You want to know why we need fundamental changes in healthcare in this country? Look no further than obesity, which almost daily unfolds as a health crisis of the first magnitude. We have no national policy or system of preventive care to address a scourge that already costs almost $200 billion a year to treat and is set to turn back the clock on longevity.
Overnight it seems we went from an exercise revolution to a situation where one out of every three American adults is obese. Overweight children, relatively unusual just 15 years ago, now make up 30% of school-age kids. Once thought to be a problem of the uneducated poor, obesity is rising fastest among people earning more than $60,000 a year.
As a direct result, 18 million adults now have diabetes, a record. More telling, childhood diabetes has risen tenfold in the past 20 years. In all, some 41 million Americans have elevated blood sugar levels that lead to diabetes. Approximately one-third of the 570,000 expected cancer deaths this year will be related to factors stemming from being overweight and physically inactive. As a generation of children comes of age, already obese, the future is grim.
There isn't one culprit for this situation. Literally hundreds of environmental and economic factors are at play, though it boils down to the fact that people eat poorly and don't move enough. A recent study of data from more than 153,000 adults in all 50 states found that only 3% of Americans follow a healthy lifestyle, as defined by nonsmoking, keeping a healthy weight, consuming five or more fruits and vegetables a day and engaging in regular physical activity.
The worst actor is our fast-food culture, which tempts at every turn. The burger chain Hardee's had been falling behind competitors but regained its financial footing last year after introducing its Monster Thickburger, which tips the scale at 1,418 calories and 107 grams of fat. Kids' lunchboxes are overflowing with Fritos and sodas.
As late as the 1970s, children walked to school while their parents strolled to work; now nervous parents drive kids everywhere. Where most adults used to walk down the street to a store, now many live in remote cul-de-sacs and drive to faraway malls or office parks. All of us spend untold hours almost motionless in front of computer screens or TVs, with one hand likely in a bag of snacks. Even people who exercise drive to the gym.
So where's the cure to come from? There's no clear answer. Big Pharma is spending billions on the next diet drug, hoping that obesity is its next profit frontier after years of drug development setbacks. While everyone remembers the fallout from fen-phen and Meridia, many still believe a magic pill is going to undo the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle. Already endocrinologists are predicting that obesity drugs will end up like so many others, overprescribed and abused.
Next year a federal law will mandate that schools develop "wellness policies," but it has no teeth. Oklahoma is among the states with new laws banning fast food in grade-school cafeterias. Everyone from Oprah to the president is talking about obesity, but it's not enough.
Health plans, employers and doctors should get together to ensure that anyone who is severely overweight should be enrolled in wellness programs that stress fitness and nutrition. Schools should serve healthy meals and stock vending machines only with healthy snacks. Government should mandate warnings on fast food just as it does for cigarettes. And everyone should think about moving their own bodies more every day, even if it just means taking the stairs.
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