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Ten reasons to be cheerful: 2024 New Year edition

To help you keep the January blues at bay, I’ve collected together my top ten positive health stories from 2023. My intended audience is anyone whose business performance is linked to how long we live (such as providers of pensions, life insurance and asset management), but I hope it is also sparks the curiosity of wider businesses serving the silver economy and anyone with a personal interest in innovations in healthcare.

1. COVID is no longer grabbing the headlines: COVID has not gone away, but its impact has certainly reduced over the last few years. The latest report from the WHO shows that worldwide cases and deaths attributable to COVID during 2023 were a fraction of those 2022. It seems to have mutated into a less dangerous virus. No restrictions on movements are deemed necessary.

2. New drug option for tackling obesity: shrinking Hollywood celebrities has attracted lots of column inches and opened-up the possible mass adoption of appetite suppressants. Who saw that coming? Here Club Vita's Dr Erik Pickett discusses why there is much excitement about the potential for these treatments. Up to 2 years could be added to life expectancy, with the possible impact of these treatments approaching the same league as statins.

3. Glimmers of hope for dementia: Dementia research has long struggled to attract investment, despite its huge impact. In 2023, the first new dementia drug in a long time - Aducanumab - was approved, after a string of disappointments. Whilst it only slows the development of the disease, and is expensive, the success of the drug will encourage more investment in dementia research. That has to be a good thing for the millions who live with dementia or care for their loved ones. Moreover, The Financial Times highlighted evidence that dementia rates were falling. One theory is that what has been good for cardiovascular health (reducing smoking) has also been good for dementia.

4. Big data benefits are starting to be felt: 20 years on from its conception, UK Biobank is now being recognised as the world-leading health data resource. Between 2006 and 2010 Biobank recruited 500,000 Britons aged 45 to 65, including me. After following the volunteers’ health for 15 years, and aided by advances in biotechnology (like faster genome sequencing), researchers now have a rich, granular database to study the changes over time. Looking for patterns at the molecular level is now revealing powerful new insights. Although the data relates to British people, 80% of the research – so far yielding 9000 studies - is performed outside UK. A much larger study - "Our future health" is now seeking 5 million British volunteers. Having found Biobank participating a painless and rewarding experience, I would commend it to all. You can learn more about the impact of UK Biobank here.

5. New vaccines highlight the rewards of investing in prevention: Consider a couple of examples. First, the success of the roll out of the HPV vaccine in teenagers is growing the belief that future generations of women will be largely free of cervical cancer (around 90% of cervical cancer is caused by HPV). This WHO report summarises the opportunity. Secondly, a new malaria vaccine, created by the same Oxford University team that developed the Astra Zeneca COVID vaccine. It’s cheap – roughly the same price as a takeaway coffee - and therefore scalable biotechnology, that has the potential to materially reduce premature mortality in Africa.

6. Politicians are starting to recognise that prevention is better than cure: There is a growing acceptance that increasing budgets for treating sickness to match rising demand as populations age is unsustainable. Instead, there is a stronger case for helping younger generations to stay healthier for longer through investing more in preventative measures rather than treatments. Take this new paper from Tony Blair’s think tank. The shift in health spending from treatment to prevention will have to be slow to get political buy-in, but the sooner it starts the better. Employers can get ahead of the curve, for example in supporting the Business for health campaign to engage younger people in healthier habits through the workplace.

7. Electric vehicle ownership surges: big year-on-year jumps in numbers of electric vehicles on our roads during 2023 (around 50% up in UK, +70% in US) as more manufacturers launch electric models, prices fall and charging infrastructure is built. Not only is this good news for tackling climate change, but it is also very welcome for reducing atmospheric pollution in our cities. In October, new research estimated that 48,625 Britons die prematurely each year due to particulate matter pollution. That’s not far off one in ten of all UK deaths, and creates a huge opportunity for improving the health of the nation. Environmental campaigners are seeking new clean air laws, like the ones that followed the London smog of 1952. The solutions here have significant overlap with those being advanced to slow down climate change.

8. A renaissance for lifetime annuities: What is bad for mortgages is great for annuities. Thanks to higher interest rates, sales of individual annuities, guaranteeing an income for life, have soared. Legal & General reports that its sales are up almost 50% year on year. Other insurers are expected to report similar growth. The purchase of an annuity may not be a direct benefit to your physical health, but financial well-being and mental health are connected. The confidence that you are not going to run out of money in later life, must be beneficial both individually and, arguably, for society as a whole.

9. More older Britons are working than in previous generations: In October, the UK’s Centre for Ageing Better reported that the number of Britons working beyond age 65 (when all would have become eligible for their state pension) had doubled over the past 20 years. Whilst the jury still seems to be out on whether longer working is good for your health, longer careers are necessary to make the actuarial arithmetic work out in an ageing population.

10. Finally, one to watch in 2024: I’m looking forward to the first results from the NHS Galleri Trial. Galleri is a single blood test for 50 cancers, often called a “liquid biopsy”. Cancer is a big killer (causing roughly 25% of UK deaths). It is widely accepted that the long-term survival rates of patients diagnosed early are much higher than those diagnosed later. The current large scale trial follows the success of an earlier pathfinder trial. The evidence from the new trial will hopefully be used to build the business case for rolling it out across the whole UK population (minimum age, frequency of testing etc) in a cost-effective way.

And, as a fan of the Vitality form of life insurance that is designed to encourage healthier behaviours, I was intrigued to see that the US version, offered by John Hancock, has now added an option to access the Galleri test. It would be great if the UK version followed suit. Discovery would have at least one happier customer!

I do hope that one of these snippets piques your interest, and maybe makes you a little more optimistic about the outlook for health.
Have you spotted other emerging health innovations? What is on your watch list for 2024?
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