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These Health Breakthroughs Changed the Medical Landscape in 2021

It was a truly groundbreaking year. Here, eight new tests, laws, and treatments that have the power to change lives.

medical breakthroughs 2021
Matt Harrison Clough

While one big story grabbed the health headlines in 2021 (hello, vaccines!), there were also many other amazing innovations, making this a year truly like never before. We talked to top doctors, disease experts, researchers, and policymakers to determine the most powerful medical and wellness breakthroughs of the year. These fascinating discoveries and advances mark turning points in medical research—and are already saving lives. It was a great year for science, and a hopeful one for our futures.

Beyond the super-effective vaccines for COVID-19

Though the pandemic has turned the world upside down for nearly two years, it’s led to some amazing medical advances: We now have home COVID tests that give results in 15 minutes, so you can swab before visiting your elderly aunt or sending your child to school. New treatments are keeping people already infected with COVID-19 from getting dangerously ill. And of course the biggest news of all is that millions of Americans have rolled up their sleeves for one of three safe, highly effective vaccines, which the Yale School of Public Health estimates have already saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and kept more than a million people out of the hospital. This work may reverberate for years to come: Researchers are testing whether the novel mRNA technology in two of the vaccines might one day protect against infectious diseases like rabies, Zika, and HIV and cancer of the skin, breast, colon, and more. That’s a shot worth shouting about.

medical psychedelics
Matt Harrison Clough

Medical psychedelics come of age

More than 50 years after recreational use of drugs such as acid and magic mushrooms was banned, drugs like these are rocketing to new heights in the field of psychological research. In just over a year, major institutions including New York University and the University of California, Berkeley opened dedicated centers, and more than 100 studies are currently examining LSD, MDMA, and the psilocybin in mushrooms for their ability to help with concerns from headaches to anorexia to general well-being. Results this year have reinforced their therapeutic potential, with one study showing that MDMA successfully treats severe PTSD and another showing that psilocybin reduces symptoms of major depression as effectively as a daily antidepressant. “Just one or two doses of psychedelics in a supported setting can provide rapid and profound improvements,” says Natalie Gukasyan, M.D., medical director of the Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, who emphasized that these results apply to psilocybin when used in a therapeutic context. Not only are psychedelics illegal outside a research environment almost everywhere, but a controlled setting with a trained professional can help mitigate the effects of a bad trip.

ending surprise fees
Matt Harrison Clough

Ending surprise fees

Imagine being rushed to a hospital in your network but later learning that the ambulance that took you there or a doc caring for you doesn’t take your insurance. Millions of Americans don’t have to imagine, as studies show that one in five hospital inpatient admissions that originated in the ER results in these unexpected—and sometimes shockingly high—bills. It happens when out-of- network doctors get involved in patient care. This is something nearly 80% of Americans wanted the government to fix, and finally it has. Congress passed the No Surprises Act late last year, and it goes into effect this coming January. The law prohibits providers from billing consumers for the amount not covered by their insurance and gives providers the right to negotiate in both emergency and nonemergency cases (though ground ambulances are excluded). The nonprofit Families USA hails the legislation as a landmark step in the fight for health care consumers’ rights.

blood tests
Matt Harrison Clough

An easy way to detect early cancer

We hear all the time that early detection is the key to surviving cancer, but just a few tests (including Pap smears, mammograms, lung screenings, and colonoscopies) exist to catch cancer at its most curable stages. That’s why a new technology that screens a blood sample for DNA fragments from more than 50 types of cancer is generating great excitement. The Galleri test alerts your doctor if you have a signal for the disease and indicates which organ it comes from. Interim results from a clinical trial involving 6,000 people over 50 showed that the test helped diagnose 29 who didn’t know they had cancers of the lung, ovary, rectum, neck, breast, and pancreas, among others— for many of these, there are no other screening tests. This “liquid biopsy,” intended to supplement other available screening tools, is on a fast track to FDA approval, but you can get it now for $949 with a doctor’s Rx under a regulation covering lab- developed tests.

climate changes
Matt Harrison Clough

Helping the climate and our health

The way we power energy and transportation not only impacts the climate crisis but also affects our well-being, and new programs hope to improve both. Burning coal and natural gas spews soot, which can cause lung cancer and strokes; the nitrogen dioxide from tailpipes can trigger respiratory infections and asthma. An executive order signed earlier this year, along with proposed federal legislation, aims to clean up transportation and power generation—helping to save the planet, and lives.

test for fertility
Matt Harrison Clough

A new way to test fertility

When you’re anxious to get pregnant, every period can be heartbreaking. Home fertility tests to boost the odds have been around for a while, but most scan urine for just one hormone. The new easy-to-use OOVA kit, backed by New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, measures two to better identify your “do it now” window. One, luteinizing hormone, rises before an egg is released; the second, progesterone, is triggered just after ovulation. Tracking both of them improves accuracy so it approaches the reliability of blood tests, says Serena H. Chen, M.D., a clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey and a medical advisor to the company. An app on your phone reads each day’s test strip and clearly reveals the best time for you to get busy making a baby.

cost of hearing aids
Matt Harrison Clough

Affordable hearing aids

When you can’t understand what a client or your grandkid is saying over the phone, hearing aids can make all the difference, but right now they cost big bucks. You have to see a hearing-health professional, who adds his or her fee, pushing the price of the devices to thousands of dollars for a pair—often not covered by insurance. So the prospect of more affordable options will be music to the ears of the estimated 38 million American adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. The White House has asked the Food and Drug Administration to write the needed rules to allow hearing aids to be sold directly to consumers. Expanding buying options is important, because our ears can help foster work success and a happy social life as well as keep us safe, says Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America. Already some electronics companies have jumped into the DIY sound-amplification business, with Bose releasing its $850 SoundControl buds this year. More good news: Congress has proposed legislation allowing Medicare to finally start paying for both hearing aids and eyeglasses.

alzheimer's drug
Matt Harrison Clough

Movement on Alzheimer’s drugs—at last

This year we hit a milestone for new medicines for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia: Biogen’s Aduhelm became the first new drug approved by the FDA in nearly 20 years (though the approval remains controversial). And donanemab from Eli Lilly was granted Breakthrough Therapy status after a study in May’s New England Journal of Medicine found that people with early Alzheimer’s scored better on certain cognitive-function tests after a year and a half of monthly infusions than those who received a placebo. Though we’re still far from a cure, “there has never been a more exciting time in Alzheimer’s therapy research,” says Maria Carrillo, Ph.D., chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, who notes that the approval of the first drug in a new category historically invigorates the field, increasing investments that lead to more innovation.

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