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Reasons to keep optimism alive for a healthier 2022

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

And our next guest has even more reasons for hope and optimism this year. Steven Petrow is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, and he recently wrote a piece titled "Could 2022 Be A Better, Healthier Year? Ten Reasons To Be Cautiously Optimistic." He says that buried under the grief and loss that we've experienced in 2021, there are seeds of hope for the new year. So Steven Petrow joins me now to try to help us kick off this year in better spirits.

That's a tall order Steven, but I'm willing to let you try. Welcome.

STEVEN PETROW: Adrian, I'm glad to be with you, and Happy New Year's Day to you.

FLORIDO: Happy New Year's to you.

Before we jump into your list, I'm just curious - it's clear that we face a lot of challenges in the year ahead, so what spurred you to take an optimistic rather than pessimistic view of the new year? And I should correct that - cautiously optimistic.

PETROW: Cautiously, yes. And if I'm going to be completely honest with you, I am known within the health section at The Washington Post for being of the naysayer, for being the curmudgeon, the one who has the most difficulty sort of seeing the silver lining. So they said, let's give this to Steven. If he can come up with some reasons for hope. maybe they actually exist. And then I did a lot of interviewing and research. And yes, we came up with even more than 10, but there are only 10 in this particular piece. And I think that when people start to see some of the piecemeal pieces of progress, we can start to feel better about where we are and where we're going.

FLORIDO: And because so many of our concerns in the last year have revolved around health, you really focused your list on health-related reasons to keep our chins up. But the first reason on your list is a little bit more nebulous. It's resilience.

PETROW: Yes.

FLORIDO: What about resilience is giving you hope?

PETROW: Well, you know, there was a poll that came out at the very end of 2021 from the University of Michigan. And it found that 70% of Americans over 50 said they felt either the same level of resilience as before the pandemic - and resilience was defined as overcoming challenges, recovering, bouncing back - and 15% said they actually felt more resilient. You know, and what I take away from that is, you know, we have been through so much. And when you go through this kind of national trauma and you come out - I was going to say at the other end - but you come out in the middle or two-thirds of the way through, you can look at yourself, you can look at your family and say, hey, I'm still here. I managed to live through this. And so I think that's very important for us as we continue to go forward with some form of this pandemic.

FLORIDO: There are a few items on your list that involve innovations in health and medicine. You see a lot of reason to be hopeful in the fact that the Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are now widely available but also in the fact that these were developed through the use of mRNA, which could mean some pretty big things for science in the future. Why is that giving you hope?

PETROW: Think back to January of 2021. Vaccines were still in the experimental stage. Health care workers we're trying them. We did not have access to them. And so it is a completely different world a year later, where we have the Pfizer, the Moderna and the J&J vaccines, which have been game changers, you know, really all the way through. And it's just, you know, this is really a marvel of science. And we also see how the studies and the efforts we've put into vaccine development help us with other diseases. And the Pfizer and Moderna shots are messenger RNA vaccines - that's the mRNA. And the use of mRNA has long intrigued researchers in treating a number of other diseases, including the flu, Zika and rabies. But now researchers think that they can use mRNA to rapidly create safe and effective vaccines to treat cancer. And that's a big deal. And so one example is at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, there's a trial underway now testing mRNA vaccines against pancreatic cancer, and that's one of the most deadly malignancies. And I was really surprised to hear that they're actually one year ahead of schedule despite all the challenges of this pandemic. So we may be seeing other direct benefits from this mRNA research.

FLORIDO: You also say that we're winning the war on cancer - slowly, but that there's a lot of progress being made.

PETROW: So 50 years ago, President Nixon declared the war on cancer, and he hoped to solve the problem within the decade. That did not happen. Here we are a half century later. But we have seen many gains. And, you know, if you look to colorectal cancer, if you look to breast cancer, death rates are down substantially - 40% and 50% respectively. If you look at lung cancer survival rates - five-year survival rates - they're better now. So there has been progress. You know, we certainly need more progress, but this is encouraging news. And hopefully, we'll continue to go in that direction.

FLORIDO: OK. So we've talked about resilience. We've talked about health innovations. But you also list some of the things that the pandemic in the last couple of years have helped us learn about ourselves and our communities and how we find community. What are some of those? And why are those promising for the year ahead?

PETROW: You know, I'm laughing here a little bit because I think just about everybody says they hate Zoom and Skype and so on.

FLORIDO: I am one of those people.

PETROW: Yeah, I'm laughing a little bit about the question because, you know, all of us say, you know, we hate Zoom, and we hate Skype. And then, you know, these are not in real-life interactions. But, you know, we have learned how to adapt them, and we have learned how to make connections. And that is very - you know, that is very important. And that whole sense of connection and community does happen online. You know, then there's been a very big mental health crisis in this country, and there's much more access to what's called teletherapy - or online therapy - as a result of these online apps and sites and communities. So, you know, this is really an important way that we can take some of the - some of what we're experiencing and continue with it even past the pandemic, whenever that might be.

FLORIDO: OK, lastly on your list, Steven - you just want people to get outdoors, to go outside. Why do you want people to get outside more?

PETROW: Well, it's not that I want to get them outside. It's that science tells us that when we find any version of the outdoors, it improves our mental health. It improves our physical health, cardiovascular health. And we have, you know - we have seen that, you know, over the last two years. And there are so many studies that point to this. And this is kind of something that we also can learn about and take away from. You know, being outdoors was not just for social distancing. It is really intrinsic to our health and well-being. And I love what the Japanese do. They have this practice called forest bathing, which really means being in nature. And you do not need to be in the country to be in nature. You know, you could be in Central Park. You can be in Rock Creek in Washington, D.C., really anywhere. And you will feel better, science says.

FLORIDO: OK, so before we let you go, I imagine there might be people who are listening to you and not buying it, who are skeptical about your list, who are still feeling pretty pessimistic about 2022. Do you have any tips for those people about things they can do to just put a little bit more optimism in their lives?

PETROW: Well, I totally understand that, and I have a deep vein of pessimism, you know, within my own body. But I think that it is important to look at the gains we've made in terms of health and science and the fact that we have managed to survive thus far and see where that's leading us. And one of the, you know, great sort of adages that I like from my life in general goes like this - if you can imagine it, you can create it. So I think with a little bit more imagination for the future, we should be able to create a better country and a better set of communities going forward.

FLORIDO: That's Washington Post contributing columnist Steven Petrow.

Steven, thanks for joining us, and Happy New Year.

PETROW: Adrian, the same to you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.