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Advances help to improve, prolong life with medicine

February 23, 2012
Times Leader
By SHELLEY HANSON, For The Times Leader

A more informed public and medical advancements are helping people live longer than their ancestors. “People are more educated. We’re trying to live healthier lifestyles,” said Dr. William Mercer, Wheeling-Ohio County health officer. Mercer said perhaps the most significant medical breakthrough that has helped people live longer, healthier lives is vaccines. “Polio, diphtheria, measles ... were major illnesses and now we just read about them,” he said. The use of antibiotics, such as penicillin, to treat illnesses is another longevity factor. Improvements in sanitation to drinking water also helped people avoid illnesses such as cholera and typhoid, which are still seen today in Third World countries. More recent medical advancements continue to play a role in extending life, such as medicines for high blood pressure and heart failure. And while procedures such as angioplasty are saving more people, heart disease continues to be the No. 1 cause of death for men and women in the U.S. Cancer is the No. 2 cause of death. “People are living into their 90s and 100s. It’s taxing the medical system, but that’s a good problem to have — people living longer,” Mercer said. One area that needs much improvement, he noted, is treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “The medicines we have don’t work very good. ... Basic Alzheimer’s — that’s one thing not improved upon yet,” Mercer said. The average life span of a U.S. citizen is 78 years old. The U.S. ranks 50th for life expectancy, while Monaco ranks first at 89 years old. “I think we do pretty good, but we certainly could improve,” Mercer said. “In 1960, life expectancy was 69 years. In 1900, it was 47 years.” The life expectancy in Afghanistan today is 47 years old, though war does play a role in addition to starvation and disease, he added. In addition to modern medicine and education, a person’s habits also play a large role. “When I talk to my older patients, I ask them what their secret is. They don’t smoke, they drank alcohol in moderation, they always kept active and they ate healthy,” Mercer said. Keeping mentally fit by doing crosswords or other brain-challenging activities also appears to increase longevity. “Exercise provides mental relief. There’s nothing better than going out and huffing and puffing down the court,” Mercer said, referring to his preferred method of exercise — playing basketball.

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