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Q: How common are chronic diseases?
Answer: Nearly one in two Americans has a chronic medical condition. Seven of the 10 leading causes of death in Arkansas are chronic conditions. High blood pressure is the most common chronic condition in Arkansas, reported by 30% of the state’s adult residents. Seven out of 10 Arkansans have been told by a health care professional that they have diabetes, and/or heart disease or asthma. Data trends indicate that if this rate continues, the health care system will not be able to keep up with the demand for services.
Q: What is the impact of chronic disease?
Answer: Although people may know they have a chronic disease, they do not understand the extent or seriousness of the disease.
People who do not manage their chronic diseases run the risk of developing further complications. For example those with diabetes who do not control the disease are at risk of heart disease, blindness, kidney failure and loss of limbs. Poorly controlled asthma sends 5,000 people a day to the emergency room in the US. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to a stroke. Up to 60% of deaths from colon (a part of the intestine) cancer in AR could be prevented if people aged 50 and older were screened regularly.
Chronic diseases also cause disability which reduces the quality of life for the patient, caregivers and family members. About ¼ of the people with chronic diseases have one or more daily activity limitations.
With Americans living longer than ever before, the toll on caregiver’s health and well being is becoming significant. Family and professional caregivers are present in 1 in 5 American households.
Chronic diseases cost a lot of money, at both a national level and for families. Chronic diseases make up a large part of increasing spending on health care. For every dollar we spend on health care nationwide, more than 75 cents is spent on the treatment of chronic illness.
Chronic diseases cause excess death as well as disability. In Arkansas almost one third of the deaths in 2005 were due to heart disease, while almost one fourth were due to cancer.
Mental illnesses and chronic diseases are closely related. Having a chronic disease can worsen symptoms of depression, and depression can lead to chronic diseases.
Chronic diseases are among the greatest threats to the health of Arkansans and all Americans and are expected to continue to rise unless serious action is taken.
A tool to assess risk for chronic diseases is available at WebMD Big 5 Healthcheck. This tool was developed by a drug company, The National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, and WebMD.
Q: Can chronic diseases be prevented?
Answer: Although chronic diseases are among the most serious threats to Americans' health, many chronic diseases could be prevented by: healthy lifestyle choices, access to high-quality, affordable prevention measures such as screening, and appropriate and timely follow-up procedures.
Regular physical activity is critically important in preventing chronic diseases. Physical activity helps control weight, reduces risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. In Arkansas over half of adults do not participate in the recommended amount of physical activity.
What we eat is another key to preventing chronic diseases such as diabetes. In Arkansas 78% of adults eat less than the recommended 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Increasing rates of obesity are having significant chronic disease consequences. Rates for type 2 diabetes have increased. After years of declining rates of heart disease and hypertension due to new medical treatments and drugs, these medical conditions are increasing.
Tobacco use is the single most avoidable cause of death, disability and disease in the United States according to every Surgeon General's report since 1964. And yet … 22% of Arkansans smoke according to the latest incidence reports.
Drinking more alcohol than is healthy is the country's third leading lifestyle related cause of death. It is associated with numerous health and social problems, including heart attacks.
These lifestyle risk factors can be changed. We all have personal responsibility to ensure that we make the best choices for our health.
Risk factors beyond our control
Healthy foods are more expensive than less healthy foods. There are fewer grocery stores and lower quality food in poorer neighborhoods than in higher income neighborhoods. Residents who have better access to supermarkets and less access to convenience stores tend to have better diets and lower levels of obesity. "The higher the ratio of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to grocery stores and produce vendors near home, the higher the prevalence of obesity and diabetes." Restaurants often place value on the amount of food versus quality resulting in bigger portions. Twenty years ago the average hamburger was 333 calories. Today it's 590 calories.
We need safe and inexpensive places to exercise. We should increase healthy food options in cafeterias, snack bars and vending machines. We should require more physical education, health education and recess in schools. Additionally we need to influence decision makers to help make all this happen.
Q: What can I do if I have a chronic disease?
Answer: We all have a responsibility for making the best choices to improve our health.
- Being overweight or obese is a factor in more than 20 different chronic diseases. Learning techniques such as eating smaller portions, minimizing eating out, eating fewer products high in sugar, substituting lower fat versions of high fat foods, eating more fruits and vegetables and getting adequate physical activity, are among the healthy choices a person with a chronic disease can make.
- Visit your health care professional regularly. If you are prescribed medication, take it. If you are experiencing side effects from the medication inform your health care provider. It may take time to find the right medication for you but it's better than dealing with the effects of an untreated chronic disease.
- Get enough sleep. Insufficient sleep has been linked to the development and management of a number of chronic diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.
- Limit your consumption of alcohol and do not use tobacco products. Excessive drinking and tobacco products are linked to numerous health problems, including cancer.
- Learn about your family health history and communicate this to others in your family. Risks for certain chronic diseases run in families.
- Recent studies seem to show associations between oral infections and diabetes, heart disease, stroke and pre-term low-weight birth. Although research is still underway to examine these connections it seems prudent to take all the steps necessary to ensure we practice good oral health, especially if we have diabetes, heart disease, have had a stroke, or are in a high risk group for any of these chronic diseases.