From heated vaccine battles to controversial new breast-cancer screening guidelines, 2015 was another big year for health news. Here are 11 of the developments we considered especially significant.
1. Medicine gets personal
Still in its infancy but growing fast, the field of personalized medicine got a boost in January when President Obama announced a major federal research initiative to develop treatments tailored to genetic characteristics of individuals. Later in the year, the role of genetics in health decisions was brought back into the spotlight when actress Angelina Jolie announced that she had undergone surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer. Jolie in 2013 revealed that she carried a BRCA gene mutation, which greatly increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and had undergone a preventive double mastectomy to reduce her chance of developing breast cancer.
2. More concern about endocrine disruptors
Found in many everyday products, these compounds mimic or interfere with the function of estrogen and other human hormones, even at extremely low doses. Many of them, such as bisphenol A (BPA), have been linked with developmental, reproductive, and other problems in animal studies, and some research suggests that they adversely affect human health in similar ways. In late 2015 the Endocrine Society issued a new scientific statement about the extent of this problem and what should be done about it.
3. New dietary guidelines
Released in February, the 2015 Draft Dietary Guidelines for Americans (which should be finalized soon) include several noteworthy changes from the last (2010) guidelines, including, for the first time, limits on added sugar and meat. The new guidelines also remove longstanding limits on both dietary cholesterol and total fat, in favor of an emphasis on “totality of diet.” See our thoughts on the new rules.
4. More bad news about sugar
A Harvard study linked sugary beverages to more than 180,000 obesity-related deaths worldwide each year. And at the end of 2015 an eye-opening clinical trial showed that when obese children cut down on added sugar, they can reverse serious metabolic problems in just nine days, even if they don’t cut down on calories.
5. New warning on pain relievers
In a reminder that over-the-counter does not mean safe, the FDA announced in July that NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, and generics) and naproxen (Aleve and generics) would have to carry a stronger warning on their labels about their cardiovascular risks. Get our advice about using these and other pain relievers safely.
6. Protein craze gains speed
From Cheerios Protein to protein-enriched cookies and ice cream, food makers made it clear that “high protein” is the new “low carb”—despite the fact that, by all accounts, hardly anyone in the U.S.needs more protein in their diet. Yet again, science proves no match for a good marketing blitz.
7. Coke’s research-funding cover blown
The innocent-sounding Global Energy Balance Network—a research group that downplayed the impact of poor dietary choices on obesity and turned out to be funded by Coca-Cola—was shut down amid growing criticism that the soft-drink giant was inappropriately trying to influence obesity research and stifle criticism of its products.
8. Inequality is killing us
Literally. In a scientific statement published in September, the American Heart Association warned that the increasing socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. threaten to reverse the progress we’ve made against cardiovascular disease in the last half-century. Already, those disparities—which include income inequality and unequal access to education and health care—help explain why the U.S. has higher death rates from CVD and other diseases than almost any other developed country, even though we spend far more per person on health care.
9. A vicious vaccine battle in California
A pediatrician legislator and two consumer vaccine advocates managed to get one of the country’s toughest school vaccination laws passed, despite aggressive and even violent opposition from some anti-vaccine groups. Learn how they did it.
10. New mammogram guidelines
Undoubtedly confusing many women, the American Cancer Society issued new guidelines in October recommending that women begin routine mammograms at age 45 rather than age 40, and continue having them annually until age 54, at which point they can reduce the frequency to every other year if their results have been normal. (The organization previously advised annual mammograms up to age 75.) That brings the ACS recommendation closer to, though still not in sync with, the more conservative recommendation of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which advise beginning routine mammograms at age 50, and at a frequency of only every other year. Read our advice on mammography based on the current evidence.
11. Historic climate change accord
An international summit on climate change in Paris resulted in the adoption of a landmark agreement in which, for the first time, nearly every nation in the world pledged its commitment to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions, also known as greenhouse gas emissions. The deal, signed by representatives of 195 countries and announced December 12, was lauded as a crucial step in preventing the most devastating and deadly consequences of global warming. It’s good news for public health the world over.