Cardiovascular disease, cancer, pulmonary disease, accidents, and stroke.  Depending whom you ask, these are the top 5 causes of death in the United States. Some say iatrogenic events (medical accidents) are even more common but not reported as such. Interestingly, all of these causes of death are preventable most of the time.  In fact, 9 of the top 10 causes of death are lifestyle diseases, meaning they are generally caused by choices we make and are for the most part preventable.

Although antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses appear to be a serious threat as the years progress, we have, for the most part, conquered infections as a common cause of death.  Only pneumonia and influenza are serious issues, and these diseases tend to cause death most often in people who are ill with one or more lifestyle diseases mentioned above, so maybe it’s the lifestyle diseases that are really the issue.  If we exclude infections, what we are left with, particularly since the industrial revolution began in earnest in the U.S., is chronic disease.

What is chronic disease? 

Chronic disease is essentially a health issue that persists for a long time (at least 3 months) and does not have a distinct and successful medical or pharmaceutical cure.  Most chronic diseases are considered “forever” diagnoses.  Once you get a chronic disease, you have very little chance of curing it, meaning it will always be with you or have a high chance of recurrence even if “remission” is achieved.  What is expected from treatment of a chronic disease is improved symptoms, delayed disease progression, and reduced incidence of complications.  Not cure.

I find it interesting and quite concerning that we KNOW that lifestyle choices are causing or at least contributing to the most common forms of chronic disease, including cancer.  We KNOW that our health behaviors (smoking, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, stress, and social isolation) are making us sick.  We KNOW previously healthy isolated cultures that adopt Western lifestyles develop a higher prevalence of chronic disease after they start living like us.There is no longer any debate about the connection between unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, poor food quality, and chronic disease.

And yet, chronic disease is so common that half of the population of the United States has one, and about a quarter of us has two or more, according to the CDC.  In fact, Mayo Clinic discovered in an epidemiological study that half of Americans use 2 or more prescription drugs, and 20% use at least 5 prescription drugs.  Older people use the most prescriptions and most often for chronic diseases.
But wait.  How could this be possible when one considers the fact that most chronic disease is preventable?  This is a conundrum.

Here are my thoughts about what could be driving our chronic disease dilemma:

People have no idea chronic disease(s) are preventable. Or, perhaps, they may be aware but unsure how to achieve health.  Many people and families in this category may desire a healthy lifestyle but be unprepared financially or educationally, or they may lack appropriate medical support.

People would rather be sick than healthy. They are aware of what a healthy lifestyle looks like and/or have access to services that would help them, but they fail to take personal responsibility for their lifestyle choices or make excuses instead of searching for solutions.

Healthcare providers are not counseling patients adequately or giving information about how to prevent chronic disease.

Many of them may, themselves, be in the dark about lifestyle disease prevention.  Or, they may be too busy or too jaded by the system where the majority of players prefer a pill over lifestyle change.The healthcare system is set up to address symptoms and signs (like pain or cholesterol numbers) but not root causes of disease, which may be changeable and curable. Despite the rising cost of healthcare for patients, doctors and other providers are now seeing about twice as many patients as they used to but are being paid the same or less, depending on specialty, despite the rising cost of healthcare.  Lifestyle counseling takes a lot of time and is not generally reimbursable by third party payers and many patients are not willing to pay for it, either.

Data collection (research) and dissemination of information (media) in the healthcare industry is led by people and companies that profit from keeping people alive but chronically unwell. Pharmaceutical and medical tech companies, medical insurance companies, and the government all benefit financially from the current paradigm.  Doctors, administrators, and other providers are informed and regulated by it, and thus almost all patients (and conscientious providers) are hampered by it.  Yes, this is a huge can of political worms.  I beg your pardon.

Solutions are elusive.

Healthcare has been such a big issue for so long in the U.S. we are all tired of hearing about so-and-so’s “health care plan” and so-and-so’s “tax bill” (which are both the same thing, by the way).  The election process has been hampered by the health care issue for decades.  I remember Bill and Hillary Clinton making promises way back in the ‘90’s when I was freshly out of med school.  We all know something is wrong in ourselves and our communities, but apparently more than half of us are looking for the President to solve it for us, be he red or be he blue.  Shame on us.

Solutions are right in our own minds, our own bodies, our own homes and communities.  We KNOW what we need to do.  Let’s do it, shall we?

Let’s make personal commitments to improve our own lifestyles.  Let’s make changes in our own family’s lives that support healthy living.  Let’s demand healthcare that is focused on helping people heal, not prolonging the agony.

Most of us already know what to do, we just need to do it.  Need ideas about the most effective ways to start?  Here are some suggestions:

Slow down.

Our fast-paced lifestyles are causing all kinds of havoc in our minds, bodies, and families.  If you feel too busy, you are.  Start eliminating things.  Life is a series of good, better, and best choices.  Chose only the best.  You don’t have to do everything nor be all to everyone.  Once you slow down, you have less stress, better sleep, more time for faith and family, and perhaps more meaningful physical activity.

Get serious about what you choose to put in and on your body.

Just because you can buy it, there is no guarantee that it’s good for you.  Despite all our licensing and regulation in the U.S., some industries remain relatively free to sell crappy stuff without even labeling their products accurately.  I’m not complaining about their freedom to do it.  I do not favor a lot of regulation.  But I am complaining that many companies sell their stuff despite knowing their product is causing harm, and I’m launching an even bigger complaint against consumers for voting for crappy stuff with their dollars.  If we stopped the demand for crap, supply would improve (and costs may go down, eventually).  Think local organic apples and a handful of nuts instead of Doritos and Coke.  Think adequate sleep and a genuine smile instead of wrinkle cream and makeup.  You get the point.  It’s those little choices that matter.  You don’t have to overhaul your life.  Talk about overwhelm!  Just make a few meaningful and realistic changes every month or so.

Focus on enriching your emotional life and relationships.

Put your prayer and meditation time on your calendar every single day instead of waiting until you have more time (‘cuz you won’t ever have more time) or waiting until you finish all your more “urgent” tasks of the day/week/month (‘cuz those will always be there).  Take a daily walk, even if it’s just 10 minutes.  Schedule a weekly one-hour talk with a supportive friend.  Date your spouse.  Play with your kids.  These are the treasured times in life.  Ink them in.
Creating big change in your life takes time, and it starts with the small stuff.  Just one little choice, made over and over, adds up to a cache of rich and healthy living.

Refuse to become one of the nation’s chronic disease statistics.  Stand your ground against our unhealthy modern lifestyle.  Make good choices for you and your family.

As individuals, and together, we can change the tide.

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