By Paolo von Schirach –
WASHINGTON – When it comes to taking care of our health, we Americans are really going backwards –in a most spectacular way! We are now well into an era in which by far the main enemy of our health and therefore of the opportunity to live a mostly disease free, long life, are no longer untreatable viruses or bacteria. NO, IT IS US.
We are killing ourselves
Yes, we are slowly killing ourselves. And the silent killers are the terrible dietary habits millions of Americans have mindlessly embraced over the last few decades, (eating and drinking way too much bad stuff), and zero exercise. The manifestation of these truly bad habits are well known. I am talking about our gigantic –and worsening– obesity epidemic, the consequent explosion of type two diabetes and the various ailments caused by this debilitating, chronic disease.
In a nutshell, we are killing ourselves because –as a Nation– we have adopted a horrible diet and no exercise as our norms. The cumulative effect of these terrible habits practiced by millions over many decades is deteriorating health, (more cardiovascular afflictions, more hypertension), for tens of millions of Americans. Of course, these chronic conditions get worse as we age. And If you add to the mix the serious crisis caused by various addictions, (drugs, smoking, alcohol), America –a rich, well resourced country– is getting close to a basket case.
We spend a fortune on health care
And all this is happening notwithstanding the stupendous amount of money the US spends on health care. Indeed, America has the odd record of spending double what other rich countries spend on health, (about 18% of GDP, a staggering amount), with truly mediocre if not bad health statistics when it comes to incidence of chronic diseases and declining life expectancy. (At a little above 79 years, US life expectancy is very close to Cuba, Portugal and Albania).
Science defeated many diseases
As I said, when it comes to our health as a society, we are really going backwards. Think about it. The 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century were all about understanding and then successfully fighting deadly bacteria and viruses that were at the source of often incurable maladies. Finally, cures and vaccines were discovered that could successfully fight back smallpox, tuberculosis, sifilis, pneumonia, and polio.
Public health standards
Closer to our times it became routine, first in developed countries and then progressively elsewhere, to have massive immunization programs, so that infants and children would be protected from many potentially lethal infectious diseases. Furthermore, basic norms of cleanliness were identified and and then taught, such as frequent hand washing with soap, refrigerating perishable food items, and rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them.
At the same time, authorities understood the importance of public hygiene. They started providing treated, clean water to households. They built modern sewage treatment plants, along with modern trash removal services, so that urban waste would not become the breeding ground for bacteria and vermin (such as rats) that could carry and spread disease.
These are major victories. Vaccinations, immunizations, the availability of antibiotics, combined with vastly improved standards aimed at safeguarding public health, cut down infant mortality and allowed millions of adults to live longer, healthier lives.
If we fast forward to today, for sure thousands of dedicated scientists keep working on major medical issues, such as various forms of cancer, dementia, Alzheimer, and a plethora of genetic ailments. And this is good. Much, much more needs to be discovered and understood.
US health is declining
That said, if we look at broad US health statistics, we see an enormous paradox. As I said, we conquered major diseases a long time ago. And America spends literally a fortune on various forms of health care delivery, almost double the average of what is devoted to health in other affluent societies. And yet the overall health conditions of the American populace are actually declining on account of the epidemic proportions of ailments such as obesity and type two diabetes caused not by mysterious germs but only by our bad personal habits.
In other words, our declining health is totally self-inflicted.
We know the problem
The sad fact is that everybody with a modicum of education knows exactly why we are dealing with these epidemics. It is all about over eating bad stuff, (mostly processed food, sodas, and too many fatty, sugary snacks), combined with too much alcohol, and lack of even a modicum of physical exercise in our daily routines. And if you add to this already toxic mix millions of Americans addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, and a large variety of drugs, you have the paradoxical picture of a wealthy, reasonably well educated society that is also very sick. This is the really bad news.
It is all rooted in bad habits
But the good news is that this catastrophic deterioration of the overall health conditions of millions of Americans is not about bad luck. It is rooted in our freely adopted BAD HABITS. Habits are not genetic. We learn them, and then we adopt them. And this means that given proper guidance and education, once we realize how toxic these habits are, we can ditch them and embrace new, healthy ones.
Yes, it really is as simple as that. We became accustomed to unhealthy processed foods. We drink rivers of sugary sodas. We eat too much junk food which is mostly fat, sugar and salt. Most of us do not exercise at all. I am not sure how these habits came to be embraced. But is is time to get rid of them. And it is quite possible, even though doing so will require an extensive, focused public education campaign, starting with children, and quite a bit of self-discipline.
Yes, ditching bad habits is a major challenge
I fully recognize that changing the entrenched bad habits of millions of Americans looks too big a task, in fact an impossibility.
And yet it is doable.
We can all learn what a healthy diet is, and then embrace it as our new habit. There is nothing magic or mysterious about it. Fruits and vegetables are good for you. Snack food is not. Plain water is good for you. Green tea is good for you. Sugary sodas are not. Furthermore, once we understand the horrible long-term consequences of a sedentary life, we can all engage in some form of exercise, (walking just 30 minutes a day can be a life changing new habit for mostly sedentary people).
As I said, unless we ditch our truly bad habits, we are slowly killing ourselves, while we waste billions of dollars every year treating mostly preventable diseases that we inflicted on ourselves.
Are you telling me that we cannot do better than that?