Reasons to be cheerful

A Scotsman on Hogmanay morning should be planning the New Year party. Not this year. I’m holed up in my study soberly digesting the latest grim diet of COVID statistics, whilst escaping my children’s depression at the prospect of weeks more separation from their friends. We could all do with an injection of optimism: some reasons to be cheerful.

Brits of a certain age will recognise these words as a line from Ian Dury’s classic anthem. Thinking of the late Ian Dury transported me back to the summer of 1979, as a teenager in Scotland.  Inflation was rampant, borrowing money was expensive, deindustrialisation was causing mass unemployment and politics were increasingly polarised: Margaret Thatcher has just won her first election, exposing a north-south wound.  

Supertramp’s soft rock topped the charts in the States, but the Brits needed something edgier to soften the mood. Punk rock was that thing.  Step up, Ian Dury. He responded to the nation’s low mood with a rapid-fire list of little facets of everyday life that would bring a smile to your face. You may enjoy having a look at the lyrics and trying to figure out what they all mean - several are expressed in Cockney rhyming slang. I counted 48 reasons.  How many did you get?   

So, I would like to take a leaf out of the Ian Dury book of positive thinking and offer you a few reasons to be cheerful, taken from the frontier of medical research. Without any doubt, COVID will cause a fall in life expectancy in 2020 in many countries, with deaths ending up 10-15% higher than a typical year. This is great stuff for headline writers. Take, for example, the US's CDC anticipating a fall of as much as 3 years, as recently reported by Fox. But, behind the COVID headlines, there has been a series of good news stories, that herald a brighter future. In a more normal year, these might have got more pick up.  

So, in the spirit of providing a little balance, here’s are a few of my personal favourites:

  1. Liquid biopsies are starting to give earlier cancer diagnoses. Back in September, Time reported on US approvals for new blood screening tests for healthy Americans. And in November, the UK's National Health Service announced a mass trial in 2021. This is a super-important and exciting development for longevity because cancer is one of the biggest causes of premature death, particularly in older people, and the survival rates following early diagnosis are much higher.
  2. At the end of November, the BBC reported that "one of biology's biggest mysteries had been 'largely solved' by artificial intelligence". The image of the spike protein of COVID-19 virus is arguably the image of 2020, and it is through understanding the dynamics of this protein that scientists can develop new vaccines, much more rapidly than in the past. This is a complex story about the abstract world of the shape of proteins. The breakthrough is that artificial intelligence can now be used to predict the shape of a protein from its chemical sequence. This new technology holds the prospect of accelerating medical research. For example, in understanding Alzheimer’s and in reducing the manufacturing time for seasonal flu vaccines. I thoroughly recommend this optimism-laden podcast to lift your mood.
  3. Just before the holidays, The Guardian reported that a new HIV vaccine trial was under way in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV is, like COVID, a virus that attacks our immune systems. AIDS was first identified as a specific condition in 1981. Since then AIDS has taken 25m-35m lives, prematurely. If an effective COVID vaccine can be rolled out worldwide in 2021, COVID will turn out to have caused a fraction of the deaths of HIV/AIDS. That would be a great measure of the progress of humanity, over the last half century.    
  4. Back in August, Africa was declared polio free. Polio is an infectious and dangerous disease. Survival often left a crippling legacy. This takes our story full circle, back to our punk rocker Ian Dury. He walked with the aid of his “rhythm stick” because he contracted polio in a UK outbreak in 1949. Various polio vaccines were developed in the 1950s, but it has taken a concerted international collaboration in recent years to beat the virus back to its last two holdouts: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Viruses don’t respect national borders: the successful battle against polio shows what humanity can do if we collaborate internationally.

 All these amazing developments herald longer-term improvements in health and ultimately life expectancy. So, with life expectancy taking one step backwards in 2020, do remember that there is plenty of fuel for future growth, and the COVID post-mortem will surely lead to improved preparedness against future pandemics.  

Finally, best wishes from the Club Vita team for a healthier 2021. If you are interested in hearing more longevity-related stories, please follow our page on LinkedIn. We would love to hear your stories too – please share links as comments.

As we say in Scotland on Hogmanay, lang may yer lums reek (literally, may your chimneys smoke for a long time).  

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