Annual Checkup: 10 Health Stories That Defined 2018
Photo: Mikroman6/Getty Images
Here, we look back at the top news and breakthroughs that affected our health and well-being.
1. Canada Got Pot
You can’t beat cannabis as the Number One health story of the year.
Canada became what the CBC has called “the largest legal marijuana marketplace in the world” on Oct. 17. The historic bill legalizing recreational use of the drug and cultivation of the plant at home was passed by Parliament on June 18th, making the nation only the second after Uruguay and the first G7 country to make cannabis legal.
Congratulations came our way.
“Canada’s decision to legalize marijuana is a grand progressive experiment,” observed The Guardian.
Cannabis also quickly became a high-stakes commodity as everybody from small-time stock market players, eager entrepreneurs and huge tobacco and brewing companies tried to cash in.
Meanwhile, ordinary Canadians had to decide whether to give it a try. Many also had to figure out the difference between TCH and CBD (one makes you high; the other doesn’t) and how and where to buy the drug (mail order only, for now in Ontario) and how and where to use it (only where smoking is allowed) and at what dosage— and also why to use it, whether as a sleep aid, for relaxation or simply to get high.
Many condos rushed to amend smoking policies or caution tenants that smoking pot was off limits anywhere in the building, including in residents’ own abodes and even on balconies. Travellers were warned that bringing marijuana across the border, into the U.S. or into Canada, is still illegal.
Edibles are expected to become available in 2019 but there’s no word yet on plans for cannabis cafes or bars or pot-friendly hotels.
2. Opiod Crisis
Every day in Canada, 11 people die from an opioid overdose.
Opiods took the lives of more than 2,000 Canadians in the first half of 2018, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Research released by the Angus Reid Institute shows that one in eight Canadians – nearly 3.5 million people – have close friends or family members who have become dependent on opioids in the last five years.
“These statistics suggest that we have not yet turned the tide on the crisis,” warns a release from the Public Health agency.
Of the reported deaths this year, 94 per cent were caused by accidental overdoses and 72 per cent of those involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin. Street drugs, such as oxycodone or heroin, are often laced with fentanyl and sold to users unaware of how lethal they can be.
Vancouver is especially hard hit by the crisis and a New Democrat Member of Parliament from British Columbia, Wayne Stetski, is calling on the federal government to declare a national state of public health emergency.
3. Medical Breakthroughs
Of three that received considerable attention, one is controversial and arguably unethical. Another seems like sci-fi. And the third is still a work in progress but could evolve into a long-awaited treatment.
First are the twin babies in China whose genes were edited while they were still in the womb. On Nov. 25, a young Chinese researcher reported that he’d used CRISPR, a gene editing tool that promises to be useful in cancer treatment. He quickly became the centre of “a global firestorm,” according to the Atlantic. “Reaction was swift and negative.”
A woman’s womb was also in play with another breakthrough. The Lancet reported on Dec. 5 that a woman in Brazil had given birth to a child after having a uterus transplanted from a dead woman. The infertile woman had received the deceased donor’s uterus last year and the healthy baby was born in December 2017.
Noting that this was the first case worldwide of a live birth following uterine transplantation from a deceased donor, The Lancet declared, “The results (open) a path to healthy pregnancy for all women with uterine factor infertility, without need of living donors or live donor surgery.”
Finally, three small studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine in September revealed that electrical stimulation of the spinal cord paired with intensive rehabilitation allowed six paralyzed people to walk or take steps years after their injuries.
“There’s a capacity here of human spinal circuitry to be able to regain significant motor control and function,” said American neuroengineer Susan Harkema. “That’s really exciting and really important.…but scientists have a lot more work to do. Who can recover? How much? How far? What type of stimulation is best? All of those questions are unanswered.”
4. It’s All About the Brain
More and important evidence in 2018 that physical activity acts as a barrier against aging and deterioration should convince everyone to make a major effort to move more in 2019.
Thirty minutes of exercise 2-3 days a week may be sufficient to minimize stiffening of middle sized arteries, which supply blood to the head and brain.
Exercising 4-5 days a week keeps the larger central arteries youthful, according to a study published in May in the Journal of Physiology.
Another study by researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine observed nearly 10,000 older adults with heart issues over a period of three years as they were instructed to control their blood pressure. During this time they were tested on various cognitive skills, including memory.
The results were striking since they provided solid confirmation that lowering blood pressure also lowers the risk of both mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and probable dementia.
And the journal Neurology reported on Dec. 19 that just 6 months of walking may reverse cognitive decline.
Walking and other types of moderate exercise may help turn back the clock for older adults who are losing their mental sharpness, reported Duke University researchers.
The study focused on older adults who had milder problems with memory and thinking skills. The researchers found that six months of moderate exercise— walking or pedalling a stationary bike—turned some of those issues around.
Specifically, exercisers saw improvements in their executive function—the brain’s ability to pay attention, regulate behaviour, get organized and achieve goals. And those who also made some healthy diet changes, including eating more fruits and vegetables, showed even bigger gains.
The effect was equivalent to shaving about nine years from their brain age, said lead researcher James Blumenthal
5. Food for Thought
E. coli anyone? Food insecurity was a big issue this year. Does anybody really trust the supermarket signs that say the romaine lettuce came from a safe area? And on December 16th came word of an expanded recall by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Included, along with romaine, are certain types of cauliflower and lettuce due to possible E. coli contamination.