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Smarter sleeping and insects for dinner: How we'll keep our bodies healthy in ten years' time

We look at four emerging trends that could change how we stay well between now and 2031.

COMPARE OUR UNDERSTANDING of health now to that of a generation ago, and the differences are infinite. We’re much clearer on the negative impact of activities like smoking and alcohol, and on the positive effects of exercise, mindfulness and a varied diet.

But advances in science and research mean that new discoveries, big and small, are coming all the time. In celebration of the role that science, innovation and curiosity play in changing our world for the better, the theme of this year’s Science Week (running from November 7 to 14) is ‘Creating Our Future’.

All are welcome to take part in free events nationwide, and to contribute to Ireland’s biggest brainstorm by sharing what you think researchers should explore to create a better future for us all.

To get you thinking about what the future could hold, read on below as we take a ten-year view on how we’ll be keeping our bodies healthy as time goes on. From the way we nourish our bodies to the way we treat illness, let’s see what’s to come by 2031…

1. Snacking on insects, algae and next-generation veggies

shutterstock_722718082 Shutterstock / Natalia Lisovskaya Shutterstock / Natalia Lisovskaya / Natalia Lisovskaya

The food industry is no stranger to new inventions, from alcohol-free gin to juicy plant-based ‘beef’ burgers. And while ten years is a short time, evolutionarily speaking, there are still likely to be some significant changes to how and what we’re eating by 2031.

Take our sources of protein, for example. Researchers in a paper published by Nature Sustainability identified eight future ingredients that provided more or similar amounts of protein to a standard meat or vegetarian diet. Among them were three kinds of insect larvae – mealworms, house flies and soldier flies – along with two types of algae. 

If the idea of swapping your Sunday roast for a larvae-based burger doesn’t appeal, then what about making ingredients we already use taste better, without compromising on their nutrition? Food startup Pairwise aims to use gene editing (which, unlike classic genetic modification, involves making “very small changes in one or two pieces of DNA”, according to founder Haven Baker) on certain fruit and vegetables to make them more palatable – be it a stoneless cherry or brand new variety of kale with a milder taste.

2. Getting pain relief… without taking pain medication

shutterstock_273598058 Shutterstock / ESB Professional Shutterstock / ESB Professional / ESB Professional

Those with chronic pain or long-term illnesses can end up on a long list of tablets and other oral medications over time, each with their own lasting impacts and side effects. But what if treatment could be more effective, and less reliant on medication? That’s what Dr Alison Liddy asked, and is now beginning to answer through her research at NUI Galway.

Her Hydrobloc treatment, which won her the €1m Science Foundation Ireland Future Innovator Prize last year, is a form of drug-free pain relief for knee osteoarthritis. Around 18m people in Europe suffer with this condition, and Hydrobloc’s treatment offers sustained pain relief without the need for standard oral medication.

“While oral medications work well for acute conditions, in the long run, taking this kind of medication is not ideal. If you’re diagnosed with a long-term condition aged 40 or 50, you could be on medication for 30 or 40 years,” says Liddy of her research.

3. Using AI to help treat our ailments

shutterstock_1901894644 Shutterstock / Chinnapong Shutterstock / Chinnapong / Chinnapong

The words ‘artificial intelligence’ can be alarming to some, conjuring up images of fleets of talking robots. While your local GP isn’t about to be replaced by a cyborg with a stethoscope any time soon, AI is placing an increasingly powerful role in medicine.

Imagine a busy hospital where one nurse is responsible for a ward of people recovering from illness, checking their vitals and ensuring they’re not in need of urgent treatment. Now imagine that those patients are sent home instead, each with an AI-controlled wearable sensor. “Now, instead of one nurse monitoring eight people on a ward, [he or she] can monitor 8,000 people at home,” Richard Zane MD explained to the Financial Times. Beds are freed up, staff shortages are reduced, and patients spend less time in hospital.

AI can make everything from brain surgery to diagnosing cancer easier, but even the most efficient machine has a long way to go before it could replace the empathy and experience of a human doctor.

As Sai Balasubramanian MD puts it in Forbes: “A physician can ask other important questions that go beyond a simple, data-based answer: Can the patient afford this treatment plan? …Is the patient happy with this treatment plan? …Technology can never truly replace what it is to be a physician.”

4. Sleeping smarter (which could mean sleeping less)

shutterstock_763309252 Shutterstock / mavo Shutterstock / mavo / mavo

With the advent of wearables and fitness trackers, we can find out everything from how much sleep we got last night, to how much tossing and turning we did, at the tap of a screen. 

New advances in years to come could take our relationship to sleep one step further, allowing us to cut down on the amount of shut-eye we need to function and stay healthy. How? By using technology to enhance the quality of the sleep that we do get.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is one such technology, using magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. Often linked to the treatment of depression, a 2021 study showed that TMS has the potential to improve sleep quality too. Although more research is needed, the technology could be used to help treat insomnia – or indeed, to make the classic eight hours a thing of the past.

Our idea of what it means to be ‘healthy’ has changed hugely over the last few decades. From how we eat to how we treat illnesses to how we sleep, advances in research and innovation mean that our definition of health is only set to transform further in years to come.

Curious about what the future holds? Science Week runs from November 7 – 14, and it’s your chance to learn something new and celebrate the role of science in our everyday lives. And if you have an idea that you think could create a better future for us all, now’s the time to share it as part of Ireland’s biggest brainstorm. See the full lineup of free Science Week events and workshops at scienceweek.ie, from wildlife workshops to coding classes.

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