As 2009 winds down and the season for gratitude is upon us, this is a great time to reflect on our progress and contemplate the road ahead. This year especially, with the ongoing debate over public-policy directions for the U.S. health-care system, the collective state of our health deserves our attention.
America`s Health Rankings’ 2009 report came out just recently, and as a two-decade continuous assessment of our nation’s health, it’s a great tool for checking how we’re doing and—I hope—springing us into some action.
The longest-running annual assessment of the nation`s health on a state-by-state basis, the rankings urges all populations and communities to take action to improve health.
There are some bright spots in the report: Over the past 20 years, our nation has seen improvements in the reduction of infant mortality (a 33 percent drop), infectious disease (down 53 percent), prevalence of smoking (down 33 percent), cardiovascular deaths (29 percent fewer incidents), violent crime (a drop of 23 percent), air pollution and children in poverty (8 percent reduction), and there has been an increase in immunization rates of 42 percent.
We deserve a very light tap on the back for these advances since our progress has been slow. Even smoking cessation efforts, which have been the focus of a very large public health effort, has left nearly one in five Americans still smoking. Childhood poverty—which had been going down consistently—has gone up in the past year by a percentage point.
The past 20 years have also been very challenging in two important measures of public health: Obesity prevalence has increased by 129 percent since 1990, and the rate of uninsured Americans has increased by 14 percent, and now stands at about 15 percent. And yes, obesity rates are still climbing and have gone up since 2008.
Let’s take a closer look at obesity.
Obesity rates are climbing fast. The average American man has added about 17 pounds in the past 20 years and the average American woman has gained about 15 pounds. About a third of Americans are obese, and if obesity continues to grow at the same rate, the report predicts 43 percent of Americans will be obese by 2018, and since excess weight drives health-care costs, our collective weight gain will add $344 billion to our health bill bottom line.
There’s also great disparity among different ethnicities, with minority groups showing overall higher rates of both obesity and smoking compared to non-Hispanic whites.
National and international comparisons
The report ranks states’ healthfulness taking into account a multitude of measures from high school graduation, violent crime rates, health funding and prenatal care to obesity, smoking, binge drinking, and cancer and cardiovascular deaths.
The state-by-state assessments add a nice sense of competition, and I’m sure you’d like to see how your state ranks in health compared to others (after you finish reading my post!). Ranks go from 1 (healthiest) to 50 (least healthy). The winner is Vermont, up from 4th last year, with its low rates of kids in poverty, low obesity rates ('only' 23% of the Vermont’s population), a high rate of high school graduation, and low smoking rates (8th in the nation). Vermont’s downside: a high rate of binge drinking and low immunization rates.
At the very bottom of the list is Mississippi, which has won the dubious rank of least healthy state in the nation eight times in a row. Mississippi remains uninsured, poor, uneducated, the most obese of the states and one of the highest consumers of cigarettes (44th in the nation).
The thinnest state is Colorado.
My home state of Pennsylvania is ranked 28th—making us totally in the middle and unremarkable—with a 2 point improvement from last year. Pennsylvania’s main strengths are a high rate of high school graduation (7th in the nation) and a relatively low rate of uninsured (7th in the nation). The challenges are air pollution and a high rate of infectious diseases, and of course obesity (36th in the nation)—that goes without saying, as all American states suffer from high rates of obesity. Even Colorado.
Besides encouraging a healthy sense of rivalry, these comparisons are a great resource to draw upon, and see how we can learn from other states and implement best practices for good health.
But the comparison to other developed countries is what deserves our greatest attention.
When we measure ourselves against other countries, the conclusion is obvious—and there’s no softer way to put it—we simply aren’t the best.
Healthy life expectancy is the number of years a newborn can expect to live a healthy and productive life. The Japanese are at the top, and enjoy 76 healthy years on average. We in the US rank 30th, are on par with the Czech Republic and Chile, and our average healthy lifespan is 70 years. We rank #37 in infant mortality among 193 countries rated.
We spend more on health care than any other country in the world yet have a lower life expectancy, less access to care, less patient safety and definitely less equity than many other countries.
A short quote from the report:
“Based on two decades of consistent tracking, the 2009 Rankings calls for the nation to change unhealthy behaviors that are contributing to preventable, chronic diseases as the key to improving our nation`s health. Trends cite smoking as the greatest health challenge of the past 20 years and warn obesity is likely to be the next national health battle. When it comes to our national pursuit of health, Americans have benefited from disease treatment while preventable illnesses continue to decrease quality of life for many. With focused attention, change is possible.”
The way ahead
As the U.S. health care-reform debate continues, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the staggering cost of treating disease.
But prevention and improving public health are still very much missing in the general conversation.
I’m not referring to screenings (and I definitely don’t want to get into the mammograms schedule issue); screening is usually aimed at early detection and timely treatment of disease, which is a very important, but quite different from prevention.
What I’m talking about is modification of risk factors and prevention of disease through simple and proven changes in lifestyle. Smoking, poor eating habits and inactivity contribute to chronic diseases in a big way, and we’ll have to put some serious effort toward modifying these risk factors in order to slow the rise in chronic illness and truly reform our health-care system.
The incidence of diabetes has doubled in a decade, and we know that improved diet, obesity prevention and physical activity are the key to reversing this trend in type 2 diabetes, which is costing us both unnecessary suffering and lots of money.
The late Ted Kennedy said this in 1994 about health-care reform: "What we have in the United States is not so much a health-care system as a disease-care system."
Not much has changed in the past 15 years. Although disease treatment has progressively improved, preventable illnesses prevalence is still rising, causing a lot of suffering and impairing the quality of life for many.
Please check out the useful Take Action resource section in the report, which can help individuals, employers, community leaders and health care professionals take concrete steps toward the goal of changing unhealthy behaviors and preventing disease.
There’s much we can do, both individually and as a nation, to improve our health and prevent disease.