As modern medicine continues to come up with solutions to help us live longer, more and more excitement is being generated in the area of human longevity. Tools such as genetic manipulation, optimal diets, cures for major diseases, bionic limbs and anti-aging drugs all offer hope for a longer life.
Huge sums of money are being spent to achieve this immortality goal. Foundations, mostly organized by the newly minted tech billionaires, are funding the efforts to permit the technorati to drive their Teslas in the 22nd century.
The efforts are noble and inspired. It takes vision to accomplish what can't be seen today. Yet most of my contacts in this space are unhappy. They are stressed, their joints hurt, and their smiles are few and far between.
So the question then becomes: If science can prolong our lives, what can it do to make sure that we remain active during those extra years of life? We are pushing our joints harder and harder. If we live longer, will our joints still work? While many diseases can kill you, arthritis has the potential to ruin your long life.
Thankfully, uninjured human joints can last a lifetime of activities including running. It is only once they are injured or diseased that the surfaces become rough and the wear and tear accelerates into arthritis. If we can prevent and cure arthritis, we can extend the life of the joint.
The good news, as we are now discovering, is that arthritis is often preventable and curable if the cartilage injuries that lead to the most common types of arthritis, post-traumatic and osteoarthritis, are repaired as soon as they are injured. We, and others in this field, have developed and are improving the techniques for repairing, regenerating and replacing damaged cartilage with the hopes that painful joints don't ruin the joy of longer lives.
Novel techniques for smoothing these damaged surfaces, for repairing injured cartilage and for replacing missing tissue such as the meniscus can stop the degradation of the joint surface. There is now reasonable long-term data to support replacing the meniscus cartilage in the knee and permitting return to sports on joints that once were thought to be doomed.
Further reason to be hopeful that your joints will see you through to the end is the success we're seeing at using treatments to encourage the body to heal itself. We are getting much better at deploying stem cells, growth factors and joint lubricants to stimulate natural repair processes within the body after injury.
This stimulation is part of what we have named the Anabolic Era of joint repair. The Anabolic Era focuses on inducing injured joints to heal rather than become chronically injured. Traditional arthritis care has been to treat symptoms with pain and anti-inflammatory medicines, prolonging the disease and eventually leading to artificial joint replacement. The anabolic era of medicine should reverse this treatment paradigm.
Lastly, in the quest to keep our joints healthy into the future, we're able to protect joints with newer techniques to rebuild injured ligaments with human donor tissues — and soon with animal tissues. The techniques are improving the outcomes of tears to ligaments such as the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). It is no longer necessary to harvest tissues from one part of the knee to rebuild another. The harvest procedure weakens the knee and may itself lead to arthritis. Tissue substitution, probably pre-loaded with cells and growth factors, should stop an injury from ending a sports career and turn it into an incentive to become a smarter athlete.
These are just a few of the areas of research and development focused on keeping people active. Directing more funding to the quality of the lives we lead rather than their length, will help us live well today and into the future. May you drop dead at age 100 playing the sport you love with a smile on your face.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco. He pioneers advanced orthopedic surgical and rehabilitation techniques to repair, regenerate and replace damaged cartilage and ligaments. For more info, visit www.stoneclinic.com.