WHEELING - People are living longer than ever before because of advancements in medical technology and the public's increased understanding of how to live healthier.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's preliminary data for 2010, the most recent full set of data, life expectancy at birth is 78.7 years in the United States, continuing a longterm rising trend.
The local area, with a wealth of good hospitals, finds itself on the road to better health. According to Dr. Shawn Stern, a doctor of internal medicine at Wheeling Hospital, a longer life expectancy can be attributed to the advancement of medical technology.
Photo by Sarah Harmon
Dr. Shawn Stern reviews X-ray images at his office in Wheeling Hospital.
"If you look at the past 15 to 20 years, we went from primitive CAT scans to functional MRIs, PET scans," Stern said. "All these help catch disease earlier in its course and help us physicians diagnose and help radiologists get the biopsies easier."
Stern cited the advancement of mammograms in particular, which have become more sensitive in recent years helping doctors detect breast cancer in its early stages.
Stern also said technology has advanced artificial joints and valves that help patients live longer as well as pacemakers that detect and prevent arrhythmias.
Improvement in medications have also helped increase life expectancy, Stern said.
"Over the past 30 years, you take something so simple as cholesterol medicine, which wasn't available before, and now it's helping prevent heart disease, carotid disease and vascular disease."
Vaccines also have come a long way. Stern said the recently developed vaccine Gardisal helps prevent cervical cancer.
People are also involved in their health more than ever with the availability of medical information online. Many people will look up symptoms on their computer before visiting a doctor, giving them a better understanding of their own health. Stern said there even is information on skin lesions now that can help people diagnose skin lesions and determine whether they possibly have skin cancer.
"People are even more aware of how to try and be healthy," Stern said. "People are trying to exercise. They are aware of eating healthy and keeping their brains active and this will help them have a more productive and longer life."
A shift in public attitude also helps increase life expectancy. The prominence of no-smoking signs, warning labels on alcohol and laws requiring people to wear seatbelts can help prevent early death.
Stern predicted life expectancy to continue to increase in the future as technology improves. He said genetic testing and gene therapy might be the next big advancement in detecting and preventing diseases. He cited how some people are choosing to have masectomies after genetic testing shows they have a breast cancer gene.
"I think those will be the advancements in the future - gene therapy and stem cell therapy to help prevent disease," Stern said.