Establishing medical patterns

Are we approaching a point where our lifestyles, where we have lived, what we did for a living etc will all be tied to a master computer somewhere that will recognise trends in medical issues and be able to recognise and respond to them much quicker?

Yes, and everything else will be in such computers, and they will be finding patterns all over the place, some of which we could never see ourselves.


I rememeber a few years back I read where children who were exposed to the hanta virus 60 or 70 years ago were now experiencing liver or kidney failures. I imagine their are tons of patterns we have never even recognised to exist.

I’m with Smeghead. The continuing uncertainties in medical and epidemiological research on large numbers of people indicate “finding patterns all over the place” on the individual level is some distance in the future, at least if we care that those patterns should be useful and give accurate predictions.

Yes, we will be finding patterns all over the place. We do so already. For instance, by looking at patterns we have determined that people who live near power lines will develop cancer. Our next pattern may indicate that people who drink white wine on Tuesdays and red wine on Thursdays have high incidence of developing bunions. After that we’ll determine that people who fit into 3 or more patterns have a high incidence of having credit problems and shouldn’t be allowed to work in the financial industry. The future will be wonderful!



Here’s the thing: All these studies we keep hearing about in the media about how certain lifestyle choices affect the chances of coming down with certain diseases, they are mostly bullshit even when they are true (and, of course, many of them turn out not to be true, on further examination). Suppose it is true (to make up an example) that drinking a couple of glasses of red wine per week lowers your chances of dying of cancer by 1% (or 2%, or 5%, or even 20%, although these sorts of studies almost never find figures as high as that), even so, many of those people who dutifully drink a couple of glasses of red wine every week will still get cancer – not many fewer, in fact, than would have done so anyway – and most of the people who don’t drink red wine will not get cancer.

These sorts of studies are actually not a very important aspect of medical research. They get reported a lot in the media (much more than other types of research that is much more likely to eventually save lives) because (1) they seem, superficially, to be relatively easy for lay-people to understand (although, in fact, this superficial understanding is usually very misleading), and (2) they appear to give information that people can actually use in their lives to make themselves healthier (although, in fact, even if real and wholly positive, the effects are usually very small or even negligible).

Most of the real causes of disease are random events that are essentially beyond anyone’s control, or, at least, out of the control of individuals: the main reason why someone got cancer might be that a cosmic ray (which are showering down and passing through us all the time) just happened to strike a chromosome in one of their cells in just the wrong way, so that it caused a mutation that made the cell cancerous; when someone comes down with some infectious disease, the main cause is probably because they just happened to breathe in some germ that was floating about in the air, a germ that many other people, just by dumb good luck, happened not to breathe in.

So no, even if it were practicably possible to collect all the data that the OP envisages, and to have it automatically analyzed by computer (even if this were possible without having huge impacts on people’s civil liberties and privacy), and even if everybody followed the lifestyle advice that came out of it, the impact on general health would be very small. The few lifestyle choices that have major impacts of health, like not smoking, and getting a reasonable amount of exercise, are pretty obvious and we probably already know about all or most of them.

Medical research money is better spent (and mostly actually is spent) on other sorts of things, but ones that are difficult to explain to a public largely ignorant of physiology, and basic biochemistry and genetics, and so do not get on the network news, or the front page of Yahoo.

ETA: Just to be clear, I am not saying that research on the effects of lifestyle choices on health is useless, and should not be funded. I am saying, however, that, despite the impression that you might get from mass media, it is (rightly) a very minor aspect of medical research.

I don’t think this is quite right.

Illness from Hantavirus was only recognized twenty years ago and, AFAIK, the virus itself was identified about twenty years before that. So, we have no way of knowing its long-term effects beyond about twenty years (i.e the time since the first recognized Hantavirus disease).

And, even in the twenty years that people have been followed post-Hantavirus illness, there are no reports of emerging kidney (or liver) problems. (A good reference)

One example is that Google is able to predict where people are getting the flu based on aggregated web searches. Here is the article that was published in Nature about this research.

I can’t find the article now, pretty sure it was something in readers digest and may have been printed 20 years ago. They said they made a linc to children from Ghettos around the Chicago area I believe and were showing up in hospitals all over the country with kidney failure had tested positive for having contracted the virus as children. I will continue to search for a source on this.