We all recognize that as a society we have some adverse lifestyle behaviors such as overeating a non-nutritious diet, being fairly sedentary, having chronic stress and having 20% of us still smoking. These behaviors cause the majority of the serious chronic illnesses that are rampant today– yet they are largely preventable. And it is these diseases – heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, diabetes, etc. – which are the major causes of death. It’s quite clear that the best chance we have for increasing our life spans and overall improving our health is to adjust our personal behaviors and to do so at an early age.
We often think of heart disease, cancer and stroke as the major causes of death and, as diseases that cause death, which is correct. But what if we go back further and look at what caused those diseases. The rank order of causes of death according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control in the Journal of the American Medical Association lists tobacco, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, alcohol to excess, infections, toxic agents, motor vehicle accidents, sexual behaviors and illicit drug use as the primary predisposing factors to the diseases that cause death. A look at that list shows that the ones at the top of the list and a number of others all relate to our behaviors.
The diseases that cause death have changed substantially over the decades (see “The Burden of Disease and The Changing Task of Medicine”.) At the beginning of the 1900’s it was infectious diseases that caused most deaths. Over time they came under reasonably good control with preventive techniques such as immunizations, sanitary sewer systems and clean water systems and then, of course, antibiotics. Meanwhile chronic illnesses such as coronary artery disease became much more prevalent. [See this graphic] Even though fewer people smoke than a few decades ago our obesity and our lack of exercise have led to rapid increases in diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and many other chronic illnesses that last a lifetime.
What we need in America today is a focus on health care meaning a greater focus on disease prevention and health promotion beginning in childhood and a recognition that our adverse behaviors or lifestyles are the major drivers of today’s chronic illnesses – the ones that will lead to our deaths.