Throughout my time in graduate school I’ve been to several conferences, but this one was different. There have been a few big changes over the last year, and these changes may have drastic effects on the scientific community. As a health psychologist, I can’t help but be troubled by this.
Medicine has come a very long way over the many previous decades and because of research, we are better at both treatment and prevention of chronic and acute illness. However, this doesn’t mean “mission accomplished, we solved health!” Health in the United States is not good right now.
There are many indicators of health, but let’s take a quick look at
a few. On the right, the first graph you see is obesity rates in the US over time. It is projected that by 2030, half of the US population will be obese. Half of the United States! While this data is for adults, we are also seeing obesity rates rise in children as well. In fact, 20% of school aged children are obese, a rate that has tripled since the 1970’s (1). The second chart was presented at SBM. It illustrates that over half the population of California, often considered a comparatively healthy state, has either diabetes or prediabetes. This is also an extremely frightening number. Lastly, another theme of this conference was consideration of health disparities. Even though our country has made great progress, we still have great health disparities due to a multitude of reasons. In the last graph on the right we can see that, overall, caucasian Americans live longer than black Americans. Health equity should be a nonpartisan issue, and we need to continue to do research to bring optimal health to all.
While I make the point that scientific advancement should be imperative for our country, science isn’t perfect. In my opinion, there are two main skills that we as a scientific community need to keep improving on. The first is our methodologies. We need to continue to refine study methods, so we can learn more about the causal mechanisms between treatment, prevention, disease, and many other biopsychosocial principles. Second, and in my mind perhaps the most important, is to improve dissemination. Again, this is a skill that has shown great progress but we still have a long way to go. One of the keynote talks at SBM focused on a call to action, specifically for scientists to make calls to congress. Unfortunately, congress members are not always aware of the science that is being done! If health legislation is being passed on unscientific reasoning, then the policies that are put into place have a real potential to not only halt the progress we have made, but also set us back years.
In conclusion, we need science. Especially recently, we too often see that people disregard scientific evidence and instead base their “facts” on their own opinions and experiences. This is dangerous thinking, and the scientific community needs to do something. Maybe one reason this is happening is that scientists just have not done a terrific job explaining what we actually do and how science works. So, we are starting a new series of posts that will delve into what science is, what it isn’t, how we should interpret science, and much more. Stay tuned!