The price is too high

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

May 2008

"What the heck! You have to die of something." In my zeal to promote a healthy lifestyle I often hear that response when I suggest quitting smoking, getting more exercise, eating more fruits and vegetables or some other good habit.

That flippant comment is true but it misses the point. Good health habits can't help us to avoid dying but they can stave off disability, perhaps for decades.

Statisticians have figured out that average life expectancy is still rising and is over 80 years for women. The last 10 percent of those years, however, are spent battling the pain of arthritis, the weakness of heart failure, the lack of mobility that follows hip fractures, the paralysis of stroke or the breathlessness of chronic lung disease. And diabetes, which now affects a once-unimaginable one-fifth of persons over the age of 60, brings with it blindness, dialysis for failing kidneys or lifestyle-shattering leg amputations.

These so-called age-related chronic conditions are ramping up the financial burden of healthcare both for the individual and for the nation. It helps to have health insurance but in families that have suffered bankruptcy it was the cost of medical care among those that were insured that pushed them over the edge. Co-payments, prescription drugs, appliances, loss of a job and hiring someone to help care for disabled family members can quickly wipe out decades worth of savings.

Anyone who thinks that help is on the way from state and federal programs needs to think that one through. Medicare is only a few years away from insolvency. There is a valiant effort in some states to cover healthcare costs for everyone but no government program can keep up with the rising burden of the diseases mentioned above. Without massive changes in the way we eat and act, insurance premiums and/or taxes won't keep up.

Obesity affects more of us every year. Patients that weigh more than 500 pounds are so common in our communities that hospitals accommodate them with beds and operating room tables that can hold half a ton. Doorways need to be widened and some rooms have hoists to keep hospital personnel from injury. It's a cost burden that hospital planners didn't even think about just a few years ago.

It's never too late to head off disabling diseases although the younger you are the better your chances. Shedding only 10 or 15 pounds will significantly lower your blood pressure and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Gradually getting down to your normal weight with an hour's worth of moderate physical activity 4 or 5 days a week, cutting down on portion size and substituting a green or orange vegetable in place of a starchy one can work wonders and you'll feel the difference in a couple of weeks.

It's a small price to pay for extra years of vigor and less chance of draining your retirement fund to make it through diseases that are almost entirely avoidable.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.