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Business of Health Care: Body Temperature Decline

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So much of the thinking in medicine has changed over the past 150 years. But there is one number that has remained constant – 98.6 degrees.

That number has represented normal body temperature since German physician Carl Wunderlich first compiled millions of temperature readings from about 25,000 patients in Leipzig in the mid-1800s.

At least until recently.

Researchers from Stanford completed a major study showing that normal human body temperature has been declining since the Industrial Age.

Other recent studies have suggested the same thing, even after adjusting for factors that can have an impact on body temperature.

Researchers believe that there a few different reasons for this – the most important being improvements in medicine and public health.

A fever is a response of the immune system that often indicates the body is fighting off an infection.

Today, there are fewer infectious diseases and harmful bacteria circulating through our bodies when we are well thanks to vaccines, antibiotics, and better sanitation.

That means the body may not need to remain as warm to keep infections at bay like it did 150 years ago.  

More than a fun fact, a lower normal for body temperature has practical implications.

For starters, doctors may need to recalibrate how they calculate when someone has a fever.

But more interestingly, body temperature also serves as a surrogate for our metabolic rate, which is linked to body mass and longevity… meaning it may add a new perspective to conversations about the evolution of human health, weight, and life span.

This report, and other episodes, are available at KWBU.org. Business of Health Care is a production of KWBU and Baylor Scott & White Health.

Glenn Robinson has been the President of Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest since September 2007. He previously held several CEO positions at hospitals in Texas, Oregon, and South Carolina. A Georgia native and graduate of the University of Alabama, Glenn completed graduate school at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
Sam joined KWBU in January, 2020. He graduated from Baylor University with degrees in English and Film and Digital Media in 2019. Raised in Marion, Illinois, Sam is an avid podcast listener, cinephile, and music lover who also enjoys backpacking and landscape photography.