Will Chronic Diseases Sink the Ship?

Chronic diseases account for about 70% of US medical care expenses. These costs totaled $2.9 trillion in year 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sixty percent of Americans over age 65 have at least two chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, or Alzheimer’s disease. Given the rising proportion of senior citizens in the US population, preventing chronic diseases is critical to maintaining a viable medical care system.

Type 2 diabetes is the poster child of chronic diseases. Guess how much money Americans spent treating type 2 diabetes in year 2012? $245 billion, according to the American Diabetes Association. And that was up a staggering 41% over the previous five year period.

Costs keep going up in part because patients and doctors typically don’t address the underlying causes of diabetes and other chronic diseases. But is there an alternative? Yes, there is.

Researchers in Finland wanted to know if interventions designed to encourage healthy lifestyle choices could prevent type 2 diabetes in high-risk persons. Subjects were asked to meet five goals: 1) reduce body weight, 2) reduce total fat intake, 3) reduce saturated fat intake, 4) increase fiber intake, and 5) exercise regularly. Not surprisingly, people who made healthy lifestyle choices reduced their risk of type 2 diabetes.

But here’s the juicy part: none of the participants, whether in the intervention or the control group, who achieved four or five of the study goals over the three plus years of the study, became diabetic. Not one. This randomized controlled trial demonstrated that diabetes is preventable even in overweight, older adults.

What can you can do to prevent chronic diseases? Make healthy lifestyle choices, such eating better and getting plenty of exercise. If enough of us do so, we might be able to avert the financial collapse of our medical care system.

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