30 years and counting: Where we've been, where we're headed

The inaugural issue of the Harvard Health Letter was published in November 1975, 30 short years ago. We were in the infancy of the "genetic engineering" revolution back then. Medical science had just recently figured out how to manipulate DNA and determine the structure of individual genes. We could start imagining a future in which genetic defects might be corrected before they did harm.

Three decades ago, we suspected that the body might have natural mechanisms for protecting itself against diseases. Now advances in immunology have started to allow us to harness those mechanisms. And the discovery of stem cells is opening the door to other means for "natural" healing.

We were only beginning to appreciate how much our lifestyles influence our vulnerability to diseases in 1975. After all, it was only 11 years earlier that the U.S. Surgeon General had officially linked smoking to lung cancer. Yet we lacked solid proof that lifestyle changes could protect us against the biggest killers: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Today, we know they can, dramatically.

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