Lifestyle

Life in America more precarious than in other developed countries | Gustafson

The obesity epidemic is one of the main reasons why it is so difficult for Americans to get health care costs under control. - Courtesy
The obesity epidemic is one of the main reasons why it is so difficult for Americans to get health care costs under control.
— image credit: Courtesy

It shouldn't come as a big surprise. On average, Americans are in poorer health and have shorter lifespans than the citizens of other affluent countries, including most Western European nations, Australia, Canada and Japan.

Considering that close to 50 million people, almost 20 percent of the population, are without health insurance and many more with only limited access to medical services, a decline in public health would seem inevitable.

Still, the findings of a recent study by the U.S. government are quite shocking.

Disadvantaged Americans

According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), America ranks at or near the bottom among the 17 richest nations in the world in terms of life expectancy and chronic diseases like heart disease, lung disease, obesity and diabetes as well as injuries and death from violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

What's even more disturbing is that these statistics not only apply to the poor and the elderly, as experts long expected, but across all demographics, including young adults and those who can afford health care coverage.

"We are struck by the gravity of these findings," said Dr. Steven Woolf, professor for medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and chairman of an expert panel that was tasked with the study. "What concerns [us] is why, for decades, we have been slipping behind."

Even first generation immigrants coming to the U.S. show negative health effects within a relatively short time due to diet and lifestyle changes. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), obesity rates among immigrants roughly equal those of U.S.-born adults within 10 to 15 years after taking up residence here. One study found that migrants from comparatively poor countries like Mexico or Guatemala are especially prone to develop diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart problems because of dietary changes.

"If you go with the flow in America today, you will end up overweight or obese, as two-thirds of all adults do," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in an interview with USA TODAY. "Obesity is one of the few things that has gotten worse quickly. It really is a very serious health problem," he added.

The obesity epidemic is also one of the main reasons why it is so hard to get health care costs under control in this country. It costs $1,400 more per year to treat an obese patient compared to someone who is normal-weight and $6,600 more to treat a diabetic, said Dr. Frieden.

Poor eating habits

What changed in the U.S. more profoundly than in other countries – although similar trends are now emerging worldwide – is a dramatic shift in our eating habits. We eat more conveniently prepared but highly processed foods and enjoy fewer healthy meals made from scratch. Our portion sizes have gone through the roof. We also have become more sedentary due to progressive automation in the workplace, longer commutes and lack of safe outlets for physical activity.

"What has happened is that the structure of our society has changed in ways that make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight," said Dr. Frieden. It's a fertile ground for the diseases we now see on an epidemic scale.

Obviously, there is not one solution that could undo all of these regrettable developments. Multiple measures will have to be put in place and made to work together. Personal responsibility is certainly part of the equation, but so are numerous other components such as better health and nutrition education for the public, further improvements to school lunch programs, reintroduction of mandatory physical education (PE), more effective safety and disclosure regulations of agricultural and food manufacturing industries, to name just a few.

The deterioration of our public health is not irreversible. On the contrary. Most of our ailments are self-inflicted and therefore in our control if we only muster the will to address them in meaningful ways.

Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun," which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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