Building a healthier nation

Becoming healthy begins at home and then radiates outward

The author is a senior public-health-education specialist with the Butte County Department of Public Health. This article is being published to coincide with National Public Health Week, April 2-8.

Every year, chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes are responsible for millions of premature deaths and cause Americans to miss 2.5 billion days of work, resulting in lost productivity totaling more than $1 trillion.

Here in Butte County, the five leading causes of death are cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease, accidental deaths and stroke. The underlying factors leading to these deaths are, for the most part, preventable. For example, 19 percent of Butte County adults smoke, and smoking directly contributes to cancer, heart disease and stroke. Similarly, 24 percent of Butte County adults are obese, and obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

With nearly 1 million Americans dying every year from diseases that could be prevented, even small preventive changes and initiatives can make a big difference in living healthier lives. If we take small actions, our communities, homes and families will see the large benefits of preventive care and grow the movement. These preventive measures can help create a healthier nation and reach our goal of becoming the healthiest nation in just one generation.

If Americans did the simple things—exercised more frequently, had more healthful diets, avoided alcohol, tobacco and other drugs—we could dramatically reduce the burden of disease and death, helping to save lives.

We could also save billions in health-care dollars. For example, cigarette smoking, which is the most common form of tobacco use, causes approximately 443,000 deaths and costs about $96 billion in medical expenditures and $97 billion in productivity losses in the United States each year. Obesity costs totaled about $147 billion in 2008; the medical costs paid by third-party payers for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

Of course, we can’t make significant improvements unless all Americans play a part in creating a healthier nation. That means everyone needs to take small steps to improve the well-being and health of their own communities. What can you do? Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Visit a farmers’ market and make a meal of fresh, local produce. Seek help to quit smoking. Limit your child’s (and your) screen time. Participate in efforts to make our communities healthier such as creating community gardens or new bike paths.

It is time we shift our paradigm from being a nation that cares for the sick to one that encourages preventive measures to improve our nation’s health.