Life expectancy is going up everywhere, including the U.S. where people now live to an average age of 75. Someone born in 2012 has a life expectancy of nearly 79 years.
So it is in most developed countries around the world. Japan checks in at 81 years, and Western Europe at 79. Southeast Asia, South America and Africa don’t fare as well, according to a study published in the journal Lancet.
But almost everywhere people can expect to live longer than they did two decades ago.
Why? The World Health Organization says it’s a combination of things: improved nutrition, healthier lifestyles and better medical treatment. Deaths from heart disease, respiratory infections and even cancer are down sharply or delayed until later years A good part of this is due to advances in drug therapy. And that’s about to get even better.
In 2014, a remarkable 41 new drugs were approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). And not just new drugs, but altogether new entities, “first in class” medicines, not just for living longer but for living better.
The new approvals, the most in 18 years, target everything from different forms of cancer to pulmonary disease, Type 2 diabetes, even foot fungus.
But the real story isn’t the numbers. It’s the speed of approval. According to Chemical & Engineering News, nine “breakthrough therapies” were approved in record time, including a Novartis lung cancer drug that went from first clinical trials to FDA approval in three years. A Merck cancer immunotherapy was approved three and a half years after the first clinical trial. That’s truly incredible. Historically, the time from development to approval has been ten years or more.
The new paradigm is the result of the 2012 FDA Safety & Innovation Act, which promotes all-out attention to molecules that show promise against serious diseases, particularly those resistant to existing therapies. Fast track is now the name of the game.
What’s in the pipeline? More of the same. New cardiovascular medicines, including a breakthrough for treating cholesterol, and a promising new breast cancer drug. Those and others are teed up for early approval.
Adding to the good news is research on aging. Clinical studies are testing observations that certain well-tolerated drugs can improve and extend life of people with certain age-related chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Curing cancer adds 3.5 years to life expectancy, and curing heart disease, 4.5 years.
Beyond medication, what can we old timers do? Exercise and eat and drink sensibly. A government committee just recommended a fruit and
vegetable-based diet – nothing new there – but said more salt and eggs are okay too. Fish is better than beef, no surprise, and sugar is still a problem. But best of all, coffee is actually good for you, as least up to three or four cups a day.
What about alcohol? Do the experts still think red wine fends off disease? Not really. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal tracked drinking habits of nearly 53,000 adults and found “little or no” health benefits from consuming alcohol, regardless of type or quantity. But if booze doesn’t help, sex might. Cohabitation, whether married or not, promotes health, or so says a study published in the Journal of Health Economics.
Of course here in southwest Florida, we’re pretty healthy to begin with. Dr. Allen Weiss, head of the NCH Health System, reports Collier women have the highest life expectancy in the U.S. (86 years), and men the second highest (81 years). Lee and Collier Counties consistently rank among Florida’s healthiest.
As the Italians say, “Cent’anni!” May you live to be 100!
A chemist and retired executive of Pfizer, Trecker serves on a number of local boards.