Advances in technology and personalized medicine are making it possible for people to live longer than ever. But how can we get the most out of those years?
Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing health editor of FoxNews.com, recently sat down with New York Times best-selling author and cancer specialist Dr. David Agus to find out how to do it with the tips in his new book “The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health.”
Dr. Manny: Why did you write the book?
Dr. Agus: It’s out of a sense of optimism. You know, there’s been progress in our field, but all of a sudden, it’s literally happening week-by-week, there’s a breakthrough that’s changing everything. So I wanted to get people prepared and really have an optimistic view of what’s happening now.
We’re seeing so much negative on the health side, we have the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and it’s all about health care finance— people forget the real conversation is the progress of health.
Dr. Manny: In your book, you make an emphasis of ‘people need to take control of their own health.’
Dr. Agus: No question about it, I mean, there’s a lot of noise in our space and you know it. The reason you do what you do, the reason I do what I do is to help differentiate from the noise. And to really be a filter. So if you hear about a miracle cure-all for whatever, and you’re not seeing it on your show, you’re not seeing it in the New York Times, it probably isn’t real. And I think that’s one of the messages, but we all have to be in charge of our own health.
In today’s world, the notion of going to see your doctor and at 2 o’clock, he or she check your blood pressure and say ‘Well, it’s up’ or ‘it’s normal’ makes no sense. Go in with two months of data: In the morning when you get up, at night when you go to bed, when you’re pissed off after a phone call. With enough data, error goes away. And with today’s technologies, we’re going to change doctors’ offices so they don’t come to collect data, draw blood and other things— the data’s collected at home— and we actually do something which is remarkable, [which is] actually talk about data.
Dr. Manny: One of the things you mention [in your book] is [the ability to] ‘edit your DNA.’ What is that about?
Dr. Agus: Last year— and I’m sure all of your viewers have seen this— it was the molecule of the year in Science Magazine called CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), and this is the ability to surgically strike and change one of the 3 billion letters of DNA. It was used in China recently to change an embryo. They’re using it now to make mosquitoes that are resistant to Zika (virus) for example, but it gives the potential of curing some of the genetic-linked diseases— cystic fibrosis and others— in a child who’s suffering, you can actually fix it. We may be able to edit your T-cells, your immune cells, to be able to go and attack your own cancer. It really brings a new potential … to really change things.
Dr. Manny: [Let’s talk about] technology to control common ailments.
Dr. Agus: All kinds of things. I can, on my cellphone now, you know, literally put my hands here and get a high-resolution EKG (echocardiogram) on myself, and send it to my doctor. You know, we now can do things that we [only] dreamed of in other fields. President Carter, 92 years old, says, ‘I have melanoma that went to the brain.’ Just two years ago, that was a death sentence. Now, he got a drug that— every cancer has a ‘don’t eat me’ signal on its surface— he got a drug that blocks that ‘don’t eat me’ signal, allowing his own immune system to control his cancer, and he announces last month that he’s cancer free. And so this is really dramatic … things are changing.
Dr. Manny: Something that affects me personally as an obstetrician [and that] you talk about [is] prolonged fertility. That’s a big-ticket item in today’s patient population.
Dr. Agus: No doubt about it. And you know, there was an amazing study that came out that we can now take the nucleus of one woman’s egg and put that into a donor egg, and allow eggs to be much more fertile much longer … And then all of a sudden somebody looked back, and there was a doctor in New Jersey who’s been doing this for 20 years. [He] didn’t get FDA approval, didn’t go through any institutional review boards, he’s just been doing it, and we don’t know the outcome of these children, but it certainly brings new potential as society changes— women want to have kids in their 30s, 40s and 50s and later— this gives the potential for change.
Dr. Manny: Let me jump to something that is very important, especially to our viewership: detecting dementia decades before it happens.
Dr. Agus: What we’re learning is that you can start to pick up cues very easy that people are losing cognitive function. And at the same time, we’re learning from big-data studies how to prevent it.
A wild study came out of Europe showing that the closer you live to an airport, the higher the rate of neurocognitive decline— or not thinking as well— and what it means is that you need quiet at night. And so it’s as simple as that. I have a 150-pound dog that snores
I put those foam earplugs in— and it gives my brain the quiet at night.
There’s also data that every year you delay retirement, you reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s by 3 percent. So [if] you don’t use it, you lose it. And so, all of us need to be aware of our cognitive function.
There’s a group at [University of California, San Francisco] that made a computer game that tried to connect various activities to connect parts of the brain— and it worked. If an adult does that for an hour a day for a month, they actually increase cognitive function close to 20 percent for over a year. They’re not going to sell the game in stores, they’re going through the FDA, so that you and I will write a prescription for this game to differentiate it from all these crazy websites that make claims without data.
Dr. Manny: …Are we winning the war on cancer?
Dr. Agus: No, not even close. We’re doing better … but I have patients who die every week, and I’m sure you do too, from this horrible disease.
So there are really two big advances that have happened in the last couple of years, and they’re big. They’re not curing it, so we’re not winning, but they are prolonging [life] and decreasing some of the pain and suffering. One is what we call ‘personalized medicine’ or molecularly targeted therapy. That is, in any cancer patient, I can, literally overnight, sequence the DNA of their cancer— and this is paid for by insurance; this is commonly available now— identify an on-switch and give them one of 30 or 40 pills that are on the market now, to turn off that ‘on-switch.’ Many times we can have dramatic responses in patients.
In ‘The Lucky Years’ book, we talk about a patient who [has] now [been living with the disease for] 4 or 5 years. And he had disease all over his body, and [now] he’s still running a company, doing his normal life, taking a pill a day.
Dr. Manny: Your hope— because I do believe you’re never going to cure something that is a biological process in the human body— but we certainly can make it into a chronic condition that we can sort of live with.
Dr. Agus: No question. Diabetes – people live a normal life with diabetes, and I want the same with cancer. We want to keep it under control. In my game, a tie is just as good as a win, right? If I can make it stop growing, I’m on a good spot as a cancer doctor and so is the patient.
The book, “The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health” is available everywhere books are sold. For more information, visit DavidAgus.com.