What will it take?

Two news stories today made me crazy. They shouldn’t have, because neither one really surprised me. But both served to call attention to huge health problems that don’t have to be as big as they are. The first story, on NPR, was this:

“The Coast Guard puts out a number that’s important for companies running ferry boats and charters. Since the 1960s, it’s been assumed the average person weighs 160 pounds. In keeping with America’s changing waistlines, the Coast Guard has raised the average weight, the Los Angeles Times reported. Boat operators must now assume people weigh 185 pounds.”
Yes, it’s no secret that America, along with most areas of the world that follow a standard Western diet, has climbing obesity rates. But to see it trickle down to the point where ferry boat operators will have to allow fewer people on ferries…insane.
The other story was about the World Health Organization warning that chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes have reached global epidemic proportions and now cause more deaths than all other diseases combined. Why does this bother me? Because these three diseases are lifestyle-related. They are epidemic because way too many people smoke, eat unhealthy food, watch TV instead of exercise, don’t keep their weight at a healthy level and drink too much!
This is not to say that anyone “deserves” cancer or heart disease, and the research does not totally agree on all points about what lifestyle factors contribute to chronic disease, but there is enough agreement among health experts that if someone did want to try to avoid these diseases, they could take some solid action toward that end.
If I sound like I’m yelling down from my soapbox, it’s because I am. This is why I’m going to grad school. This is why I’m going to study public health nutrition and become a Registered Dietitian. I am absolutely driven toward these goals. Obesity and chronic disease is a public health issue, and its also a very personal issue.
  • If someone has trouble moving through their daily activities with reasonable ease because they are obese or their body has become stiff and unconditioned from lack of physical activity, then their quality of life is less that what it could be. 
  • If someone is dealing with cardiovascular disease and/or diabetes and are worried that they might have a heart attack or go blind or lose a foot or have to go on dialysis, then their quality of life is less than what it could be.
  • If somebody has to remember to take several prescription medications on the right schedule while dealing with the side effects that are often part of the deal, then their quality of life is less than what it could be.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Who doesn’t want to be able to feel physically comfortable, to play with their kids, to walk the dog, to go for a fun bike ride with a friend or loved one? Who does want to juggle doctor’s appointments and trips to the pharmacy and spend life waiting for their health to go from bad to worse? Don’t we all want the best quality of life possible? I’m not talking about money or big houses or fancy cars, I’m talking about health…and health is priceless. Trouble is, we don’t see how valuable good health is, until we’ve lost it. What will it take to make people see what they are squandering?
I’m sure there are some people who truly don’t see the connection between their unhealthy lifestyle and poor health. Others know the connection, but don’t want to stop smoking, start exercising or eat vegetables. Then there’s the group that see the connection, and know what they need to do to change, and even want to change, but never manage to turn intent into action. I fell into that group at one point, but I eventually found my motivation and turned into the next group, the group that sees the connection between lifestyle and health, and makes the effort to live as healthfully as possible each day.
A healthy lifestyle doesn’t guarantee a life free of chronic disease, but it certainly increases the odds! It’s pretty well understood that our genes don’t necessarily dictate whether we will or won’t get cancer, heart disease or diabetes. It’s how our genes intersect with our daily habits and the environment around us that matters. It’s a hotbed of scientific research, and as these things often go, there’s much that is now known, and much that is still unknown. This is one reason that twin studies are so fascinating…identical twins have identical genes, but there are many cases where one twin gets cancer or another chronic disease, but the other twin doesn’t. Clearly, our genes are not our fate. Clearly, how we live makes a difference.