We are becoming a nation of people with multiple chronic diseases

by Monte Ladner, MD

Many Americans are resolving that this will be the year they finally lose weight. Sadly, most of them will reach the end of 2010 heavier than when they started. We continue losing the weight loss game because our efforts are misplaced. The issue is lifestyle.

Dr. Dana King of the Medical University of South Carolina recently published two papers on the erosion of American lifestyle habits between 1988 and 2006. Here’s a summary of what he found:

1. The prevalence of obesity increased from 28% to 36%.
2. The percentage of people getting minimal amounts of exercise fell from 53% to 43%.
3. Smoking remained unchanged at about 26% of the population.
4. The percentage of people eating at least five or more fruits and vegetables per day fell from 46% to only 26%.
5. Moderate alcohol consumption increased from 40% to 51% of adults.

It appears the only public health message resonating with Americans is that moderate alcohol consumption may have some health benefits. It’s the easiest of the five habits to adopt, and the most dubious.

There is nothing else in medicine that has the power of these simple habits to prevent the most common chronic diseases plaguing our society. The World Health Organization has stated that a healthy lifestyle can prevent 90% of all cases of type 2 diabetes, 80% of all cases of coronary heart disease and about a third of all cancers.

Dr. King found that declining lifestyle habits have been associated with increasing rates of chronic diseases, and our use of prescription drugs to treat these chronic diseases has exploded by 121%. Death rates from coronary heart disease are declining, but the actual prevalence of coronary heart disease is increasing.

People in Dr. King’s study who maintained a healthy lifestyle (having all five of the healthy lifestyle habits) had lower rates of chronic diseases and took fewer medications. Just 8% of his study population was living this lifestyle, and that’s a generous number because he allowed people who were overweight, but not obese, to be counted as having a healthy weight. He also gave physical activity credit for “just about anything except breathing.” So, the people in his study who were doing the best at living a healthy lifestyle were just barely doing it, yet even these lackluster efforts significantly reduced the rates of chronic diseases and the use of prescription medication.

Dr. King expressed the concern that “We are becoming a nation of people with multiple chronic diseases. We’re prolonging life with medication, but at what cost?”

We cannot afford to continue on this path. Treating chronic diseases is already more than 75% of healthcare spending and will soon escalate beyond our ability to pay.

Losing weight and not having a chronic disease are both outcomes of a healthy lifestyle. Let’s make 2010 about changing lifestyles instead of more failed fad diets.

Monte Ladner is an anesthesiologist who blogs at FitnessRocks.org.

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