Five big health stories of 2017
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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- In a year largely dominated by headlines on politics, natural disasters and international events, a handful of topics on health and medicine nevertheless managed to capture the attention of the country. From health insurance to hurricane response efforts, 2017 was a year that showcased some of the most crucial issues affecting Americans today from a health perspective.

Below, in no particular order, are just a few of the topics that had us talking about health and medicine this year.

1) The Affordable Care Act

With the entrance of the new presidential administration came repeated efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. And while an all-out repeal of the landmark health insurance legislation met a narrow and dramatic defeat in the Senate in July, the Republican-led revamp of the tax code succeeded in removing the individual mandate -- a key component of the law that required all Americans to purchase health insurance or face a fine. While the elimination of the individual mandate falls short of a full ACA repeal, analysts suggest that it could have big implications for the way the law works -- as well as for the 13 million fewer Americans that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will have health insurance in the decade to come as a result of the move.

2) The opioid crisis

America is coming to grips with its epidemic of opioid painkiller addiction. In 2017, the most sobering numbers yet from the opioid epidemic hit the headlines. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, current statistics suggest that 91 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses. And the agency just this month released a report revealing that opioid misuse may well be driving an overall dip in American life expectancy -- a decrease that experts first saw last year and again this year. The nation’s problem with painkillers is so severe that President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis to be a “national public health emergency” in October.

3) Updated blood pressure guidelines

If health insurance and the opioid crisis aren’t enough to get your blood pressure up, know this: Your hypertension status may have changed this year, even if your blood pressure didn’t inch even a point higher. This past November, the American Heart Association changed the definition of hypertension for the first time in 14 years. While past guidelines defined hypertension at 140/90, the new definition puts this critical ratio at 130/80. The change means that an estimated 46 percent of American adults -- nearly half -- will now be defined as having hypertension. Meanwhile, with the announcement of these new guidelines, the number of American men under 45 with hypertension has tripled, while the number of American women under 45 with hypertension has doubled. So, for 103 million Americans, the change could mean that we should be watching our weight, cutting back on salt, exercising more and maybe even taking medicine to keep our blood pressure in check.

4) CAR-T and cancer immunotherapy

For decades, fighting cancer in the medical setting revolved largely around three key pillars of treatment: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. But in recent years, with the advent of new and powerful ways to use the body’s own immune system to battle the disease, this is changing. And this year, with the approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of the first-ever chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy for a particular form of leukemia, doctors treating this and other cancers may soon have another entire arsenal of weapons against other forms of cancer as well. In this treatment, doctors extract a particular type of white blood cell, known as T-cells, from the patient. They genetically tweak these cells to better recognize a certain type of cancer and create many more of them before re-introducing them into the patient. CAR-T is just one of several immunotherapies that researchers are looking into in order to fight cancer.

5) First-ever baby in U.S. born from transplanted uterus

December gave us an awe-inspiring milestone in infertility treatment: For the first time ever, a baby was born from a transplanted uterus in the U.S. The baby boy was born healthy in September at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, becoming only the ninth reported baby in the world to be born from a transplanted uterus. The mother, who chose not to release her identity or that of her baby, suffered from a condition known as absolute uterine factor infertility, a condition that affects approximately 1 in 500 women in which the uterus is nonfunctioning or nonexistent. While the procedure is only suitable for a limited range of infertility cases -- due in no small part to its invasive, technically challenging and risky nature -- it is a technological advance that may help even more women in the future do what doctors once thought impossible.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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