Expert Opinion: Wellness in Crisis

Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Tevi Troy says good health may be the most overlooked and underappreciated of life's blessings.

By Tevi Troy, Ph.D., Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services

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The contrast between overlooking and under appreciating good health until it's lost typifies the contradictory state of our nation's health. On one hand, we are living longer than ever. Diseases that once claimed countless thousands of lives have been eliminated or controlled, and we have effective medicines our ancestors never dreamed of.

Yet all is not as well as it may appear. New epidemics of chronic diseases have emerged that threaten to rob us of these health gains. Today, chronic diseases cause approximately 70 percent of deaths in our country. Moreover, more than 90 million Americans live with conditions that curtail their ability to enjoy life to its fullest. Medical treatment for these diseases costs $1.5 trillion a year - approximately $1 out of every $9 of the entire U.S. economy.

The Americans who suffer and die unnecessarily are not just numbers; they are our grandparents, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and neighbors.

Poor diet and inactivity, in particular, are among key causes for the major culprits behind these statistics: Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, various cancers and a host of other chronic diseases. More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates overweight and obesity cost American families, businesses and governments approximately $117 billion yearly.

There is good news: Many of the chronic diseases that plague Americans - and much of the exorbitant costs required to treat them - are preventable or reversible by simple lifestyle changes. A majority of diabetes cases could be avoided by improved nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight, and many heart disease cases and cancers could be eliminated by positive lifestyle changes that include dietary changes.

Given this serious situation, President Bush has called the nation to preventive action. In June 2002, he launched HealthierUS, an initiative that promotes healthy choices and improved health and fitness for our nation. In fact, if Americans followed the four pillars of the President's HealthierUS program, we could arrest the epidemics of chronic diseases that plague our country. Those pillars are:

  • Eat a nutritious diet
  • Be physically active
  • Get regular health screenings
  • Avoid risky behaviors, such as tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption.

Making meaningful progress against chronic diseases and obesity requires an aggressive approach on multiple fronts. Under President Bush's leadership, HHS has responded with programs that can help turn the tide. Programs and initiatives like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's School Health Index, the National Institutes of Health's We Can!, the Health Resources and Services Administration's Community Health Centers are but a very few of the ways HHS is confronting these issues.

Food companies also play a vital role in reversing unhealthy trends. Some effective strategies that can be expanded include continuing efforts to decrease outsized portions, create products with 100 percent whole grains and reformulating favorite foods to be more healthful.

Taking small steps together, making sound choices and choosing preventive actions are the surest paths to improved health and a promising future. Prevention is a life saver.

Dep. Sec. Troy helps oversee all operations of Health and Human Services, including Medicare, Medicaid, public health, medical research, food and drug safety, disease prevention and many others. He also leads a number of department initiatives, including public health emergency preparedness.

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