With a simple blog post or news exclusive, Google can instantly glamorize any field of research, whether it’s teaching cars to drive themselves, sending robotic rovers to the Moon, blanketing Earth with wireless data from balloons, or—this week—helping people live longer. The airiest of promises from the company evokes the world’s awe and admiration, and raises our expectations enormously.
After all, we nod, why shouldn’t the same “10x thinking” that helped Google tame the Web, earn a vast fortune on keyword-based ads, and build the world’s leading mobile operating system allow it to solve other pressing problems, like, say, death? “Oh great, Google is on the case!” we say. “I guess we can just sit back and wait for those robot chauffeurs and longevity pills.”
I certainly applaud Google’s boldness—at least they’re using their billions for something other than just making more billions. But Calico, the Google-founded company that will reportedly develop new technologies to tackle aging and age-related illness, already shows hallmarks of what scholar Evgeny Morozov has called “technological solutionism”—the idea that there’s no problem so large that it can’t be solved with enough data and processors.
“I have some knowledge of [anti-aging technology], just being in Silicon Valley,” Google CEO Larry Page told Time in an exclusive interview published this week. Curing cancer, Page said, is “not as big an advance as you might think”—the implication being that Calico means to think even bigger.
What worries me every time I hear about another “moon shot” project like Calico is that the resulting media coverage will reinforce the hero worship that already surrounds companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, and make us complacent about the future. Too often, the fixation on what’s coming next from these companies draws our attention away from the simpler things that can be done to make the world better right now.
Did you know, for example, that an inexpensive blue-LED phototherapy light developed by a San Francisco non-profit called D-Rev has been used to treat more than 7,000 infants born with jaundice, saving 142 babies from death or disability? That’s Silicon Valley innovation at work too—but because it’s not about apps or big data, you aren’t going to read about it in TechCrunch.
The truth is that if we want to live longer as individuals, or improve life expectancy across the human population, there are plenty of low-tech, low-cost health strategies that yield big rewards. We don’t need to wait years while Arthur Levinson, the chairman of Genentech and Apple and now the CEO of Calico, starts putting Google’s money to work. Here are 10 things consumers, citizens, elected leaders, and medical providers can do right now to boost life expectancy:
1. Support Improvements in Maternal and Prenatal Care
The absolute best way to raise the average lifespan of a country’s population is to reduce the number of infants who die from preventable causes. That’s a complex problem, but two good ways to fix high infant mortality rates in the U.S. (we’re a shocking 27th in the world rankings) would be to improve overall care for women, especially those with chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity, and expand access to prenatal care for pregnant women. More smoking-cessation programs for pregnant moms would be another big boost. There’s also some research showing that scheduling C-sections later, when possible, would reduce the rate of complications due to pre-term birth.
2. Vaccinate Yourself and Your Children
It’s a crime that Jenny McCarthy has been allowed to continue her ill-informed crusade to warn parents about a non-existent link between vaccines and autism. (And shame on ABC for giving her an even louder megaphone.) The truth is that the declining rate of death from infectious disease—almost entirely due to the arrival of vaccinations and better sanitation in the 20th century—is one of the biggest contributors to growing lifespans globally. The risk of side effects from vaccinations is tiny compared to the risks of catching a condition like measles, which killed 2.6 million children every year before vaccination became routine.
3. Stay Out of the Hospital
I’m not joking. The gruesome truth is that 1 in 10 people admitted to U.S. hospitals get a new infection while they’re there; these nasty, often antibiotic-resistant bugs kill 100,000 hospital patients every year. If you have to go to a hospital, it pays to look for one with low infection rates (25 states now require hospitals to report rates of common infections). Smart hospitals are fighting bacteria like staph and C. difficile by doing basic things like cleaning rooms more carefully, following checklists, and enforcing hygiene standards like hand-washing.
4. Take Your Medicines As Directed
Deaths from coronary artery disease, stroke, and diabetes could be cut drastically if people were better at managing their blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And there are good medications to control all these conditions; the real problem is that half of all drugs dispensed in the U.S. every year aren’t taken as prescribed. So, take your medicine on schedule. If you or a loved one need some help with that, check out companies like MedMinder that offer automatic pill dispensers. Researchers say increasing medication adherence on a truly large scale will take better coaching by doctors and pharmacists, as well as price breaks for people who can’t afford maintenance medications.
5. Get Rid of Your Gun, or Lock It Away
Having a gun in your home drastically increases the risk that someone in your family will be die in a gun-related accident, suicide, or homicide. The position of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that … Next Page »
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