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Chronic Disease As a Result of Poor Lifestyle Choices

Pam Koenig, FNP

Publish Date: Fri, Oct 10th, 2014

For the first time in history, lifestyle diseases kill more people than communicable diseases. Health care providers and public health officials have long recognized unhealthy lifestyle behaviors as the root cause of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol), stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and some cancers.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) reports more than 1 in 5 adults have some form of cardiovascular disease. It is estimated that about 1 in 7 adults have at least two or more chronic conditions and the number of young people with multiple chronic conditions is on the rise. More than 70% of deaths in the U.S. and about 75% of health care dollars are spent on chronic diseases.  Indirect costs such as absence from work, low productivity, disability and poor quality of life add to the personal and economic burden of chronic illnesses.

Risk factors for chronic diseases are categorized as modifiable and non-modifiable.  Non-modifiable risk factors are those over which one has no choice - age, gender, race and heredity.  Modifiable risk factors are lifestyle choices and habits which people have the ability to change.  Poor dietary habits, physical inactivity, smoking, alcohol overuse and chronic stress are major contributors to the development and progression of preventable chronic diseases.  High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes further increase risk for developing additional chronic illnesses.  Ultimately, choosing a sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy foods, cigarettes or tobacco in any form, and overuse of alcohol is tantamount to inviting chronic illness and disease.

Many people understand the connections between lifestyle choices and chronic illnesses yet some may not be quite sure how personal habits affect health. Moreover, millions of people are well aware of the link between poor health habits and illness and choose to continue unhealthy behaviors anyway.  It is not uncommon to hear "I have to die from something" with little regard for the overall effects of that attitude on self, family, friends, community and country.

The connections between unhealthy lifestyle choices and chronic illness are quite clear.  A diet of fast food, highly processed or salty foods, and large amounts of starchy carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, cereal, baked goods, sweets, sugary drinks, alcohol excess, overeating and lack of exercise are the primary causes of obesity.  Obesity places one at greater risk for several chronic conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure.  A diet high in saturated (animal fats) and transfats (made from tropical oils) causes plaque formation in blood vessels resulting in narrowing and less flexibility, adding to the risk of high blood pressure and blood clots.

High cholesterol, high blood pressure, and chronically elevated blood sugar (uncontrolled diabetes) damage blood vessels, place high levels of stress on the heart, leads to coronary artery disease (CAD), poor circulation, heart attack and stroke.  Since 1990, CAD has been the number 1 killer in the United States and is responsible for nearly 500,000 deaths per year.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of chronic illness and death in the United States and is responsible for 1 out of every 5 deaths.  It is known to harm almost every organ in the body. According to the CDC more than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the U.S. during its history.

Smoking damages blood vessels resulting in hardening of the arteries which makes the heart work harder and beat faster and thus, is a major contributor to high blood pressure. Smoking causes emphysema and chronic bronchitis (COPD) by damaging airways and small air sacs in the lungs.  Smoking causes about 80% of deaths from COPD and 90% of all lung cancer deaths.  Smoking is also a major cause of throat, bladder, voice box, liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney and colorectal cancers.

The challenges to public health agencies, healthcare providers and the health care system posed by people with multiple chronic conditions are tremendous. The current focus is providing information on the impact of unhealthy lifestyle choices as risk factors for preventable chronic diseases and encouraging individual responsibility for one's health. Many towns across the country are engaged in projects to implement systems and environmental change in schools, communities, and workplaces. The overall goal is replacing unhealthy habits with healthy choices to maintain wellness and prevent illness and disease.  Small businesses in Eastport along with Eastport Health Care have engaged in Healthy Maine Streets, a wellness program to improve workforce health, decrease medical and hospital visits, reduce workplace absenteeism and increase work productivity.

One can transition to a healthy lifestyle through conscientious behavior changes like increasing physical activity and exercise, consuming unprocessed, whole, nutritional foods, engaging in a smoking cessation program, and using stress management techniques such as yoga, meditation and behavioral health coaching. Medical studies show that adults with chronic diseases can experience rapid, significant and sustainable improvements in their health by taking responsibility for and self-managing their chronic illnesses.  In so doing people can increase their lifespan and enjoy a better quality of life.

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