The crisis is clear. Chronic diseases are crushing health care.
As people live longer, chronic diseases have skyrocketed, accounting for nearly 75 percent of the nation’s annual $2 trillion health expenditures, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Seven out of 10 deaths among Americans each year are from chronic diseases. Heart disease, cancer and stroke account for more than 50 percent of all deaths each year.
Our health-care system is good at treating short-term problems, such as broken bones and infections. Medical advances are helping people live much longer than in the past. But obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. The population is aging. We need to do a much better job managing chronic diseases.
Chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and Alzheimer’s disease take a heavy toll on health. Chronic conditions also cost vast amounts of money. The current trends are going in the wrong direction:
- Obesity increases the risk of developing conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. The rate of obesity in adults has doubled in the last 20 years. It has almost tripled in kids ages 2–11.
- Without big changes soon, one in three babies born today will develop diabetes in its lifetime.
- Average health-care costs for someone who has one or more chronic conditions is five times greater than for someone without any chronic conditions.
- Chronic diseases account for $3 of every $4 spent on healthcare.
Over 162 million cases of seven common chronic diseases — cancers, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, mental disorders, and pulmonary conditions — were reported in The United States in recent reports. These conditions shorten lives, reduce quality of life and create considerable burden for caregivers.
The global economic impact of the five leading chronic diseases — cancer, diabetes, mental illness, heart disease and respiratory disease, could reach $47 trillion over the next 20 years, according to a study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) released in the summer of 2011.
Chronic disease is estimated to account for 35 million deaths worldwide. Cardiovascular disease and cancer comprise a major proportion of chronic diseases in both developed and developing countries. Other than cardiovascular disease and cancer, obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, end-stage renal disease, osteoarthritis and non-alcoholic hepatitis are also becoming significant public health problems.
The prevalence and incidence of these diseases may rapidly increase in the near future in the United States because the prevalence of obesity has increased. At the same time, the population is gradually aging, and age-related degenerative diseases/conditions claim enormous health and economic tolls. Age-related cataracts are the leading cause of blindness, accounting for about 42 percent of all blindness. Approximately one in five people over age 65 live with age-related macular degeneration, and adults with advanced macular degeneration have a markedly reduced quality of life and need for assistance with activities of daily living. The incidence of dementia also increases with age. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for more than half of dementia cases.
Chronic illnesses impact every aspect of the lives of people who suffer with them. They have three major tasks. They have to deal with the medical management of their disease — whether it’s taking pills, or doing exercise, or diet or whatever. They have to deal with the fact that the things they want to do and need to do in life may also change. That can go all the way from no longer being able to work to no longer being able to do a loved hobby or having to change things in a major way. And they have to cope with the emotional impact, whether this is fear or anxiety or depression.
Adopting a pessimistic attitude, some people believe that there is nothing that can be done, anyway. In reality, the major causes of chronic diseases are known, and if these risk factors were eliminated, at least 80 percent of all heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes would be prevented; over 40 percent of cancer would be prevented.
There are two different types of disease that people can suffer from: acute and chronic. Acute diseases come on fast, with mild to severe symptoms that last a certain amount of time. In some cases they can be life threatening. Chronic diseases, on the other hand, take place over time. They too can be either mild or severe, but it takes a lot longer for them to develop and it takes longer for them to disappear. The symptoms also have a tendency to come and go repeatedly.
When it comes to avoiding chronic diseases, there are several preventive measures that can be taken:
1. Do not smoke. According to the American Heart Association, approximately 26.2 million men and 20.9 million women smoke in the United States. Smoking increases your risk of heart disease, emphysema and lung cancer. To prevent the onset of these diseases, do not smoke or quit if you currently do.
2. Get some exercise. Exercise brings with it a number of benefits: It helps reduce weight, improves mobility, elevates mood, strengthens bones and helps improve circulation. All of these factors will help reduce the chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and atherosclerosis. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise on five or more days a week.
3. Reduce your alcohol intake. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause a number of health problems. A chronic condition that can occur is cirrhosis of the liver. This is a chronic condition where scar tissue replaces healthy tissue causing the liver to not function optimally. To prevent this disease, keep your alcohol intake moderate.
4. Cut out unhealthy foods. What you eat plays a big role in developing chronic diseases. Foods that are processed, have large amounts of refined sugar or are high in saturated fats should be avoided. They can cause obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
5. Eat plenty of fiber. Fiber is a non-digestible substance that gets passed through the digestive system. Eating fiber helps relieve constipation and it reduces your chances for colon cancer, diverticulitis, diabetes and kidney stones. The Institute of Medicine recommends eating 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories you eat. Some examples of fiber-rich foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and oat bran.
On our current path, The United States will experience a dramatic increase in chronic disease in the next 20 years. But there is an alternative path. By making reasonable improvements in preventing and managing chronic disease, we can avoid a projected 40.2 million cases of chronic conditions in 2023.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself, and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
Glenn Ellis is a health advocacy communications specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?” and is a lecturing health columnist, radio commentator, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.
His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine,” is due out this fall. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.