Life in the Box: Medical Advances



In the first 3/4ths of the 20th Century, the way Americans lived changed constantly. Transportation shifted from horses to automobiles. Plumbing came indoors and clean water ran both hot and cold. Phone lines, power lines, and paved roads, not to mention railways, ran from coast to coast. Airplanes soared, for both war and peace. The atom was split to become atomic bombs and nuclear power plants. Broadcasting began. Satellites were launched, and the moon was reached.

In the last 1/4th of the same century, computers and the internet came into our lives. In the first 15 years of the 21st Century, the planet Mars was reached. 

In a lifetime, what can change? Quite a lot!

I started quizzing my friends about the last century’s major medical improvements, and they said “the cure for Polio, discovery of penicillin and antibiotics, and The Pill.” “Organ transplants.” “Insulin.” “Xrays.” Great stuff!

Even so, I have to admit I’m still looking at the post-1975 era, and all those improvements were made pre-75. Here’s what I’ve dug up on the more recent changes:

Adult Stem Cell Research (2000s)
We can now manipulate our own adult cells into becoming stem cells (no fetal cells needed), and get them to work for us to repair our bodies. CNN says these cells are now being used for eye and tissue repairs. I know someone whose own stem cells are re-growing one of his lungs. We have a new center in Des Moines that claims to use stem cells to repair knee tissues (as an alternative to knee replacement.) Fetal Stem Cells have their own set of promises, but they are controversial and in some cases, not quite as good. See the link, below. 

Birth Control
New since 2003, there are oral contraceptives that reduce the number of periods women have, further reducing the possibility of pregnancy.

Bionic Body Parts
In the 1970s, we watched a TV show called “The Bionic Man.” Robotics have come a long way since then, and people are now testing hands, arms, legs, and feet with bionics, and control of these limbs can be honed with Bluetooth commands from a cell phone. Amazing!

Curing AIDS, Improving Medicine Cocktails
Identified in the 1980s, AIDS was our generation’s first major disease scare. In the 1990s, treatments involving a mountain of pills helped improve life chances and then life quality. In 2006 and 2013, that mountain of pills was trimmed back by combining many of these medicines into one pill.

Human Genome (DNA) Mapping (2003)
Splitting an atom was nothing, compared with identifying the billions of parts of our DNA. Science accomplished this in 2003, and that’s when the real work began: identifying what each piece does, and learning how to improve health by improving our DNA.

Human Microbiome Project (2010s)
It sounds funny, but most of the cells in our bodies aren’t human. No, we aren’t zombies; we’re biome homes. Living inside of us are 10 times more biomes (microbial cells) than human cells. Scientists have decided to get to know these aliens that occupy us, and see if we can improve relations.

Improved Cancer Treatments
This is a big category. In the battle against cancer, we’ve been defining types of cells ever more carefully, and changing treatment plans constantly, and have turned the tide in many kinds of cancers. The diagnosis of “cancer” is no longer a death sentence. In recent years, we are starting to have “better chemo” that doesn’t kill the healthy cells, just the cancer. As more of this research continues, more people will have a better quality of life during treatment, not just afterwards.

Laparoscopic Surgery (1980s)
Yes! Laparoscopy came into our town about a year after my “traditional” gall-bladder surgery.
My post-surgery recovery time was 3 months. A year later, my mother played golf one week after her laparoscopic laser surgery for the same thing.

Mental Illness
I want to acknowledge the development of medicines for the treatment of mental illness, including depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, and other problems. But, while there have been many improvements, most of these drugs really aren’t cures. Some people will get their lives back. Others haven’t found the relief they need.

Kicking Smokers Outside (2000s)
Grumble though we may about smokers having to go outside, early word is that the improvement of indoor air quality has reduced heart attacks. Second-hand smoke was given a name and “treatment” in our lifetimes! Plus, we don’t have to scrub the green scum off our desks anymore.

Real-time Brain Scans (2010s)
We can now see our feelings and thoughts—by watching activity in our brains in real-time. Brain study used to be post-life. This new technology drastically improves the study of brain disorders. Unfortunately, it will most likely also be used by marketing specialists to study the effectiveness of advertising. Sigh. 

Stomach Ulcer Pills (1990s)
Stomach ulcer surgery used to be common. Now, proton pump inhibitor pills (like Prilosec) and acid reducers (like Tums) have nearly eliminated the need for surgery. The acid reduction does the trick!

I’m gonna stop here, but tell me if you know of some more major changes. I’ve got to go listen to “Science Friday” on NPR for a while…



Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box.

CNN slide show—“Ten Medical Advances in the Past Ten Years” (2013)

Pros and Cons of Adult Stem Cell Therapy (a PDF from a teacher, good short synopsis)


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.