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Aging: People are living longer

February 28, 2013
By SARAH HARMON - For The Times Leader , Times Leader

WHEELING - People are living longer than ever before thanks to new directions in advanced medical technology and better communication between doctors and patients.

According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau, it is predicted the average life expectancy of a U.S. resident will be 79 years by 2015, an increase of 1.5 years from 2005 and three years from 1995.

Dr. James Comerci, a family doctor at Wheeling Hospital, attributed the longer life expectancy to medical advancements such as more accurate screening and improved vaccines.

Article Photos

Photo/Sarah Harmon
X-ray technologist Michelle Vapner, left, and Dr. James Comerci prepare to use a new dexa scan, a machine that screens for osteoporosis, at Wheeling Hospital. Screenings from modern equipment now make clearer images than ever, enabling doctors to more accurately diagnose patients.

He said better diagnoses have resulted from digital imaging, which makes it easier for doctors to identify problems more accurately, possibly saving lives in the process.

"Imaging tests such as mammograms or CAT scans, the technology that has turned them into digital or computer-based imaging has really increased our ability to find things much sooner," Comerci said.

"One example is colon cancer, where early and better diagnosis and screening come in. We are diagnosing and finding small colon cancers much earlier than we used to find them.

By finding them early we can put treatment in place that actually cures them from cancer."

The introduction of new vaccines and the improvement of old ones also prolongs lives. Comerci said a recently developed vaccine known as Gardasil now prevents human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical, head and neck and oral cancer.

Cancer, the No. 2 cause of death in the U.S., is increasingly being treated with vaccines since research suggests cancer is affected by the immune system.

Comerci said melanoma can be treated with a vaccine that takes advantage of the immune system to fight the cancer.

Comerci also noted the emergence of storing health records electronically also improves the quality of care a doctor is able to give to a patient. He said electronic medical records often save the lives of trauma patients since doctors can look up a person's medical history before the patient has even reached the hospital, potentially saving that person's life.

How long a person lives also is based on a patient's risk factors, according to Comerci. Lifestyle choices such as if the patient smokes, wears a seatbelt or owns a gun at home can alter life expectancy. Stress also is a factor since a stressful lifestyle can weaken the immune system and cause depression.

"Doctors have learned to focus outside of a patient's medical issues, at the entire individual," Comerci said.

Increasing communication between doctors and their patients has also played an important role in raising life expectancy, Comerci said. Educated patients, he said, empowers them to make healthy decisions on their own. Also, hospitals becoming more involved in the community leads to a more informed public.

"Long ago, you only went to the doctor when you were sick. Now we're recognizing that our medical facilities is where we go for prevention and education."



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