Great Challenges: Which health issues are overhyped, overlooked?

The party’s over—but for the TEDMED Great Challenges program, which is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the conversation is just beginning. Throughout the year, we’ll host a lively national dialog on the 20 Challenges chosen by the TEDMED community. The program will include TV-style interviews with leaders from across fields, a series of webinars on each of the 20 Great Challenges, and the opportunity for TEDMED community members to add their voice.

We rounded up some of the most exciting things we heard from Great Challenges

advocates over the course of the conference, from the technologies that get the biggest news (but may be overhyped) to the little-known, overlooked epidemics that may have the biggest impact on our health.

Eating right. Yes, it’s important, but why is it so hard? We asked Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, and advocate for Challenge #31, Choosing Better Foods. “It’s not about lecturing people about eating right, but about how do we make that easier? Every community should have access to high-quality, affordable food—just as we ensure everyone has access to high-quality water,” said McMillan. “We act like healthy food is a luxury, to our detriment.” McMillan also said eating well is really about more than just food, too. It’s about fair wages, work-life balance and other factors. Sure, French women don’t get fat (arguably)—but they also have five weeks of paid vacation, covered child care and reasonable work days. Couldn’t we all eat healthfully if we had that kind of time, suggested McMillan?

McMillan shared a table with Challenge #24, Food and Technology: Balancing the Trade-offs, where advocate Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch spoke on another food concern—addressing scarcity in developing countries. “We have decades of research and we have the tools we need today in the developed world—the real challenge is getting that to the developing world,” said Hauter.

We all know cancer’s burden on the public’s health—many of us first-hand, from a friend or family member who’s struggled with the disease. But Challenge #27 brings attention to The Overlooked Cancer Cohort: adolescents and young adults aged 15 through 39. Challenge advocate Leonard Sender said this is because of the perception that this group is young and healthy, while not as vulnerable as children, and therefore not a priority for funding or research. But the truth, Sender says, is that cancer is the disease that kills the most patients under 40 in this country. Around eight to 10 percent of breast cancer patients are young women. Sender said screening is less common in this age group, and “stage for stage,” the cancers are more aggressive and have worse outcomes. “This is the one segment of the population where we could actually see a tangible result if we put resources into it,” Sender said.

From an overlooked population to an overlooked problem, “Many people wouldn’t know there was an epidemic of loneliness,” said Jacqueline Olds, advocate for Challenge #35, The Epidemic of Isolation and Loneliness, and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Harvard Medical School. It’s been gradual but marked, said Olds, who shared the statistics that 20 years ago people used to have an average of three confidantes they could talk to—now, as a nation, we’re down to an average of one. Loneliness and isolation are linked to a wide range of diseases and undesirable health behaviors, from depression to self-neglect and more. Some solutions could include getting doctors to ask about loneliness as a vital sign, and putting out a national media campaign to educate about the ill effects of isolation.

Special Needs Patients and Children face their own unique set of health and psychosocial issues, said Challenge #38 advocate Alan Fleischman, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine—but it also represents a broader issue. “The problem of taking care of kids with special needs is really a metaphor for the burdens of any kind of chronic care. We need to empower families,” said Fleischman. In his experience, “patients need a little bit of help from the doctor, but a lot of social support. We’ve got to look to the community for resources to give the families what they really need.” “Amen to that,” responded an onlooker and TEDMED delegate, who said he had a son with autism.