pandemics can be dealt with effectively. 

Meanwhile, a powerful tool against infectious diseases – antimicrobial drugs – are being left increasingly ineffective as bacteria, fungi and viruses evolve resistance to them. Without alternatives to the dwindling number of antimicrobial treatments, drug-resistant infections will pose a growing threat to humanity. 

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the most recent pandemic to help the world be better prepared in the future. A report by the Royal Society concluded that public health measures such as lockdowns, social distancing, travel restrictions and facemasks might play an important role in pandemic responses going forward.

From life support systems, pacemakers and scanners that peer inside the human body, to new drugs, vaccines and joint replacements, medical technologies can change the fortunes of patients and save lives.

Devices that can monitor and stimulate the nervous system of patients, known as neural interfaces, are among those that hold great promise. Already used in cochlear implants, the rehabilitation of stroke patients, and the treatment of chronic pain, they have potential to deliver innovative monitoring and therapies for a wide range of health conditions like dementia. While the full potential of these “electroceuticals” is still some way off, this fast-evolving field is not without its risks and ethical hurdles. 

Artificial intelligence could also become a growing part of healthcare as it is used to help screen for patients with undiagnosed health problems or identify new ways of diagnosing disease.But as data becomes an ever more important part of healthcare, so too will the need for technologies that enhance the privacy and protect the personal information of patients.

Emerging genetic technologies such as rapid DNA sequencing and genome editing may also offer new ways of improving human health in the decades to come, but they also raise important ethical, social and regulatory questions. The Royal Society is committed to ensuring how these technologies are used and their safety in medical applications is fully explored

Nutrition plays an important role in our health.  Undernutrition, a lack of vitamins and minerals, and obesity affect more than 2.5 billion people around the world, creating a significant burden of poor health. 

While our modern food systems can produce a wide variety of foods though out the year, around 2.3 billion people experience moderate to severe food insecurity – meaning they were unable to reliably access or afford adequate food. 

As we face the challenges of climate change, our food systems will come under increasing pressure. To ensure a healthy future for humans and the planet, our diets may need to adapt. 

Genetically modified crops could also have a role to play by helping to boost key nutrients in foods and helping to improve yields by making plants more resistant to disease, drought and flooding. Insights into how the microbes living inside our bodies affect our health and the way they respond to our diets could also become an ever more important aspect of our wellbeing.

The Royal Society's Living Landscapes project is exploring how it will be possible to produce the food we all need while reducing the impact agriculture has on biodiversity and the climate.

The UK’s demographic and health landscapes are undergoing a profound transformation characterised by a steadily ageing population and the rising prevalence of health conditions associated with older age. Despite improvements in life expectancy – by 2040 the number of people aged 85 and over in the UK will double to 2.6 million – healthy life expectancy has not kept pace. This means there is an increasing period of ill health at the end of people’s lives, a period that has risen over the past few decades to over 11 years.

Caring for an ageing population is therefore one of the biggest clinical challenges facing the NHS and health systems around the world. One approach being explored to address this challenge is research into the possibility of delaying the onset and progression of multiple ageing-related conditions. This would have the effect over enabling people to live more of their life in good health, and less of it in poor health.

The Royal Society’s project Increasing life expectancy: the policy implications of geroscience explores how the emerging field of geroscience – a scientific discipline at the intersection of basic ageing biology, chronic disease and frailty – could meet this challenge, delivering significant benefits to individuals, the health care system, and society. 


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