Updated: Feb 25, 2022
Health has been on our minds for the past 2 years, but when you really think about it, it’s actually been illness that’s captured most of our attention. While it’s vital that we follow health directives to protect ourselves from COVID-19, I wonder if this current situation has led to many of us losing sight of our broader health, and specifically the things we can do to stay healthy. Now that the focus is moving away from this immediate threat, it could be time to reconsider if there is a greater risk from chronic disease.
A quick look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that in 2017-18, 47% or nearly one in two adults had at least one chronic health condition. At this time it was also reported that 50% of hospital admissions were related to chronic illness and nine out of 10 deaths were associated with a chronic disease. The conditions listed as chronic include cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and cancer. Interestingly, asthma, osteoporosis, arthritis and back pain are also included in this list as they are deemed to cause lowered quality of life due to their persistent and long-lasting effects. A further, more alarming feature of all of these chronic conditions is that they are often associated with disability and premature death.
While this global pandemic has refocused our attention on the risk of infectious disease, the reality is that chronic disease will continue to be the major cause of death and disability globally.
The World Health Organization reports that most chronic diseases have modifiable risks which are the same for men and women. These include poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle or lack of physical and activity as well as tobacco use. There are also non-modifiable risks like the environment in which we grew up, access to healthy food during childhood and our underlying genetics, and these can play a role in shaping our health as we age.
Chronic disease often has a slow progression with few physical symptoms in the early stages. This is often coupled with a normalisation of unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices including harmful alcohol intake and high saturated fat and sugar intake. The intermediate risk factors of high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome or raised blood glucose and dyslipidaemia (high cholesterol), as well as obesity are often ignored and left untreated. By the time they are detected, the only pathway may be medication and often it’s more than one. Polypharmacy, or the prescription of multiple medications comes with its own risks including drug-drug interactions caused by changes in the way the body utilises each drug, and this can result in reduced quality of life.
It really is time that we took a more holistic view of our health and took proactive steps to support it rather than waiting for things to unravel and then wondering what can be done.
This means focusing on the modifiable risks outlined by the WHO including the food that we eat and ensuring that it meets our nutritional needs and supporting our metabolism. It also involves making healthy decisions about how we live including physical activity as well as the environments in which we live and work.
It might seem like a lot of effort but the rewards can be great. You might also think that it costs more to eat a healthier diet and to invest in your health, but I’d challenge you to reconsider this because the cost of poor health may be greater in the long run.