The Year in Health 2016

The Zika virus and the nation’s opioid crisis topped the list. 

Medically reviewed in March 2022

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By Patrick Sullivan


Health-related headlines had people buzzing all year: A virus captured the world’s attention and a public health crisis came into sharper focus. Take a look at the biggest health stories of 2016, from medical marijuana’s victories and defeats, to a game that got millions moving more this summer.

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Zika virus

Zika: Four little letters that were on everyone’s lips in 2016. This year saw the first locally-transmitted cases in the US, occurring in Florida and Texas. The extent to which the virus can cause birth defects became better-known, and researchers discovered that Zika is sexually transmitted. There’s good news, though—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that South Miami Beach, the last remaining active transmission area in Florida, is no longer an active transmission area. Keep tabs on the latest Zika information here

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Opioid addiction

In August, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, took the unusual step of sending a letter to every doctor in America asking for help in solving the opioid crisis. A record number of people died of overdose in 2015—more than 52,000, up 11 percent from 2014. More than 33,000 of those deaths were from opioids, driven in large part by powerful synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Learn why opioids are so addictive and deadly, and recognize the signs of a loved one experiencing addiction.

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Life expectancy

The CDC released new life expectancy numbers in December of 2016, showing a drop. It wasn’t by much—overall life expectancy fell to 78.8 in 2015, from 78.9 in 2014—but it was the first decrease in more than 20 years. Additionally, eight of the top 10 causes of death increased. There was no increase in the rate of deaths from influenza and pneumonia, and deaths from cancer fell. Want to increase your longevity? Try these three tips for a younger RealAge.

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Medical marijuana

Medical marijuana had a mixed year in 2016, with some victories and some defeats. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) declined to reschedule marijuana and continues to call it a public danger with no medical application, lumping it in with other Schedule I drugs such as heroin and LSD. The DEA also classified marijuana extracts as Schedule I drugs. But the DEA will increase the number of DEA-authorized growers, which will increase marijuana’s availability to researchers. Four states voted in favor of medical marijuana laws in the 2016 election and, a study found that opioids were less of a factor in fatal car crashes in states with medical marijuana laws than in states without.

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Your neighborhood and your health

Many people choose where to live based on the school system or access to employment. Now, you can also add health to the list. A 2016 report from Gallup-Healthways known as the State of American Well-Being Index not only ranks the healthiest communities in the US, it identifies the key characteristics that make their residents so healthy. The study measures four metrics—walkability, ease of biking, access to public transportation and access to parks and natural spaces. Higher scores in those key areas have been found to reduce a number of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and depression.

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Pokemon Go

Did you notice even more people looking down at their phones this summer? They could’ve been playing Pokemon Go—a mobile, augmented reality monster-catching game that took the country by storm. Players wandered around trying to capture rare monsters and pit them in battles with other players. It wasn’t just entertaining—it had some surprising health benefits, too, like improved mood, increased movement and increased mental sharpness. 

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Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth-leading cause of death in the US, was frequently in the news in 2016. Deaths from Alzheimer’s disease jumped by 15.7 percent in 2015, according to a December 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, a previously promising drug failed a phase 3 clinical trial, the last step before FDA approval. But good news came late in the year: A December study in JAMA Neurology suggests there’s evidence that cholesterol-fighting statins may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Learn how to evaluate Alzheimer’s studies with a critical eye.

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