When I think back on 2023, there have been so many traumatic events that I am sometimes tempted to strike the entire year from my memory: whether it was the attack on Israel, the extent of the retaliation in Gaza, or the grinding stalemate in Ukraine, I am saddened by the drums of war and the loss of respect for human life; whether it was the floods in Libya, or the firestorm in Hawaii, I am burdened by the realization that extremes of climate have become a 21 st century norm; or whether, closer to home, it was our ongoing loadshedding, or the fact that nearly fifty percent of South Africa’s tap water is no longer drinkable, I am reminded that even basic infrastructure in our beloved country is crumbling. This permanent stream of bad news conspires to leave us feeling sad about our planet today and fearful for her future.
However, what isn’t reported is that from a health and longevity perspective, 2023 has been a wonderful year and I would like to share three health breakthroughs that we have experienced at the Institute of Healthy Aging (IHA), and then three medical breakthroughs that have been bought to the world.
1. Hair loss
Going bald is something that we traditionally associate with us men. However, a recent study suggested that over 50 percent of older women suffer from significant hair loss!1 The problem is that we do not have a recognized treatment to help these women. Male pattern balding is often driven by a version of testosterone that is fondly called DHT (Dihydrotestosterone). We can either inherit the gene that converts our testosterone into DHT, or we can induce it during times of stress. Taking a daily tablet called Finasteride is often all that is needed in men to block this process and retain the curly locks. It can though come with the side effects of depression and lowered sex drive. This treatment gives hope to many men, but is not generally considered in women, as testosterone is rarely seen as an important hormone in the fairer sex. This year, IHA helped to develop a version of this medication in South Africa called Dutasteride. This product is not swallowed, but rather injected into the scalp of both men and women, with the promise of giving lasting follicular protection, without the risk of the above side-effects. To test its efficacy in women, we injected it into the scalps of 10 ladies at the clinic and had excellent hair regrowth in 7 of them, with zero reported side effects. This Dutasteride scalp injection is now a firm favourite in the armament of treatments that Nina and Bodene can offer.
2. Stem cells
We have been doing stem cell treatments at IHA for the past 10 years. We have always explained to patients that this is an experimental treatment, and that we are on a learning curve as to what conditions these amazing cells might help. Traditionally, we would pull some fat out of a patient and then spend the next 3 hours extracting the stem cells from the fat, before injecting them back into a joint or into their blood. These stem cell would then be attracted to areas of inflammation or death and be expected to stimulate new tissue formation. However, recently South Africa has become one of the few countries in the world that offers donor stem cell treatments. This has made things a lot easier for people who want stem cells but do not have much body fat to tap into. It has also made the treatment more effective for older people who would like to experience the benefits of younger stem cells. Over the past year we have had great results in improving wear-and-tear arthritis in knees and shoulders, rheumatoid arthritis throughout the body, and emphysema or long-term damage to the lungs. South Africa is blessed with still being one of the least expensive places on the planet to do stem cell treatments, and although it is not yet a proven benefit, we have patients who enjoy annual stem-cell treatments for health and longevity purposes.
3. NAD drips
Megan and I were torn between our new Omegawave scanner that measures brain stress, the Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy that delivers high pressure oxygen to the body, and NAD drips, as our third contender of breakthrough success in 2023. However, for the following reasons we decided that the winner is the NAD drip. NAD is a version of Vitamin B3 (Nicotinamide) and goes by the full name of Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide. NAD is an active player in the body and has the job of being the key that switches on our mitochondria – the energy organelles inside every cell. As we grow older, our mitochondrial engines start to fail and by 60 years of age we can be in a state of poor energy due to this problem. A South African analogy would be suffering from permanent level-4 loadshedding. It is very difficult to measure the state of our mitochondria, but at IHA we have found that if your mitochondria are unravelling, then an NAD drip can be diagnostic and should boost your energy. From what we have seen, about 80 percent of people over the age of 50 have significant mitochondrial deficiencies and demonstrate this by enjoying an energy boost from this drip. However, this is not all, as NAD has other roles in the body: it is there to protect our chromosomes from damage, and we know that damaged DNA is a sure road to rapid aging; it also boosts our dopamine – the brain neurotransmitter that deals with addictions. Because of this we will often use NAD drips to assist people overcoming cravings for alcohol, sugar or cigarettes, potentially turning new year’s resolutions into success stories.
A number of years ago, scientists discovered an ingenious technology used by bacteria where they are able to cut out a section of DNA in a rival bacterium and render it harmless. It took until 2020 before two scientists were awarded a Nobel prize for their work in refining this technology for use in humans. This year, the first application for humans was approved in the USA and the UK. For the first time, an inherited condition called sickle cell anaemia can be treated by injecting a carrier virus into a vein, which then transports the CRISPR technology to the bone marrow where it cuts into the DNA of the red blood cells, extracts the problematic DNA, and inserts a strip of healthy DNA, thereby reversing the condition.2 The door is now open for CRISPR to be used to reverse other genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis of the lungs, and perhaps Alzheimer’s dementia and cancers.
5. Grey hair
We can all generally remember the horror of the day that we found our first grey hair. It signified that we too were not invincible, but like everybody else could expect to observe a sequence of aging and degeneration. However, the point of healthy aging is not to resist this process, but rather to fortify ourselves with a lifestyle and treatments to give us energy today and optimal health tomorrow. This year, scientists discovered the mechanism for exactly why we do go grey. Hair follicles contain stem cells (melanocytes) that code for hair pigment, whether that be black, brown, ginger or blonde. They found that these melanocytes travel up and down the hair follicle for years, generating pigment cells and keeping the hair colour young and attractive. However, with time these melanocytes tire and come to rest at the base of the follicle resulting in a lack of pigment formation and the start of the dreaded grey. As with all medical progress, now that scientists understand the process, there is every chance that they can develop a treatment to slow or reverse the problem.
6. Artificial Intelligence
If this is 2023 then it must be the year of Artificial Intelligence (AI). One of the most aggressive tumours in humans is pancreatic cancer. It is oftentimes discovered quite late and because of this, almost 50 percent of patients die within one year of diagnosis.3 This means that although it is a rare malignancy, pancreatic cancer generally ranks as the third biggest cause of tumour death. This year, scientists in Denmark used AI to examine the records of 41 000 patients and discovered that there are patterns that computers could use to give early predictions of those most at risk of developing this cancer. An early diagnosis means an early treatment, which could revolutionize the outcome of this dread disease. Who knows, but perhaps we will one day look back and say that this was the point where computers took over, and us doctors became redundant.
Despite all the bad news of 2023, we at IHA hope that there have also been positives in your life, that you have learned a little more about the amazingness of your body, and that you are excited about your health journey ahead. From our entire staff, we wish you a restful festive season and we look forward to being your medical touch point for 2024.
- Chiakittisilpa S et al. Prevalence of female pattern hair loss in post-menopausal women: a cross-sectional
study. Menopause: 2022: 29: 415-20.
- Sara Reardon. FDA approves first CRISPR gene editing treatment for sickle cell disease. Scientific American.
- UK cancer Research. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/pancreatic-cancer/survival ↩︎