Did you know that Americans take more pills today than at any other time in recent history and far more than people in ANY OTHER country! That’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially when you learn that an estimated $200 billion per year is spent in the US on unnecessary and improper use of medications (for the drugs and related medical costs). Which may be why about 1.3 million people were seen in emergency rooms due to adverse drug effects in 2014 (before the opioid epidemic really took off) with 124,000 people dying from those events. Which begs the question, is there any way out of this death spiral?
Yep, and it’s called lifestyle changes. Lots of people have reversed their chronic diseases making simple changes that have a transformative impact on their health, happiness, and longevity. In fact, there is a whole sector of medicine focused on how your lifestyle behaviors impact your health and how tweaking them can reverse and/or prevent diseases. It’s called Lifestyle Medicine, which is an evidence-based therapeutic approach to prevent, treat, and reverse lifestyle-related chronic diseases. Lifestyle interventions encapsulate nutrition, physical activity, stress management, sleep, social support, and environmental exposures.
About half of US adults (117 million individuals) have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns and physical inactivity. These include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and poor bone health. More to the point: it’s estimated that 80% of healthcare spending is tied directly to the treatment of conditions rooted in poor lifestyle choices and considering the US spent $3.5 trillion in 2017 - that’s a hefty sum. You’d think if we’re spending that much money on healthcare we must be healthy yet the contrary is true. Reviewing the Bloomberg Global Health Index, which takes into account several factors such as: health risks (i.e. tobacco use, high blood pressure, obesity), availability of clean water, life expectancy, malnutrition, and causes of death to rank the healthiest (and unhealthiest) countries in the world. The Index combines these factors and each country is given a rating out of a top score of 100. During the last ranking in 2017, Italy scored the highest at 93 and was therefore deemed the healthiest country in the world. Other countries that ranked high for health included: Iceland, Switzerland, Singapore, and Australia. I hate to break it to you, but the US wasn’t even in the top 25! Not that the U.S. needs more shame, but the cardiac healthcare industry alone is a billion-dollar industry. The kicker is that heart disease doesn’t even exist on more than half of the planet! Yes, you heard correct, heart disease is not a forgone conclusion, and in parts of the world where it doesn’t exist people eat a whole food, plant-based diet with minimal intake of animal products.
Now, you could move to Italy or Iceland and maybe end up being healthier by default or you could stay put and simply adopt some healthy lifestyle behaviors. For instance, scientists studied the impact of some lifestyle changes by collecting data on five different low-risk lifestyle behaviors that consisted of: maintaining a healthy eating pattern (getting the daily recommended amounts of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and omega-3 fatty acids and limiting red and processed meats, beverages with added sugar, trans fat, and sodium); not smoking; getting at least 3.5 hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week; drinking only moderate amounts of alcohol (one drink or less per day for women or two drinks or less per day for men); and maintaining a normal weight (body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9). What they found was that at age 50, women who didn’t adopt any of the five healthy habits were estimated to live on average until they were 79 years old and men until they were 75.5 years. In contrast, women who adopted all five healthy lifestyle habits lived 93.1 years and men lived 87.6 years. Not only that, but independently, each of the five lifestyle factors significantly lowered people’s risk of dying from cancer or heart disease.
Although this study didn’t look at sleep, it’s believed to be as critical as nutrition and exercise. After all, insufficient sleep has been linked to obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes among other health problems. In fact, in 2010 a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies on sleep duration and all-cause mortality was published and concluded,
“People reporting consistently sleeping 5 hours or less per night should be regarded as a higher risk group for all-cause mortality. A 12% increased risk of death in short sleepers, if causally related, would equate to over 6.3 million attributable deaths in the UK in people over 16 years of age and over 25 million attributable deaths in the US in people over the age of 20 years.”
Of course, we must not forget about social connectedness. This improves physical health and mental and emotional well-being. The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez, sociology researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, cited “consistent and compelling evidence linking a low quantity or quality of social ties with a host of conditions.” Including the development and worsening of cardiovascular disease, repeat heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, high blood pressure, cancer, and slowed wound healing. Conversely, dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.
The bottom line is the lifestyle behavior choices we make matter a lot when it comes to our health. Ultimately, each person has to make a choice on how they want to live. We have the ability to design our own perfect lifestyle pill. What’s in your pill, and do you need to write yourself a new prescription?
PS - As a bonus I’m posting a touching TedTalk that addresses lifestyle choices and how it can impact not only your health, but your legacy as a person.
How does your current lifestyle connect with your overall objectives in life?
What motivates you to change your lifestyle?
What does your ideal lifestyle look like?