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Health in 25 years…

2nd December 2011
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The Guardian asked a series of leading figures with expertise ranging from technology, energy production, architecture, fashion and medicine to make their predictions on how the world will change in the next 25 years.

Interestingly, it wasn’t only the section on health that made predictions about disease and diet - advances in technology, food production, population, even social media and video games can all affect our health. Below is a summary of what we can expect in the years to come.

Vaccines

Tachi Yamada, president of the global health programme at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has predicted that in the next few years we will have eradicated polio once and for all. To date we have eliminated 99% of the polio in the world thanks to millions of volunteers, mass immunisation campaigns and improving the health systems of low income countries, but Yamada predicts that the good news won’t stop there. Vaccines for diseases such as measles and rotavirus, which are currently available to wealthy countries, will soon be affordable and available to those in developing countries. To date more than 5 million deaths have been prevented due to providing immunisation to poorer countries and in the next 25 years this work will expand, bringing lifesaving vaccines and hope to millions of people across the world.

Yamada also expects that there will be major advances in other area such as diagnosing and treating TB and the eradication of malaria. She also predicts we will have an effective means for preventing AIDS infection. With the recent encouraging results of the RV144 vaccine trial that has taken place in Thailand she believes that an AIDS vaccine is possible and hopes that within the next 25 years we will make progress toward ridding the world of the threat.

Social Media and Gaming

There has been research that suggests social networking sites and the internet more generally, may be changing people's brains. It is claimed they may shorten attention spans and may even affect the structure of the brain with a possible link between facebook ‘friends’ and grey matter in the brain. As Naomi Alderman, novelist and games writer puts it “with the multifarious delights of the internet, spending 20 hours in the company of one writer and one story needs motivation”.

Whether it affects the way we think or not, social media and networking sites like twitter, facebook and google+ are poised to become more popular in the years to come.

Video games are also predicted to change in the next 25 years.

In the early days of gaming, games like cards and chess were the games of choice. Games were puzzle based and solitary.

In recent times, we have seen the more popular games become collaborative, working in groups on joint missions. Jane McGonigal, director of games research & development at the Institute for the Future in California predicts we will increasingly see collaboration in games. McGonigal predicts gaming will become increasingly integrated into society with innovative games that can treat depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder helping to work on our minds and cognitive capabilities emerging over the next 20 years.

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology opens up a world of possibilities in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

Scientists are already working on nanoparticles that can deliver drugs to precise points in the body, so there is less waste and a patient suffers fewer side-effects. Nanoparticles can be used to help diagnose diseases and analyse tissue samples.  Richard Jones, pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Sheffield predicts in the next 25 years we will learn more about intervening in our biology at the sub-cellular level and nanotechnology will give us hope of triumphing over intractable diseases like Alzheimers.

With an ageing population more and more people will be affected by diseases like Alzheimers, and Jones believes that nanotechnology is likely to play a key role in advances in preventing and treating this disease.

Diet

By the year 2030 our population will be approaching 9 billion and we will need to be producing 50% more food than we are now to avoid starvation and wars over resources.

There are many likely outcomes to emerge from this: developed countries are likely to increase national production to reduce reliance on imports and the developing world faced with increasingly poor soils due to climate change will embrace genetically modified crops to produce grain. In the UK there is likely to be steep increase in the price of meat, meaning many people will have to reduce their consumption of meat. From a health perspective this is likely to create a food underclass which survives on a carbohydrate and fat heavy diet whilst the wealthy can afford protein. With high fat diets being linked to diseases such as diabetes and cancer, this would be likely to widen the gap in life expectancy between the richer and poorer in society.

Advertising

We have already seen the first country enforce plain packaging for cigarettes when Australia passed a law earlier this month and many other countries are currently discussing the option of banning advertising of cigarettes. Russell Davies, head of planning at the advertising agency Ogilvy predicts over the next 25 years, we will begin to see more and more products sold in plain packaging. Davies believes there are many items the government will decide we should not be consuming because of the impact is has on healthcare or the environment. Rather than muster the political will to ban these products outright, Davies predicts we will see the emergence of many of these products in plain white packaging with a generic typeface.

The Health Service

Many predictions have been made over the years about the future of Healthcare in the UK, but many have proven to be way off the mark.

Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of the Young Foundation,  believes this is because Health systems are generally quite conservative.

"That's why the more radical forecasts of the recent past haven't quite materialised. Contrary to past predictions, we don't carry smart cards packed with health data; most treatments aren't genetically tailored; and health tourism to Bangalore remains low. But for all that, health is set to undergo a slow but steady revolution."

Mulgan predicts we will all begin to feel less healthy, when in fact life expectancy is actually increasing by three months every year. This will be due to us being more aware of the things that are bad for us and what could be going wrong with our health, and also partly because more of us will be living with a long-term condition due to an aging population.

Spending on healthcare will continue to increase but he predicts we will want stronger action to influence health.

The US Congressional Budget Office forecasts that US health spending will rise from 17% of the economy today to 25% in 2025 and 49% in 2082 reflecting the increase in demand and increase in population that is predicted.

Mulgan predicts the current governments ‘nudge’ idea will prove to be too weak to radically change people’s deep set habits and behaviours and that ‘shove’ or ‘push’ methods will emerge, with cities trying to reshape whole environments to encourage people to walk and cycle.

By the year 2030, Mulgan hopes mental health may at last be treated on a par with physical health. He predicts some of the biggest impacts in this area may be achieved from lower-tech actions, such as meditation in schools or brain gyms for pensioners.

As for healthcare provision, Mulgan believes that healthcare will begin to look more like education in the coming years. With the current drive to make people take responsibility for their own health by living healthy lifestyles and managing their own conditions and technological advances, he believes that GPs are likely to prescribe you courses that you can access from home.

"Your GP will prescribe you a short course on managing your diabetes or heart condition, and when you get home there'll be an e-tutor to help you and a vast array of information about your condition."

Mulgan’s final prediction is that the general hospital may one day face its demise. The current government plans to move more care into the community and away from general hospitals, as care in the community is often more efficient, and more convenient for the patient, this is a trend that is likely to continue and strengthen over the coming years. As Mulgan points out however, hospitals hold a great deal of power, public attachment and nostalgia and for that reason it may be another 25 years before we see the healthcare model drastically change.

 

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