Why do so many Americans lead an unhealthy lifestyle?
America has the highest GDP of any country in the world, so why is it only at number 25 in international life expectancy rankings? How do we manage to spend almost twice as much as most developed countries on health care without exceeding average health outcomes? There are some serious problems with our habits as a nation that are undermining our potential and leading to a lot of unnecessary suffering. How did we get into this situation, and how can we do better?
More than one in three Americans are obese – the highest rate in any developed nation. This includes 13 million children. Because it places an extra strain on vital organs, because it increases the risk of several kinds of disease, and because it makes it harder to exercise, obesity can cut life expectancy by as much as 20 years. It’s primarily a disease of the working poor – those below a certain income level can’t afford enough food to become obese, whereas those who have money but not very much of it can afford food but often struggle to afford healthy food. This is compounded by the American tendency to drive over distances where people in most other countries would walk.
Almost one in ten Americans has diabetes, and it’s the country’s seventh most common cause of death. By far the most common variant of the illness is type 2, which usually develops as a result of poor diet, especially the over-consumption of sugar – we consume around 20 teaspoons of sugar a day when the recommended healthy level is nine for men or six for women. Though it can’t be cured, diabetes can be controlled for many years, in most cases by eating a healthy diet. In its later stages, it can be managed through a combination of careful eating and the use of insulin injections. Regular monitoring of blood sugar levels is vital.
Heart disease is the most common cause of death in America, killing one in every four people. When other kinds of cardiovascular disease are taken into account, it’s even more deadly. Though it’s slightly more common in men than in women, women tend to live with it for longer and are often disabled by it, so they struggle to be fully independent and may experience ongoing discomfort or pain. It’s important to take care of the heart by eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Also worth doing here is getting an annual cholesterol blood test because if cholesterol is very high, medication can also be used to reduce the risk of serious problems developing.
One of the other major causes of death, and perhaps the biggest contributor to poor health in America, is chronic or repeat respiratory infection. The cause of this is primarily environmental. Around one in every 20 homes suffers from serious problems with damp, and persistent mold growth is common even in homes with only mild damp problems. Breathing in mold can cause serious health problems, especially in children, where it can sometimes affect cognitive development. Mold can be treated with ordinary household bleach, but constant attention is needed where homes can’t be kept properly dry, or where they have suffered from flooding in the recent past.
One of the other major contributors to poor day-to-day health among Americans is stress. Commonly caused by overwork, poverty, poor living conditions, and social problems such as bullying, it decreases fitness and makes people more vulnerable to minor infections. It also increases the risk of developing cardiac problems, stroke, and certain kinds of cancer. Stress is difficult to tackle at an individual level because the root causes are cultural, but counselling and meditation can help, as can simple things such as finding more time for activities that make you happy.
America does very well when it comes to tackling acute health problems, but its record is much poorer when it comes to caring for people with long-term illnesses. Essentially, people in this group – who could have anything from asthma to arthritis – are not getting check-ups often enough. The root cause of this is often financial, which can be difficult to solve, but free clinics in some areas are seriously underused, and people could do much more to monitor their own health. A new generation of mobile phone apps and compatible devices is beginning to help with this.
Along with high sugar consumption, Americans generally eat too much saturated fat and too much protein, which can make a number of health conditions worse. Soda is a major health problem, contributing hundreds of empty calories to the average person’s daily diet. Switching to drinking fresh water can make a big difference to your general health. It’s also a good idea for most people to cut down on meat, especially red meat, and to try to eat a bigger variety of fruits and vegetables.
One piece of good news is that fewer and fewer Americans now smoke cigarettes, with the rate significantly below that of most developed countries. We do, however, drink a lot of alcohol, and that figure is rising. Many of us also consume an unhealthy amount of caffeine, which can increase stress and aggravate some heart conditions. Cutting out substances like this all in one go can cause health problems in itself, but there is help available for those who want to quit. Internet support groups are free to join and offer peer support, which can make it much easier to cut down or quit.
For optimum health, everyone needs a mixture of aerobic exercise, strength-building exercise, and flexibility exercise – so why are people less healthy today given that more of us now go to the gym? The answer is that, traditionally, most people have got all the exercise they need from physical activity in day-to-day life, and this is still the case in many parts of the world. If you do some walking every day and play a sport that you enjoy a couple times a week, you can do a lot to improve your general health – whether you go to the gym or not.
The lifestyle of the average American today is not good for the health, but making a few simple changes to your own lifestyle is a good way to start contributing to more widespread change.