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The Seven Stages of Life

A guide to health, from our first entrance on stage to our final act

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. 
– As You Like It, Act II Scene vii.

It’s safe to say that when William Shakespeare wrote these lines at the end of the 16th century, good health was the exception and not the rule. Few people survived much beyond middle age, routinely succumbing to simple infections, injuries and ailments. Surgeons treated gunshot wounds by pouring boiling oil over them; ointments prescribed to cure infections contained ingredients like rabbit hair, puppies’ fat and turpentine; nursing mothers weaned their babies by rubbing bitter-tasting soot on their breasts.

It’s almost dizzying to think how much has changed in the past 400 years. Life expectancy in most Western nations is at an all-time high. Scientists continue to unravel the complexities of the human genome; engineers work to perfect a self-contained artificial heart; doctors perform surgery on the unborn fetus.

Through it all, we struggle to understand the impact that current medical developments will have on our own health and on the health of our children and grandchildren. “The post-genome revolution will transform every aspect of the health-care system: everything from how we treat advanced disease to the use of new designer drugs,” predicts Dr. David Naylor, dean of the Faculty of Medicine. Yet despite the amazing leaps in medical knowledge and practices that have occurred, “the biggest challenge we face is that we still know too little about health and illness,” he says.

To highlight some current issues in health and medicine, we have borrowed a framework from Shakespeare: his famous reflection on the human lifespan as spoken by Jaques in the comedy As You Like It. Our cradle-to-grave tour includes commentary from dozens of scientists, academics, physicians and other health-care professionals in the Faculty of Medicine and the university’s teaching hospitals, and also from alumni and students. And, yes, we forgive Shakespeare the sexist attitudes of his day.

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