Top 10 Boomer Health Stories of 2015

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Here, we look back at the top stories affecting our health in 2015.


1. Physician Assisted Death
The legal ban on physician assisted death (PAD) was struck down with a unanimous Supreme Court decision on Feb. 6, 2015.

It’s set to expire on Feb. 6, 2016, with lawmakers getting a year to rewrite the law. But the feds have requested an extra six months to figure it out.

Meanwhile In Quebec, they jumped the gun. PAD became law on Dec. 10 but was delayed by an injunction and appeal. Quebec insists that PAD is a health issue and therefore a provincial matter. The feds disagree.

The Supreme Court decision approved PAD only for Canadians with a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition (an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual, without specifying that the condition must be terminal. Only competent, consenting adults will be allowed to access PAD.

In other words, in Canada, you won’t be able to end your life with PAD just because you don’t want to get old (even though aging is terminal).

Click through for more top boomer health stories of 2015

2. Caitlin Gender, er, Jenner
The transformation of Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner into Caitlin Marie at the age of 65 opened doors for a widespread discussion of transgenderism. The new focus on transgenderism prompted Ontario to improve access to sex-assignment surgeries paid for by OHIP.

All qualified health-care providers throughout the province will be able to refer patients for this surgery starting in 2016. Previously, referrals were limited to the Gender Identity Clinic at CAMH.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins said more and more Ontarians are experiencing gender dysphoria. In 2015, there was more than a two-year wait for surgery, with a wait list of more than 1,000 people. Currently, gender-reassignment surgery isn’t available in

Ontario even for those with referrals so many patients travel to Quebec or elsewhere.
The most noticeable change for people comfortable with their gender will be the transformation of some restaurant men’s and ladies’ solo washrooms into gender neutral spaces.

3. Killer Bacon, Risky Steak
Processed meats — bacon, sausages, ham, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, jerky — cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It seems that 50g of processed meat a day — less than two slices of bacon — increases the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.

Main methods of processing are smoking, curing, or adding salt or preservatives.

Red meats also were deemed “probably carcinogenic.”

High temperature cooking of meat, such as barbecuing, can also create carcinogenic chemicals.

Processed meat is now in the same category as plutonium and cigarette smoking, but so is alcohol: all cause cancer.

However, WHO explains, this does not mean they are equally dangerous. A bacon sandwich is not as bad as smoking.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” warned WHO.

4. Braking Heart Disease

With more Canadians hospitalized for heart failure than for all forms of cancer and an average life span from diagnosis to death of 2.1 years (worse than most cancers), cardiovascular regenerative medicine has become a critical and high-profile area of research.

Scientists worldwide, including those at Canada’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, are growing heart cells in petri dishes from a patient’s own blood or tissue and also coaxing cells in the living heart itself to regenerate by manipulating growth factors.

5. Bespoke Treatments
Because of technology and genomics, personalized medicine is the latest and incredibly effective approach to precise diagnosis and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

For example, it was discovered this year that a prenatal blood test intended to find genetic flaws in a fetus can in rare cases also reveal previously undiagnosed cancer in the mother.

As well, stem cells taken from a patient and then grown in the lab can be used to test possible treatments and so guide treatment decisions for that patient’s particular genetic make-up. Another term for this customized treatment : pharmacogenomics.

6. Common OTC Drugs and a Prostate Cancer Treatment Raise Dementia Risk
Studies found that some common drugs and treatments increased the risk of dementia, including OTC sleep aids and allergy medicines such as Benadryl.

Some other antihistamines, tricyclic antidepressants, medications to control overactive bladder and drugs to relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease also block the action of a neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory.

In a study of 3,500 men and women ages 65 and older, researchers found that people who used these anticholigenic drugs were more likely to develop dementia. The risk increased along with the cumulative dose.

Taking them for three years or more was associated with a 54 per cent higher dementia risk than taking the same dose for three months or less.

Other research showed that androgen deprivation therapy for prostate cancer may double the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The treatment lowers levels of testosterone, the “male” hormone that fuels some types of prostate cancer.

Those who got androgen deprivation therapy had nearly twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s over the next 2 1/2 years as men getting other treatments.

The study used men’s medical records and so cannot prove that the treatment caused Alzheimer’s disease. But oncologists are concerned enough to investigate the connection more thoroughly.

