The top health stories of 2022: The breakthroughs and the oddities

2022 was the year that unborn babies gave kale the thumbs down.

2022 was the year that unborn babies gave kale the thumbs down. Photo: Durham University

One of the most fascinating aspects of health reporting is seeing the extent to which psychology plays a role in our wellbeing – and how we cope with issues big and small.

A couple of weeks ago I reported on the growing, compelling evidence that adopting and following a strong life-purpose will protect your heart and make you much less likely to die early.

The research has found that “life’s purpose” is a modifiable lifestyle factor – like exercise, diet, smoking and drinking booze. In other words, getting a purpose in life is something you can take up – as a preventative health measure – or abandon.

How to fix a bad back

The most effective way of treating chronic back pain involves a psychologist. Photo: Getty

In October, we reported on a breakthrough Australian study that found chronic back pain – a common cause of disability worldwide – is best treated with a combination of cognitive-based therapy and personalised physiotherapy.

The role of a psychologist almost doubles the effectiveness in treating pain.

In September, I wrote about a major Harvard study that found people who were found to have psychological distress “were more likely to experience impairments in daily life a year after COVID-19 infection”.

Which brings us to the biggest public health story of the year: How we shifted into the mindset of COVID-normal.

Party time!

It’s completely understandable, after last year’s painfully slow and frustrating vaccine roll-out (so slow to gain international attention), that there would be some jubilation as most of us received at least two doses.

In 2022, we shifted from hangdog anxiety to the joy of a successful jail break. Photo: Getty

On the one hand, we believed in those vaccines. We felt protected enough to let our hair down.

Meanwhile, state governments abandoned tough social restrictions, opened the cage and let us run free.

Which was great!

This grabbing hold of life, in itself, took on some poignancy given that the apparent decline of COVID-19 from public consciousness may have been a sign that we can only deal with one main crisis at a time.

Just as life returned to “normal”, Russia invaded Ukraine (raising the real threat of nuclear war), the economy burst open like a thrown pie, and climate change was no longer a threat looming in the future.

The higher the death rate from COVID-19, the more we seemed to turn off. Photo: Getty

But COVID-19 hadn’t gone away.

From the beginning of the year, up until May, about a thousand people a month were dying. (It would soon go up to 1500 a month.)

As I wrote at the time:

“You could fill a couple of Boeing 747s with that many people. Politicians would be lining up to join a national prayer meeting if those planes went down in quick succession.”

No politician was talking about it. Because the great Australian populace weren’t talking about it either.

As associate professor Paul Williams, a political scientist at Griffith University, told me at the time: “COVID management isn’t an issue for the electorate. They’ve moved on.”

There is something profound in this. Maybe one day we’ll get around to pulling it apart. Put the nation on the couch, so to speak.

Maybe 2022 was simply all about the need to ration our fears and save ourselves.

The breakthroughs

There were some powerful breakthroughs this year.

In January, after 40 years of failed attempts, a genetically-modified pig heart was successfully transplanted into the chest of a man who had run out of options.

David Bennett, 57, wasn’t the most gracious heart recipient, nor was he perhaps the most likeable, given that in his youth, he had gone to prison for stabbing a man seven times.

But for a while he continued to live a life that was otherwise beyond saving. In the last stages of terminal heart disease, he’d been ruled ineligible to receive a human heart.

Mr Bennett lived for two months. It was widely perceived that he died because his body rejected the pig heart. That wasn’t true. He died of heart failure, that may simply have been the consequence of his much degraded body.

This was a breakthrough that will eventually revolutionise the transplant sector.

Some hope for Alzheimer’s patients

As I reported in October, an experimental drug has “unambiguously” slowed cognitive decline and brain damage in Alzheimer’s patients.

The drug ‘lecanemab’ – developed by Tokyo pharmaceutical company Eisai, and biotechnology firm Biogen in Cambridge, Massachusetts – is a monoclonal antibody that removes clumps of amyloid proteins thought to kill brain cells and result in memory loss.

The new drug isn’t a cure, but it extends the functional life of a damaged brain. Photo: Getty

Esteemed neuroscientists have fallen over themselves to declare this an “historic” moment.

The data has, in fact, held up. But it’s complicated. While it’s true that lecanemab reduced cognitive and functional decline by 27 per cent in the trial, in real terms this is a modest clinical impact.

Also, about 20 per cent of trial participants showed abnormalities on their brain scans that indicated swelling or a small amount of bleeding.

These aren’t insignificant side-effects. Still, the drug might be quickly approved by regulatory bodies in some domains. And desperate patients will gladly try it out for themselves.

The real achievement? It’s a real step forward. Maybe in another year, there will be another.

Worrying trends


The number of adults – aged 40 years and older – living with dementia worldwide is expected to nearly triple globally in less than 20 years.

This is the prediction of a Global Burden of Disease study, the first to provide forecasting estimates for 204 countries worldwide.

By 2050, 153 million people will be living with dementia worldwide, up from 57 million in 2019.

This will be due primarily to population growth and population ageing.

Gastro-intestinal cancers

More young people are getting gastrointestinal cancers. No one knows why. Image: Getty

Research from Flinders University has found a steady and “significant” increase in the number of young people under 50 suffering from gastro-intestinal cancers.

The increase has occurred over the past three decades.

Notably, more young people are also suffering from oesophageal, stomach, and pancreas cancers.

It’s guessed that nutrition is involved, including the role played by poor quality diets, obesity, and drug and alcohol use.

The threat of other viral pandemics

Monkeypox was feared to be the start of an onslaught of viral plagues. Photo: Getty

The big worry is that the COVID-19 pandemic is simply the beginning of an onslaught of viral plagues. And for a short while this seemed to be coming to fruition.

In July, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the monkeypox outbreak (now known as mpox) a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

Mpox is a nasty disease, but there have been relatively few deaths outside Africa.

The United States has seen just under 30,000 cases, but the outbreak there has lost steam.

The federal government plans to end the mpox public health emergency in January.

The most fun study for 2022

In September, it was a delight to report that a world-first experiment had found that fussy eating begins in the womb.

The researchers showed that late-stage unborn babies tend to give kale the thumbs down.

Baby in repose, then caught responding to kale. Image: Durham University

To be precise, foetuses were recorded on 4D ultrasound screwing up their faces and looking very unhappy when exposed to the flavour of kale.

With 4D ultrasound the image is continuously updated and reveals foetal movement in real time, whereas 2D and 3D ultrasounds capture still images.

The finding was part of an experiment from Durham University that “recorded the first direct evidence that babies react differently to various smells and tastes while in the womb”.

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.