Will COVID-19 push us to tackle our chronic disease epidemic?

I wrote last week about the increased risk of complications when COVID-19 strikes our elderly (and some younger) who live with obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease. With our mainstream media reporting substantially worse outcomes for people with chronic diseases, COVID-19 has, perhaps fortuitously, finally brought our long-standing chronic disease epidemic to the attention of the nation. Can we now create a national movement to fix this problem?

We are beginning to see the “top of the wave” for COVID-19 infection and death rates in some parts of the country as we collectively (and nervously) consider the possibility of re-opening the country and returning to some version of “the new normal” in business and social life.

“If nothing else, this pandemic shows us that at the end of the day, good health is a high national priority.

If nothing else, this pandemic shows us that at the end of the day, good health is a high national priority. So, it is a good time to consider how we can turn this pandemic into positive, long-term changes that can dramatically improve our future. This blog explores one such change; a change that can improve our health and secure the health of future generations.  

Going forward, we need to address the long-standing chronic disease epidemic in the United States, which has been sapping our national health and work productivity for decades. Unlike COVID-19 – which we expect will move through like a tidal wave based on prior viral epidemics – lifestyle-related chronic diseases have risen sharply over recent decades and show no signs of leaving, yet we haven’t taken a strong national stand to address this epidemic as we are doing now with COVID-19.

The greatest public health crisis of the 21st century.

Think about it: 60% of people in the US are now living with preventable, lifestyle-related chronic diseases that we know cause enormous human suffering and over $3T in healthcare costs annually. These statistics and costs are expected to worsen as we head further into the 21st century. Yet, to date, we have been unmoved to national action and appear to have become numb to these grim statistics.

Clinical data tell us that 50 years ago, type 2 diabetes was a rare condition confined only to middle aged and older people. Now, as we enter the 21st century, it has become common to see cases even in pediatric clinics. We know that 75% of young people in their early 20s who are living with type 2 diabetes already have eye, kidney, or nerve damage from years of abnormal blood sugars, blood pressure, and blood lipids. These problems result from living in an environment where a highly processed diet, sedentary lifestyle, tobacco use, poor sleep, and obesity are the norm, not the exception.

The increase in chronic diseases reflects profound changes to our American culture over the last half century, not a lack of personal responsibility or willpower.

The increase in chronic diseases reflects profound changes to our American culture over the last half century, not a lack of personal responsibility or willpower. Our home, work, and social environments certainly have changed, but we can still remodel them – and our habits. Obesity (affecting 39% of Americans) and related chronic diseases should not be the “norm” in American life any more than viral pandemics.

How can COVID-19 bring new focus to chronic conditions?

As of this writing, statistics from the CDC on the COVID-19 pandemic are sobering and stark: it has killed more than 53,000 Americans and counting. These are real people and families that are in shock and are grieving. At this point, almost everyone knows someone who has been impacted by this devastating disease. And while this epidemic continues, thousands of other families are also grieving from losses that are just as real and just as devastating but are associated with chronic diseases. National health statistics show that large numbers of Americans died in 2019 from preventable chronic diseases. The number one killer was heart disease, killing 539,880 people; diabetes took another 70,348 lives. This unending crisis is not discussed by politicians or covered in our 24/7 news feeds, but the pain and loss associated with it are real and are preventable based on science, including Lifestyle Medicine.

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While we have leapt into action to combat COVID-19, the threat from chronic diseases has been effectively “kicked down the road” for decades by politicians and our farming and food industries – all key players in creating the current obesity and chronic disease crises. They must be part of the solution. We need a clear national plan and leadership. The first step is to raise our activism and resolve to act.

There is also a whole lot you can do personally – right now – to improve your health and the health of your family. In my next blog, I will discuss the many practical, healthy, and healing actions you can begin to adopt to avoid, slow down, and even reverse lifestyle-related chronic diseases.

Garry Welch, PhD is an expert in the area of behavior medicine for chronic disease care. He has extensive experience leading clinical research on behavior change strategies for people with diabetes and other chronic diseases. Dr. Welch’s 30+ years of clinical research led to co-founding Silver Fern Healthcare. He leads research and development at Silver Fern.

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