How Science Is Solving Health Issues at All Stages of Life
Health issues hit us in different ways at different ages. Here are some big ones science and tech are helping to solve.
Age 0 — 12
Roughly 8 percent of kids in the US suffer from food allergies—often from peanuts. Epicutaneous immunotherapy could help. It’s a skin patch with a layer of peanut protein that activates immune cells that travel to the lymph nodes (which help control allergic response) without entering the bloodstream. The patch is still in trials, but the hope is that it will promote tolerance without triggering a nutty reaction.
Studies show that interventions before age 4 result in significant gains in cognition, language, and adaptive behavior, but autism is difficult to predict early enough. Scientists have used artificial intelligence to create a method for analyzing brain connectivity in babies’ fMRIs; it was able to predict with greater than 96 percent accuracy whether a 6-month-old would develop autism by age 2.
By around 6 months old, a baby’s brain prunes itself to specialize in the language and sounds it has been hearing since birth. Deaf infants are at risk of missing this crucial turning point in development, even after receiving cochlear implants. Scientists have created a machine-learning algorithm that parses babies’ MRIs to predict language development and determine if they’ll need extra help.
Amblyopia, or lazy eye, is the most common visual impairment in US children. Early studies have shown virtual-reality games can be more effective than the traditional eye-patch treatment (yarrr!). VR systems beam different images to each eye to create the illusion of 3-D, so the game can be designed to deliver crucial information (flying asteroids, for example) in the image shown to the weaker eye. This trains the brain and both eyes to work together—and might give a head start to future e-athletes.
Age 13 — 26
Nearly a tenth of high school sports injuries are concussions, but it’s notoriously difficult to gauge their severity. One recent study found that the level of tau protein in the blood of students who had suffered a concussion corresponded with the length of time the young athlete needed to recover. A simple blood test that can reliably predict recovery time might not be far off.
Some 3.1 million adolescents in the US suffered at least one major depressive episode in 2016. They might want to talk to a new chatbot that’s schooled in cognitive behavioral therapy. it inquires about mood daily and trains the user to reframe negative thinking (“Life comes at you pretty fast. A wise man named Ferris Bueller said that.”) and set manageable goals.
Type 1 diabetes often emerges in the early teen years, when managing the disease—measuring blood glucose levels and injecting insulin multiple times a day—can be tough. To alleviate the burden, an insulin pump system for patients 14 and up, called the MiniMed 670G, automatically monitors glucose levels and uses an algorithm to determine when to administer precise insulin infusions.
More than 4 million young people now live with HIV worldwide. Treatment has made huge strides—the illness is no longer necessarily a death sentence. But controlling the disease requires patients to follow a complicated daily regimen of pills. To ease that, scientists have designed a six-pronged capsule that patients take just once a week: The prongs are composed of different polymers that dissolve at different rates, delivering drugs over several days.
Age 27 — 54
Most cancers don’t hit until later in life, but doctors recommend some patients in their thirties and forties get screened for colon, prostate, breast, and cervical cancers. Scientists are now developing so-called liquid biopsies to detect molecules shed by tumors in blood or urine—a less invasive, less painful, and more easily repeated process than a tissue biopsy.
For women under 35, the chance of one cycle of IVF ($12,000 and up!) working is only about 50 percent. Researchers have developed a small microfluidics device to help select which sperm to use for IVF: The cells swim through a sort of obstacle course that screens for the healthiest, fastest, most normal-shaped sperm. The hope is that the overachievers will raise the chances of IVF success.
Scientists are getting closer to creating a universal vaccine that would be effective against multiple influenza strains (eliminating yearly shots—yay!). One strategy is to target a protein on the virus’s outer surface called hemagglutinin, which the bug uses to invade cells. The protein’s head mutates often, but its stem usually stays the same across strains—making it a promising Achilles’ heel for antibodies.
In 2015, people age 35 to 54 made up more than a third of all suicides. Researchers are exploring using data from smartphone sensors to monitor mental health. Depressed people, for instance, move around less, which can be tracked with a phone’s GPS and accelerometer. Sleep patterns are often disrupted, which researchers can see via the hours when someone uses their phone. All this allows doctors to capture data beyond what patients self-report.
Age 55 — Infinity
Earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s would allow for treatments that could reverse symptoms and slow cognitive decline. In 2017, scientists created an Alzheimer’s test by sifting through data from 70,000 seniors and zooming in on 31 genetic markers associated with the disease. It accurately determines one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s—and how that risk changes as you grow older. (Spoiler alert: It gets higher.)
Kidney disease affects 14 percent of US adults, and the vast majority of them are older than 60. The treatment options are less than awesome: Dialysis is a short-term, expensive solution, and donor organs are scarce. Now a group of researchers and doctors are developing an implantable artificial kidney that filters blood through silicon membranes and runs on the body’s own blood pressure.
The median age of a lymphoma diagnosis is 67, and chemotherapy doesn’t always work to treat it. Scientists are exploring a new weapon called CAR T cell therapy. They collect a patient’s own T cells from their blood, affix receptors engineered to lock onto cancerous cells, and release them back into the patient to carry out search and destroy missions.
Mitochondria, the organelles that produce energy your cells run on, gather mutations as you age—and begin to malfunction. Scientists suspect they play a crucial role in aging, possibly because they’re involved with metabolic processes, which slow as people get older. A molecule called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide could juice the system. It acts as fuel for a protein that helps produce mitochondria, and scientists think it could be used as a supplement to treat metabolic decline.
Age 0 — 12:
How to Reverse Infertility • Tools for Fetal Surgery • Save the Preemies • The Year's Best Tech Playthings • Cashing in on Kiddie YouTube • The #MiniMilah Effect • Rethinking Screen Time • A Brief History of Digital Worries
Age 27 — 54:
Real Wedding, Virtual Space • The Pursuit of Youth • The Digital Vision Problem • The True Screen Addicts • Gamers Age Out • Rebooting Reproduction • Silicon Valley's Brotox Boom • The Next Steve Jobs
This article appears in the April issue. Subscribe now.