The big health stories for 2023, some of them happy ones

Here’s a jolly New Year thought. We came through an entire year without COVID-19 hogging the limelight.

Most COVID stories – new discoveries, the mysteries of long COVID – are filling up medical journals.

Otherwise, they have largely slid off the mainstream front page.

Sure, occasionally we get a little twitchy, especially in the media coverage, about a new variant and what it might do to us.

But nah!

We have other problems to deal with.

Here are some of the top health stories from the World Economic Forum from the past year:

Strokes could lead to 10 million deaths a year by 2050, research suggests.

That would amount to an increase in deaths of about 50 per cent, over the next 27 years.

More than half of the world’s population will be overweight or obese by 2035 without significant action, according to a new report.

Almost all of the countries expected to see the greatest increases in obesity in the coming years are low- or middle-income countries in Asia and Africa.

Cutting pollution could slow the spread of superbugs.

By 2050, up to 10 million people a year could be killed by antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) bugs.

This means that the kinds of bacteria that can’t be killed by antibiotics will be killing as many people as cancer.

Pollution from sectors such as pharmaceuticals, health care and agriculture are releasing antimicrobials and resistant microbes into the wider environment.

This increases the transmission, spread and development of antimicrobial resistance.

But those stories are talking about the future

That’s true. What they’re really about is how our health and survivability as a species are tracking. If it’s a mess, overall, it’s one of our own making.

The poor shape we’re in right now, and how bad it’s going to get – including the fast-emerging impacts of climate change – is the biggest health story there is.

Boy. It doesn’t feel much like Christmas, does it?

Where’s the good news?

The good

All right, all right. There were some good news stories in health this year. And some promoted good feeling and hope.

Half a million African children die each year from malaria. Will a new vaccine save them?

A new malaria vaccine – cheap to produce and highly protective according to clinical trials – is hoped to severely cut the death toll.

Malaria mainly kills little kids – nearly half a million a year.

Reducing case numbers and deaths has been stalled for eight years. So there’s a measure of desperation at play here.

The new malaria vaccine, called R21/Matrix-M is designed specifically for the protection of small children.

According to a report from WHO, the vaccine has “high efficacy when given just before the high transmission season”.

The back story, as reported by TND, is well worth a read.

Secrets of the super-agers

Ageing stories tend to be depressing, even when they have an upside.

Remember the robot dogs and cats that helped improve symptoms of depression and anxiety in dementia patients? So cuddly and well behaved, especially when the batteries run out.

The brains of super-agers may have an inbuilt resistance to shrinking and losing function.

More upbeat (even aspirational) is the story of the super-agers – people in their 80s whose brains seem to age, and shrink, much slower than average.

They can recall everyday events and life experiences as well as, or even better, than someone 20 to 30 years younger. They also suffer less brain cell loss and do better on memory tests.

This was proven seven years ago.

But a big question remained unanswered: Do the abilities of super-agers arise from coping mechanisms and strategies? Or is there difference in the way their brains are built?

Research, published in July, suggests that indeed super-agers are inherently resistant to the ageing processes that bedevil the rest of us.

Can we get what they’re having? That’s the big question.

Short answer: Down the track, maybe.

Read our report here.

And here is a good news bonus: Short naps appear to slow the rate at which our brains shrink. See here.

Exercise more effective than medication or counselling

Dealing with depression can be an uphill battle. Try running at it. Photo: Getty

The mental health of our young people took a dive during the pandemic.

Waiting lists for psychologists and psychiatrists has left many people untreated.

What are they to do? A suggestion they take up jogging might callously smack a little of “let them eat cake”.

However, exercise, particularly higher-intensity exercise, appears to be a more effective treatment reducing symptoms of depression.

This is in cases of mild to moderate depression or anxiety. (Severe cases are often difficult and complex to treat and require a clinical response.)

On average, according to a high-quality study from the University of South Australia, physical activity appears to be 1.5 times more effective than standard treatments. That is, better than medication or psychotherapy.

Could it be true? Check out our full report.

Save money and feel a little superior

Those fish oil supplements you’ve been thinking about… well, science is catching up with them.

Over the past five years, a number of large, randomised controlled clinical trials concluded that omega 3 fatty acid supplements don’t meaningfully prevent premature death.

Nor do they protect against cancer, or benefit your heart.

Even worse, other studies found that omega-3 fatty acid supplements were associated with an increased likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation.

Instead of a fish made out of pills, try bona fide oily fish for omega-3 fatty acids.

The most recent study, published in August, found that most supplements are of poor quality anyway.

Please note, however: Omega-3 fatty acids from eating oily fish two to three times a week will in fact deliver those heart health benefits.

If a piece of salmon is a little too hard on your pocket, try canned sardines. They’re more tasty and not so muddy in texture as they used to be. You can pick them up for about $2.

So … why is this a good news story? Because it’s good to know what works to improve your health and what doesn’t.

Read our report here.

Global action on loneliness

Loneliness is a world-wide problem. It came to the forefront during COVID-19 lockdowns.

In July, we reported that Australia has been hit hard by a loneliness epidemic.

The issue came to prominence during COVID-19 lockdowns – but wasn’t confined to them. It’s more the case that COVID served to expose an entrenched problem.

Last month, the World Health Organisation recognised and elevated loneliness and social isolation as global public health priorities.

“Across all ages and regions, loneliness and social isolation have serious impacts on our physical and mental health, and the wellbeing of our communities and society,” WHO said in a statement.

The US surgeon general has said the impact of loneliness on mortality is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

A WHO commission on social connection will investigate the issue for three years.

Which is good news, right?

The bad

Despite endless encouragement from our doctors, media reports and health sites, we’ve actually gone backwards. We’re eating less fruit and vegetables, and more junks.

How do we know this?

Between 2015 and 2023, thousands of Australians have been filling out a questionnaire online, sharing their eating habits.

The 235,268 adult participants seem to have damned themselves with their honesty.

Since 2016, Australians have been eating fewer vegetables. Photo: Getty

This was the CSIRO Healthy Diet Score, a project designed to gain a snapshot of who is eating healthily, who is not – and what foods are causing us trouble.

The final report, released this week, suggests that many of the participants, in between typing their answers, were snacking on cakes washed down with booze.

Or as the CSIRO put it, the survey found that “the nation is failing when it comes to embracing a balanced diet, with the national diet score falling well below a healthy level”.

Read our full report here.

Deaths from prostate cancer  up by 25 per cent

For the first time, more than 10 Australian men are dying from prostate cancer every day. And 70 men are diagnosed with the disease daily.

This was revealed in data, released in August, from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) that shows there has been a 25 per cent increase in the number of deaths from prostate cancer since 2007.

More men should be talking to their doctor. Many prostate cancers go undiagnosed.

The AIHW says 3507 men died from prostate cancer in 2022 – and that 3743 will die in 2023.

The AIHW estimates 25,487 Australian men will be diagnosed this year, an increase of about five per cent in just 12 months.

The data reveals that prostate cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in 2023 – ahead of breast cancer and melanoma.

It’s predicted to be the third most common cause of cancer-related death in 2023 – behind lung cancer and colorectal cancer.

Read more here.

Type 2 diabetes has tripled in Australia

There are more than 4400 amputations every year in Australia as a result of diabetes.

This is the second-highest rate in the developed world. Geez, only second highest?

But don’t worry. At the rate we’re going, we’ll win the gold medal before you notice your foot has gone.

Research from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition has found that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has tripled over the past 30 years in Australia.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Obesity is the main driver of type 2 diabetes and, as you may have heard, an obesity epidemic has gained speed over the past 30 or 40 years.

Read our full report here.

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