Thanks to modern medicine, dangerous diseases such as polio have been all but eliminated from the Western hemisphere. Antibiotics have turned life-threatening illnesses into nuisance infections. But while researchers dream up cures for what ails us, new threats keep erupting. Below are some of the fastest-growing health concerns.
According to a report by the UCLA Cntr. for Health Policy Research, diabetes cases increased by 26 percent between 2001 and 2007. Most experts link this rise to unhealthy diet and insufficient exercise. If those trends persist, a predicted one third of the population will develop diabetes in the not-too-distant future. “People are born with a genetic tendency for the disease, but when we consume enormous amounts of high-calorie foods and have a sedentary lifestyle the condition is more likely to manifest sooner,” says E. Ann Myers, an endocrinologist at St. Mary’s Medical Cntr. in San Francisco.
The U.S. Department of Education estimates that autism is growing nationally at a rate of 10 percent a year. In California, the rate is even higher. According to one source, enrollment of autistic students in special education more than doubled between 2001 and 2007. What causes the condition is still unknown, but theoretical explanations include environmental toxins, viral infections, metabolic imbalances and genetic vulnerability.
New data suggests this autoimmune condition, which prevents the body from metabolizing gluten (found in foods containing wheat, barley or rye), is showing up at a rate four times higher than 50 years ago. Experts suspect as many as 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease, but because symptoms can be subtle and vary from person to person, most don’t even know it. Scientists do agree cases are on the rise but have not determined why.
The Cntr.s for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 3.6 percent of U.S. children had asthma in 1980; by 2003 the number had increased to 5.8 percent, which represents a 60 percent rise in incidence. As it turns out, clean living may be the cause. “It’s called the hygiene hypothesis,” says Michael Reid, an immunologist in private practice in San Francisco. “The theory goes that when people live in an environment that’s too sterile, it can prevent the immune system from maturing adequately.”
Thyroid cancer is not nearly as common as skin, breast or lung cancer—but the latter three are on the decline, while thyroid cancer cases are diagnosed with ever-increasing frequency. According to the National Cancer Institute, cases rose by 6.5 percent between 1997 and 2006, a faster increase than for any other form of cancer. There is no definitive explanation, but among the possible factors are environmental pollutants, obesity, iodine deficiency and increased exposure to CT scans.