The Wall Street Journal published a list of 20 medical advances for which we should be thankful. WSJ says that amid all the bad news about medicine in the media - H1N1, failed miracle drugs, etc, contentious health-care reform issues - it's easy to overlook how much progress has been made in recent years.

Without further ado:

We're in good/excellent health. "Nearly 62% of U.S. adults said they were in excellent or very good health, along with 82% of their children, according to families sampled by the federal government for the National Health Interview Survey, which was conducted in 2007 and released this year." I'm not entirely sure how accurate this is, given that the NHIS is based on self-reported figures. Anyway, one of my favorite questions in the NHIS survey from 2007 is: "Have you EVER been told by a doctor or other health professional that you had Dementia, including Alzheimer's disease?"

Traffic fatalities are down. "Fewer Americans died in traffic fatalities in 2008 than in any year since 1961, and fewer were injured than in any year since 1988, when the NHTSA began collecting injury data. One possible reason: Seat-belt use hit a record high of 84% nationally."

We're expected to live longer. "Life expectancy in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 77.9 years in 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available, continuing a long upward trend. (That's 75.3 years for men and 80.4 years for women.)" The CDC says that the gap between men and women has been closing, although it stayed the same in 2006 and 2007.

Death rates from the big causes are dropping. "Death rates dropped significantly for eight of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S., including cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, accidents, diabetes, homicides and pneumonia, from 2006 to 2007. (Of the top 15, only deaths from chronic lower respiratory disease increased significantly.) The overall age-adjusted death rate dropped to a new low of 760.3 deaths per 100,000 people—half of what it was 60 years ago." I wonder why - better treatment? More awareness? Heart disease and cancer accounted for nearly half (48.5%) of all deaths in 2007. I wonder how many of those were preventable?

Death rates from heart disease are dropping (although it's still #1).
"The death rate from coronary heart disease dropped 34% from 1995 to 2005, though it is still the biggest single killer in the U.S. Deaths from cardiovascular disease dropped 26% over the same period. Deaths from stroke dropped 29% since 1999. Average total cholesterol in adults aged 20 to 74 dropped to 197 milligrams per deciliter in 2008 from 222 in 1962."

Death rates from cancer are dropping (although still #2). "The death rate from cancer, the second-biggest killer, dropped 16% from 1990 to 2006. That reflects declines in deaths due to lung, prostate, stomach and colorectal cancers in men, and breast, colorectal, uterine and stomach cancers in women." Again - better treatment? Screening? Why?

We're keeping our teeth. "Nearly 40% of U.S. adults have never had a permanent tooth extracted because of dental cavities or periodontal disease in 2004, the most recent data available, compared with 30% in 1994." Do we brush our teeth more and/or with better toothpaste? Fluoride in the water? Calcium-enriched foods?

Kids aren't staying home sick from school. "Three out of 10 U.S. schoolchildren aged 5 to 17 in 2007 did not miss a single day of school because of illness or injury during the preceding 12 months." Really? I'd like to compare that with attendance records. Either moms are better at spotting fakers, or they're sending their kids to school sick. I suppose it really could be that three out of 10 kids are just that healthy.

Hip fractures are down. "Hip fractures - which can rob elderly patients of their mobility
forever - are down nearly 30% in the U.S. and Canada since 1985, for reasons not completely understood." Maybe the calcium-enriched foods idea? Or more non-slip ducks in bathtubs?

Rates of acute viral hepatitis A, B and C are down. "Thanks in part to vaccines, the rate of acute viral hepatitis A dropped 90% between 1995 and 2006, and acute viral hepatitis B dropped 88% from 1982 to 2006, both to record lows. Acute viral hepatitis C is down to 0.03 from 2.4 cases per 100,000 since 1992, though rates have recently plateaued."

Improvements are huge on the AIDS/HIV front. "Thanks largely to antiretroviral drugs, U.S. deaths from AIDS dropped 10% from 2006 to 2007, the biggest decline since 1998, and they remain well below the 1995 peak. New cases of AIDS, though static in recent years, also remain well below the 1990s level. Antiretroviral drugs have also helped cut dramatically the number of babies born with HIV in the U.S.; in 2006, there were 28 diagnoses of AIDS among children, down from 195 in 1999."

There are fewer undernourished kids. "The proportion of undernourished children world-wide under five years of age declined to 20% in 2005 from 27% in 1990." Is this paralleled by a drop in birth rates?

Divorce rates are dropping. "Chalk this one up as an advance for mental health: The U.S. divorce rate dropped by one-third from 1981 to 2008, and is at its lowest level since 1970. This may be due to more couples postponing marriage or to economic constraints, as well as to couples' determination to stay together." I think it's more the former than the latter, personally.

Fewer schools are selling soda. "From 2006 to 2008, the median percentage of U.S. secondary schools that don't sell soda rose to 64% from 38%, and those that don't sell candy or high-fat snacks rose to 64% from 46%, in the 35 states that collect data." Did anyone see this Sunday's episode of the Simpsons? Marge turns herself inside out trying to serve healthy snacks at the mommy group, with less-than-desired results. Anyway, I think it's great they aren't selling as much soda, but we still need to go after high-sugar containing fruit juices too.

Kids are surviving longer. "Around the world, 27% fewer children died before their fifth birthday in 2007 than in 1990, due to greater use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, better rehydration for diarrhea, and better access to clean water, sanitation and vaccines."

Less trans fats in our foods. "The amount of trans fats in packaged food has declined by about 50% since 2006, when the Food and Drug Administration began requiring food labels to list it. At least 13 jurisdictions, including California and New York City, have restricted trans fats in restaurant food." This does not mean we can eat the entire bag of Oreos.

Fewer cases of malaria. "Twenty-seven countries reported a reduction of up to 50% in the number of malaria cases between 1990 and 2006."

Smoking bans are in effect. "As of this month, 71% of the U.S. population lives under either a state or local ban on smoking in workplaces and/or restaurants and/or bars, and 19 states have banned smoking in all three kinds of places. Research has found that air quality improves and heart-attack rates drop in areas that have enacted smoking bans."

It's the little things that count.
"Experts have found that some of the best things you can do for your own health are simple and free: Getting adequate sleep can help you lose weight, fight infections, recall memories and think more clearly. Spending just 30 minutes a day in the sunlight to soak up vitamin D across a broad swath of the country can reduce your risk for a variety of cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and many other diseases. Volunteering to help others can lower your risk for depression and heart disease, raise your self-esteem and happiness and extend your life, according to numerous studies."

Longer lives, happier people. "The longer you live, the happier you are likely to be. Many older adults find that happiness and emotional well-being improve with time; they learn to avoid or limit stressful situations and are less likely to let negative comments or criticism bother them than young adults, according to research presented at the American Psychological Association conference in Toronto this year."

WSJ ends with this cheery sign-off:
Of course, there have been setbacks as well as many steps forward, and the gains haven't been universally shared. The full effects of the H1N1 virus are not yet known. Infant mortality remains high. Teen pregnancy is up. Obesity is rising. Organ transplants are down. The decline in cigarette smoking has stalled. But other breakthroughs loom on the horizon, including personalized cancer medicines, promising drugs for lupus and Lou Gehrig's disease, gene therapy and cancer vaccines, and tests that may one day discern small deadly cancers from larger, slower ones. Which should give us plenty more to be thankful for next year.
What do you think? Have these advances made an appreciable difference in your life? For what other advances are you thankful?