8 Incredible Medical Breakthroughs That Could Transform Your Health
Tired of bad news? Just take a look at a few advances from the science and tech worlds. You’ll feel better—in more ways than one.
Headlines about new technology can be downright scary these days—are you sure your phone isn’t surreptitiously recording your deepest secrets and selling them to Russia?— but there’s really good news out there too. Innovations in areas such as genetics, telemedicine, and pharmacology are changing our health for the better every single day. Here are eight trends and developments that just might change your life.
1 You can monitor your heart with your smartphone.
You may already use your phone or Fitbit to track your steps, your sleep, or your cycle. But the next leap in digital health allows those at risk for heart disease to take a medical-grade electrocardiogram anywhere, anytime—which is possibly lifesaving, especially for the 92 million Americans living with certain forms of heart disease or the aftereffects of a stroke. Purchase the FDA-cleared KardiaMobile device ($99; alivecor.com) and download the Kardia app (free; iOS and Android). The app will guide you through a 30- second reading using the device, and the results will tell you whether your heart rhythm is normal or irregular. If it’s irregular, you may be experiencing atrial fibrillation, the most common arrhythmia and a frequent cause of stroke—and you’ll know to contact your doctor immediately.
2 You can talk to a doctor online or IRL 24/7.
If you’ve ever had a child come down with strep on Thanksgiving Day, you’ll be singing hallelujah for the rise of 24-hour medicine. In the last decade, visits to urgent care centers have increased by more than 1,000 percent. For times when you’re too sick to leave the house but not quite sick enough for the ER, telemedicine apps, such as Doctor On Demand and MDLive (free; iOS and Android), give you face time with a physician any hour of the day or night; you pay about $50 to $75 for a 15-minute appointment. And the digital clinic Maven specializes in women’s health at affordable prices. You can talk to a lactation consultant, doula, midwife, therapist, or physician, with prices for some practitioners starting at $18 for a 10-minute appointment. “Those options are great as long as there’s good coordination with your regular physician, who can keep track of patterns over the long run,” says Michael Munger, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This trend has also pushed traditional practices to increase their hours: “We understand that you don’t get sick just from 9 to 5 on weekdays, so about 80 percent of family physicians now have same-day appointments, and half have extended office hours,” says Munger.
3 An “artificial pancreas” will one day make life easier for people with diabetes.
Millions of people with type 1 diabetes have to deal with syringes and insulin pumps every day, in a constant effort to keep their blood glucose levels steady. What if they didn’t have to think about the process at all? Scientists are racing to achieve the ultimate goal of an “artificial pancreas,” a system in which a glucose monitor sends information directly to a pump, which then releases the exact amount of insulin needed—no human effort required. While we’re not quite there yet, the FDA recently approved a hybrid closed-loop system, in which a glucose monitor and an insulin pump, both inserted under the skin, communicate with each other: a step in the right direction. “With this system, the patient is still responsible for taking insulin with food,” explains Irl B. Hirsch, MD, an endocrinologist at UW Medicine in Seattle and a spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association. “But between meals, the electronic sensor talks to the pump and gives enough insulin to keep blood sugars at a steady level.” The biggest benefit is that the system keeps blood sugar levels steady between meals, says Hirsch. “The system really does minimize hypoglycemia, especially while people are asleep, and for many people that is revolutionary,” he says. So far, the system has only been tested on patients with type 1 diabetes, but in the future, the 4.5 million Americans with type 2 diabetes who take insulin may benefit from this breakthrough as well.
4 Health stigmas are melting away.
Thanks to the confessional nature of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, we have become a society that seems to share everything all the time. While this can sometimes cross over into TMI, it also means the walls of shame are crumbling around many previously taboo topics, such as mental health, sexual violence, and infertility. The result? Those who can relate feel less alone and may learn about resources they otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. Consider this: When Prince Harry spoke out about his battles with depression after his mother’s death, phone calls to mental health clinics jumped. When celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Adele talk about their postpartum depression, new moms who are up crying in the middle of the night can feel less hopeless. “We see people who are larger than life and seem to have it all together, and you go, ”Dang!“ ” says Katrina Gay, a spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “When they share their stories and experiences, it helps eliminate the stigma and the shame.” Gay adds that whenever a celebrity posts about mental health struggles, she sees an increase in calls to the NAMI HelpLine. “It’s so relatable. It gives people permission to say, ”I don’t have to pretend. I don’t have to put on a facade.“ It encourages them to seek help.” If you’re in crisis, take NAMI’s lead and call 800-273-8255.
5 Your mammogram just got a little less squishy.
In one of the greatest developments for boob comfort since the invention of the sports bra, you can now have your mammogram performed by a machine that cradles your breast on a curved surface instead of squishing it between two flat panels. Hologic’s new SmartCurve system is used with its regular 3-D mammogram machines (3-D mammos are especially recommended for the 50 percent of women with dense breasts). It makes the process a whole lot more comfortable. “The pressure is felt evenly across the breast, so you don’t get those pinch points,” says Tracy Accardi, global vice president of research and development for Hologic, who points out that many women avoid their recommended screenings because they associate mammograms with pain. More good news: The curved system doesn’t cost patients any more than the flat kind and should be covered by most insurance plans. To find a facility, go to genius3dnearme.com.
6 There’s finally a treatment just for migraines.
It’s hard to believe, but until this year, there was no medication specifically for preventing migraines, the debilitating headaches that affect 39 million Americans, most of them women. The development of triptans in the 1990s was a huge achievement, but triptans are taken after a headache hits. To try to prevent migraines, doctors had to choose from an imperfect selection of blood pressure medications, antidepressants, and antiseizure meds. “These all have side effects, and we were treating otherwise healthy young women with medications they possibly couldn’t tolerate,” says Merle Diamond, MD, president of Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago. The last big breakthrough was in 2010, when Botox injections were approved for chronic migraine. Though it has been very successful, Diamond says the treatment—typically 31 small injections in the forehead and neck every three months—is only approved for patients with headaches on 15 or more days per month. Then, this past spring, a game-changing new drug entered the market: Aimovig, which migraineurs inject once a month. The drug blocks a neuropeptide called CGRP and has been shown to reduce the number of migraines by one or two a month. The only known side effect is injection-site soreness. Three similar drugs may be released by the end of this year. “We are super excited about this,” says Diamond. “Not every patient will respond, but it is a beacon of light for many.”
7 Less-invasive tests are on the horizon.
Rather than undergoing a biopsy, you may soon be able to get screened for cancer via a simple blood test. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore are developing a new test, called CancerSEEK, that screens for eight common types of cancer, including breast, lung, and colorectal. What’s most amazing is that, for five of the cancers it screens for, there is no other screening test available yet. A surgery-free test for endometriosis is even closer. A noninvasive test involving saliva called DotEndo, which its developers say will be available by the end of this year, could help the estimated 1 in 10 women suffering from endometriosis get diagnosed—and start treatment—less painfully.
8 Genome sequencing is helping keep our food supply safe.
Over the past few years, the CDC and the FDA have been using cutting-edge technology, called whole genome sequencing, to identify the specific strains of bacteria causing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. This allows them to track down the source of the outbreak, whether it’s lettuce, frozen corn, or a batch of soy nut butter. “Before we had this technology, it took much longer to piece together the information about outbreaks, and they could make thousands of people sick,” says Peter Cassell, a spokesperson for the FDA. “Now we can figure it out faster and contain the outbreaks to a much smaller group of people.” Go to fda.gov/safety/recalls to sign up for news alerts about recalls and outbreaks as they happen.