For the last two weeks I have been on my travels, combining a holiday with visiting friends and family. This has seen me enjoying the sunshine in Florida, the cherry blossom of Washington DC and the delights of Pittsburgh. This former steel city is visibly reinventing itself after some twenty years in the doldrums. Political and civic leadership aided by a strong academic sector, tech industries and redevelopment of its riverside has given Pittsburgh a tangible air of optimism. It so happens that my arrival here coincided with the anniversary of the development of the first successful polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh by Dr Jonas Salk (announced to the world on 12 April 1955). Truly a major milestone in global public health. When asked about who owned the patent to the vaccine, Dr Salk replied, “Well the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” A man of great ideals as well as medical expertise.
When I was growing up in the 1970’s and ‘80’s there was a science programme on prime time television which highlighted the positive potential of new inventions and technology. In tone it was unrelentingly positive, despite the frequent mishaps as presenters and inventors experienced the challenges of demonstrating prototypes live on air. Although it attracted a degree of mockery, and no doubt much of its mass appeal did lie in watching demonstrations and experiments go wrong, it provided an upbeat vision of a future where we would all benefit. It was a distinct counterbalance against various other visions of the future we were offered via books, film or tv, which all seemed to be distinctly dystopian. There were various post nuclear apocalypse scenarios, global pandemics (the TV show Survivors had a profound impact on this eight year old) and of course there were concerns about resources running out, machines taking over, pollution threatening mankind, threats from outer space. The threats were considerable, some seeming more tangible than others. Yet you could reasonably argue that most societies looked forward with optimism (if not a little concern) and one of the big reasons for this was visible and demonstrable improvements in health.
What colour would you use to describe the great advances in population health of the last hundred years? Perhaps something bright and cheery? A nice vibrant yellow, or perhaps a warm orange? As appropriate as these might seem I would argue the colour grey possesses a strong case. My reasoning? The massive increase in life expectancy we have witnessed and so the associated increase in grey heads to be seen amongst our populations.
In the 1900’s life expectancy in England and Wales was 46 for men and 50 for women. A century later these had increased to 77 and 81 respectively. Spectacular improvements by any standard. Not all countries have shared the benefits equally, progress is not even across countries or socio-economic groups. It is worth reminding ourselves that Africa saw a fall in life expectancy during the 1990’s due to the AIDS epidemic, which was only reversed when effective responses (political, social and medical) were deployed. Eastern Europe also suffered a drop-in life expectancy in the period of turmoil following the end of the Soviet era. These both serve as reminders that there is nothing inevitable about progress and improvement.
The fact that cities and urban centres can increase stress in individuals is well recognised. There is a correlation between living in a city and a range of mental health problems, although this doesn’t automatically mean urban life has to have a negative impact on our wellbeing. Cities concentrate on a range of factors, both positive and negative. So, a city may suffer from pockets of deprivation, high rates of crime and pollution, but also provide good educational opportunities, access to modern medical care and stimulating public spaces. However, as anyone who commutes through a big city will know there is a lot of stress about.