ADDIS ABABA – Walking around this large city I notice relatively healthy looking people. In particular, comparing Addis to the USA where I am coming from, I see mostly lean people: women, men, young and old. No overweight children. And this is certainly not an emaciated lot. Being lean here is not about malnutrition. Here in Addis most people are doing alright. They may not be rich, but there are no visible signs of misery and widespread poverty.
Good habits, good health?
Furthermore, I have yet to see anybody smoking a cigarette. So, there you have it. Healthy looking, lean people makes me think that the average Ethiopian eats in a reasonably balanced, healthy way. A population of non smokers is another plus. Obviously this is an impression, limited to what I see here. But this is a major city, the country’s capital.
Obesity in America
Now I compare this Ethiopian scene to what I see in America, every day. Obese people, young and old, everywhere. And the cause of this obesity is no mystery. It is now well documented that a very large number of Americans have unhealthy personal habits. They eat too much of the wrong stuff. Obesity is so widespread that it is now recognized as a national epidemic. And obesity is the root cause of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes, among others. These are chronic illnesses that usually require lifetime (expensive) treatments.
Americans still smoke
Beyond that, notwithstanding a decades long and fairly successful anti-smoking campaign, millions of Americans still smoke. And certainly this significant minority of smokers will contribute to the incidence of cardiovascular diseases, to the number of people affected by pulmonary issues, and lung cancer.
Staggering cost of chronic diseases
To put all this in a broader context, TIME magazine reported that 86% of the $3 trillion that the US spends on health care every year goes for the treatment of chronic diseases. Both figures are astonishing. We spend an enormous amount of money on health care, and this is shocking. Even worse, most of it goes to treat preventable chronic diseases.
And how do you prevent most –extremely expensive– chronic diseases? In large measure, by adopting a healthy life style. In a word, by doing what most Ethiopians I see walking around Addis Ababa seem to know how to do, at least intuitively. Eat healthy stuff, not too much of anything, and do not smoke.
We think of ourselves as a leading developed nation, constantly breaking new ground in medical science. And yet we waste almost 3 $ trillion each year by treating the self-inflicted wounds caused by bad habits we refuse to change.
And this is our modern culture? A culture that cannot even teach people what a healthy diet is?
Healthy habits help prevent diseases
And so the irony here is that while Ethiopia probably spends a small fraction of its national wealth on health care, (I am not saying that this a good thing across the board), at least the personal habits of its people create a powerful barrier against the spread of the (costly) chronic diseases that afflict millions of Americans.