We’ve been deceived.
In North America, we are conditioned to believe that aging involves a steady decline or “breakdown” in health. There is an expectation that aches and pains are normal, waking up feeling stiff and groggy is typical, and that spare tire that hovers in our midsection is inevitable. People accept that it’s standard to be on a few prescription drugs and that we eventually have to give up our favorite activities. Perhaps it starts with weight or blood pressure being a little high. A few years later another medication is added. Finally, a new reality is thrown in with a diagnosis of hypertension or type 2 diabetes, with even more medications and healthcare providers jumping in to help.
The reality is that, as we age, some gradual changes do occur; however, very few of the changes which we’ve accepted as “normal” are actually “normal”.
For instance, many of us experience stiffness, lower back pain, and some decreased mobility, but is this related to the natural aging process? Or is it that we’ve become almost completely sedentary? Is it possible that we are accelerating the normal loss in strength and bone density simply because we’re not moving enough and our bodies are playing along?
What about high cholesterol? Based on the fact that statins which treat cholesterol are the most prescribed drug in America, it certainly seems as if high cholesterol is simply expected. Is this true? Or is it possible that high cholesterol, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes are more closely related to poor diet, mismanaged stress, and physical inactivity because we are not great at keeping the promises we make to ourselves?
When we reach our 70’s and 80’s many people begin to experience pronounced changes in memory and mood. Anti-depressants are handed out like candy, and dementia is a common household term. However, nothing about the natural aging process suggests that this needs to be the case.
It is clear that the vast majority of individuals are experiencing an accelerated and unnecessary breakdown in health. The question is, how much of a financial impact does this have on our healthcare system and why is it happening?
Forbes magazine recently reported that poor health costs the U.S. economy more than a half a trillion dollars per year.1 Of that amount, 39 percent, or $227 billion is from “lost productivity” from employee absenteeism due to illness. Of the remaining $576 billion tallied in the report, the cost of wage replacement costs $117 billion. This number represents absence due to illness as well as workers’ compensation and both short and long-term disability. Lastly, another $232 billion of poor health costs come from medical treatment and drugs.1
With an understanding that we are not aging as well as we should and the fact that our poor health parallels our healthcare costs, it seems that addressing these issues is no longer up for debate.
To date, our ‘healthcare system’ is reactionary sick care, focusing on disease management. We wait until we are sick and then we deal with it. We’ve accepted this as the rule not the exception and there is very little emphasis placed on disease prevention. As a society, our aim isn’t so much about thriving as it is about simply surviving. Our ‘healthcare’ seems to value quantity far more than quality.
We must be reminded that our health is very much determined by our choices and commitments. We choose our lifestyle, and the choices and commitments we make to ourselves ultimately determine if we age gracefully, or poorly.
In 2012, the Journal of the American Medical Association investigated the cause of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the U.S. Nearly half of the causes were associated with suboptimal consumption of certain dietary factors.2 This study clearly outlined the top 10 nutritional mistakes that we make that are slowly making us sick. They range from not eating enough vegetables and healthy fats to eating excessive amounts of sugar and salt.
Exercise guidelines suggest a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. According to the CDC, 80 percent of American adults don’t get the recommended exercise amount.3 The effect that being active has on reducing obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers is completely evident. It is also clear that being active improves mood and has a large impact on mental health.3
Our stress response has also changed. While stress used to involve a fight or flight response in which we physically moved our bodies, stress now comes from endless busyness, sensory stimulation, and distractions which do not require human movement. It was the movement – the fleeing or fighting – that lowered our stress hormones, protecting us from the short-term surge.
Many Americans are also sleep deprived. Sleep is required to ensure repair, restoration, and rejuvenation in the body. Instead of using our energy levels as an indicator of how we are feeling, we instead regularly mask our body’s communication of fatigue with caffeine and other stimulants.
Americans are experiencing an unnecessary and premature breakdown in health. This breakdown parallels rising healthcare costs that are spiraling out of control. Thus far, the biggest flaw within our healthcare system is that we’ve neglected disease prevention and focused only on disease management. In doing so we’ve taken the emphasis off key lifestyle factors and the personal integrity required for optimal well-being. It does not have to be this way and many are beginning to reject our ‘healthcare’ deception.
The time for neglecting our health and believing our body’s decline is naturally related to age is over. Quite frankly, our healthcare system, employers, and insurers can’t afford it, and neither can we. It’s time for a health revolution.