Quality of life
Poor physical health can lead to the deterioration of mental health, and vice-versa. Thus, both are equally vital for a higher quality of life. This complex challenge requires a multi-dimensional approach in safeguarding the wellbeing of all people. Adopting a holistic view is therefore a big step towards the alignment of global health agendas and sustainable development goals.
Physical and mental wellbeing are known to be mutually dependent – and should therefore be promoted equally.
Many technologies available today can help restore and improve physical health – prostheses (artificial legs and hands) being a great example. They can also boost the wellbeing of those with physical impairments, by promoting inclusion, enabling function and restoring independence. Yet the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that only one in 10 people that are in need of an assistive technology actually has access to them – a situation that is attributed primarily to their high cost. However, thanks to advances in biomechanics and bioengineering, prosthetic devices used to replace a missing limb (either partly or completely) are becoming increasingly affordable.
Another example of technology that has a positive impact on wellbeing is the dialysis machine, as used in renal replacement therapy. The device can greatly improve the life of those suffering from damaged, dysfunctional or missing kidneys until they can have an organ transplant. It is estimated that 1.4 million people worldwide currently depend on the technology – albeit primarily in higher-income or more developed nations. This number is expected to grow further as a consequence of population ageing and increased incidence of type 2 diabetes and hypertension. In developing countries, where access to such treatment is more limited, end-stage kidney disease remains a problem, however, due to higher rates of infectious causes not typically seen in more affluent populations, such as sickle cell anaemia, HIV, amyloidosis, hepatitis B and C, schistosomiasis and tuberculosis. In some areas of Africa and India, meanwhile, environmental pollution, pesticides and unregulated food additives are a contributory factor.
Mental health is also increasingly being recognised as a priority in the global health agenda. Currently, 72% of WHO Member States have a stand-alone policy or plan for this long-neglected challenge.
Despite the importance of mental health disorders receiving greater attention, a key challenge in addressing these issues is diagnosis – as many conditions have very similar symptoms, and can also be closely associated with each other. Generally, mental health disorders are characterised by experiencing confused or disturbed thoughts, a change in emotions and behaviours, or experiencing other physical symptoms that have an impact on daily life. Examples of disorders include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other psychosis.
Many people are affected by mental health issues: in the UK alone, for example, one in 4 adults and one in 10 children are diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives. It is further estimated that depression specifically affects over 300 million people across the globe.
Controlled substances, like psychiatric medication, can be very beneficial to the treatment of mental illnesses. Lithium, for example, is used to increase effectiveness of antidepressants, control mania and stabilise mood in the treatment of bipolar disorder.
Technology for improved life quality
Technology can be a great contributor towards improving quality of life, whether it be in terms of techniques that allow for the treatment of physical illnesses, devices that alleviate symptoms, thus boosting wellbeing) or advances in the formulation of drugs to treat mental issues. In many cases, metals and minerals are essential for this technology.
Prostheses are custom-made mechanical devices used to replace body parts. Artificial limbs enhance and enable motor control, so improving the quality of life of the amputee. They are highly functional and, in some cases, also serve a cosmetic purpose. Technological innovations in robotics and evolving surgical techniques are allowing prostheses to work much more like natural limbs. Materials used to make prosthetic limbs must meet many requirements: they must be lightweight, relatively waterproof, comfortable to use, strong, durable, hygienic, and bio-compatible. Aluminium, titanium, magnesium, and copper are some metals commonly used for different applications. Copper, iron, aluminium, and nickel are used primarily as alloys or for plating. In recent years, titanium (sometimes alloyed with aluminium and vanadium) has also been commonly applied on the internal load-bearing structure for its strength, corrosion resistance, low density and weight.
Patients who suffer from kidney failure can either have a kidney transplant, hemodialysis, or peritonial dialysis. Haemodialysis is the most common treatment, and is usually undertaken three times per week to purify the blood of a person whose kidneys are not working normally. It removes waste products, such as creatinine and urea, and frees water from the blood. Hemodialysis can significantly increase the duration and quality of life for those awaiting a transplant. The machine is composed of a dialyser, a pump, valves, a monitor, and internal components. The LED display usually contains many metals including boron, copper, gallium, and nickel. The main circuit board may contain platinum, palladium, cobalt or aluminium, lead and tin can be used as solder, and copper is used for wire and in printed circuit board tracks. Blood pump and valves also contain stainless steel. The Affordable Dialysis Prize aims to encourage innovation in design running off solar power and costing less than a traditional machines.
Lithium is an alkali metal extracted from brine or hard-rock mining, as well as naturally found (in low levels) in the human body, water, and food – such as pistachios, dairy, fish and grains. In high doses, lithium (carbonate or citrate) is used as a medicine to treat depression and bipolar disorder. It can be used to control mania, to stabilise mood, and to increase effectiveness of antidepressants. Lithium has successfully been used to control rage outbreaks in prisons and even drug addiction. Moreover, pre-clinical trials show a potential for it to be used in the prevention of Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Lithium works on the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), but it is not yet known exactly how it acts to regulate mood swings in bipolar disorder.