7. Prostate Cancer
In 2105, prostate cancer was the most common cancer for men and the second leading cause of death for men with cancer. (About 2 in 5 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime; 89 per cent of them will be over the age of 50.)

About 1 in 8 men will develop prostate cancer (compared to 1 in 9 women who will develop breast cancer).

Elevated PSA levels (prostate-specific antigen) can be an indication of prostate cancer but the PSA test is still not covered by most provincial health plans, including OHIP. It has not been recommended as a screening tool, mostly because of the concern over false positives and unnecessary biopsies — but many doctors nevertheless suggest that their older male patients get tested.

A recent Canadian study did show (logically) that routinely repeating a PSA test in patients with an elevated PSA level is a way to decrease unnecessary biopsies.

Meanwhile, some aggressive prostate cancers aren’t being diagnosed early enough without regular PSA testing.

Researchers are making advances in determining which prostate cancers are best treated with “watchful waiting” and which should be treated aggressively.

One treatment approach is “suicide” gene therapy, using the patient’s own cancer cells as a vaccine.

Another approach for metastasized or resistant prostate cancer, now in clinical trial, combines abiraterone acetate, sold under the name Zytiga, with other drugs.

8. Scifi Transplants
The most extensive face plant ever undertaken gave a volunteer fireman who’d been severely disfigured in 2001 a complete new face, neck, scalp and ears. The surgery at New York University’s medical centre lasted 26 hours and left no visible scars.

It’s considered an historic medical achievement. More than two dozen face transplants have been performed worldwide since the first one in France in 2005.

Meanwhile, a human head transplant has been scheduled for 2017, a project of an Italian neuroscientist and a Chinese neurosurgeon. The team has been practicing, so far unsuccessfully, on mice and monkeys. A Russian man with a rare neurodegenerative disease has nevertheless volunteered to be the patient. But most medical scientists are calling it outlandish.

9. Brain Breakthroughs

A literal brain breakthrough was achieved at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre this fall with an experimental procedure that bypassed the brain-blood barrier non-invasively.

It was the first time that drugs could be administered to a specific part of the brain without injection or surgery. The technique involved focusing ultrasound waves to force tiny air bubblies carrying medication through the Saran wrap-like tissue that surrounds the brain as a protective barrier and into the affected area of the brain itself. It’s expected to be a more efficient, safer and more precise way of treating diseases of the brain.

The innovative procedure was used first for brain cancer but its success means that drugs for dementia and Alzheimer’s will be able to be administered this way as well.

In another development, the deep brain stimulation used for patients with Parkinson’s disease has shown promise for treating Alzheimer’s. A clinical trial is now in progress.

And a study published in The Lancet reaffirmed the importance of cognitive training, exercise, and diet in maintaining or enhancing cognitive functioning in people ages 60 to 77.

10) Slow Aging, Fast Dying
The goal now, it seems, is no longevity but remaining young as long as possible and then dropping dead before any sign of deterioration.

It’s going from extended adolescence to rigor mortis without even a moment of senescence. (Increasingly popular with boomers, extreme sports are a way to accomplish that.)

Other approaches for extending youthfulness include supplement cocktails (with or without hormones and steroids), cosmetic enhancement (surgical or insanely expensive cosmeceuticals), severely restricted diets and health foods, wearable electronics for tracking punishing exercise, and giving up sitting down.

Then, when the peak has been reached, the “give me youth or give me death” movement takes over, with 75 as the typical cut-off age.

Physician Ezekiel Emanuel kicked it off last year by writing in The Atlantic, “Why I Hope To Die At 75.” When he turns 75, he plans to stop statins and antihypertensives, and decline antibiotics. He explained that 75 was based on studies of when disability begins to overtake productivity and creativity.

British former nurse Gill Pharaoh apparently agreed. At the age of 75, in good health, she went to die at a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland.

“I do not think old age is fun,” she told reporters, “I have gone just over the hill now. It is not going to start getting better. I have looked after people who are old, on and off, all my life. I have always said, ‘I am not getting old.’”

In a pre-mortem interview, she complained to The Daily Mail that “her life was in decline as she was no longer enthusiastic about gardening, did not enjoy late dinner parties.”