A recent article in the Bangor Daily News lists Maine as having the fifth highest health care costs in the U.S., and mentions that health care expenses in the U.S. overall are two-and-a-half times greater than the next most expensive country.
The article goes on to mention some of the reasons for the expense, including the ageing of our population, “excess infrastructure” of health technology and hospitals, an above-average use of the emergency room and increases in chronic illness.
I’m sure these factors have an effect on our health care expenses. But, from a wellness perspective, they absolutely pale in comparison to the two biggest cost drivers in our current culture: lifestyle, and a health care system that focuses on treating disease with drugs rather than improving health.
Lifestyle is the biggest driver of health care expenses, period. While we may learn something from studying the genetic aspect of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer, these problems are not primarily genetic. They are lifestyle diseases that have a secondary genetic influence. Researchers have consistently shown that these chronic diseases are almost unheard of in people who live a natural, preindustrial lifestyle, but within a few generations any group that moves to a modern lifestyle “catches up” to the rates of chronic disease of the surrounding culture.
Of course a primary problem is diet. The problem is not that we eat meat — there have been native cultures that had little or no plant foods available to them and ate meat and animal products almost exclusively, yet they were still largely free of heart disease and other chronic health problems. The problem is the meat we do eat is raised in factory farms, where they are fed genetically modified grains to fatten them up and are regularly given antibiotics and hormones. These operations have been shown to produce meats with four times the total fat content of grass fed beef, and the balance of the omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is thrown from a healthy 2:1 ratio in grass-fed beef to ratios of up to 15:1. You can’t expect to stay healthy if you eat sick animals.
People in native societies eat simple, minimally processed meals, which they often grow or gather themselves. In contrast, it has been estimated that 70 percent of the foods Americans consume on a daily basis are highly processed. Processing a food reduces its nutritional value, and some processing actually makes a formerly healthy food toxic. Think of hydrogenated fats — they start out as unsaturated, natural fats that occur in our foods, but then are “hydrogenated,” which is a process involving heat, chemicals and pressurized hydrogen gas. This process makes them easier to cook with — that’s why they are often used for margarine, fried foods, bakery items and prepared foods such as pizza. Then the medical profession got on board and started to recommend them as a healthy alternative to saturated fats found in meat. It took decades before they were found to be toxic; now they are estimated to cause 30,000 - 100,000 cardiac deaths per year.
The problem is not that they are fats, the problem is that they are highly processed fats.
We all know the benefits of exercise and stress control. The difference in the health of my patients between those who incorporate these into their lifestyles, and those who don’t, is dramatic. They are a key part of a wellness lifestyle, however, my experience has been that for many patients we need to improve their nutritional status before they feel well enough to make these changes.
To find out how many Americans actually live a wellness lifestyle, researchers contacted 153,000 people and asked them about their weight, exercise habits, fruit and veggie consumption and whether or not they smoked. Their conclusion? About 3 percent of Americans can actually claim to live a healthy lifestyle.
We have to do a lot better than that if we hope to lower Maine’s, and the country’s, health care costs.
A future column will discuss the other part of the wellness equation — replacing drug therapy with wellness care. Perhaps then we can begin to address the fact that our health is steadily declining, despite the increase in medication use. There are natural treatments that are very effective, without using drugs; in our office we regularly help patients improve their health, often to the point that their medications become unnecessary.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.