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The statistics are alarming - in the US, 80% of older adults have at least one chronic disease and 50% have at least two….70% of all deaths can be attributed to one of four chronic diseases—cancer, stroke, diabetes or heart disease.

…almost 25% of those 60 years old and up have diabetes…over 75% of ALL the money spent in US healthcare is spent on chronic disease—all of which are preventable, yet only 1%--that’s right—1% goes to any efforts to actually prevent chronic disease. Why do I say all chronic disease is preventable?  Because, for example, the Small Steps, Big Rewards Campaign  showed that losing a relatively small number of pounds and introducing other lifestyle interventions—healthy eating and exercise—reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by over 70%. Obesity, which puts a person at risk for diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke and certain types of cancer costs $75-125 billion a year.

Before the 20th century, the single greatest cause of death was infection.  Chronic kidney disease, for example, has increased by over 30% in the past decade  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), global cancer rates could increase by 50%. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine predicted a “potential decline (emphasis added) in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st century”.  due to chronic disease.  To make matters worse, the age when chronic diseases affect people is decreasing—younger and younger people are being diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and high blood pressure.

Chronic Disease: Why is This Happening, and What Can I Do?


The answer—as usual when it comes to health questions—is that there are many reasons for this increase in chronic disease. One is called the “nutrition transition” or the switch from a vegetable and fruit-based diet to one which is high in meat, sugar, saturated fats and salt.  For example, an improved diet, tobacco cessation and increased physical activity rate could prevent up to 80% of cases of coronary artery disease and 90% of diabetes Other reasons cited for the increase in chronic diseases include tobacco use, increased stress (though you sometimes have to wonder if working under a tough boss is really more stressful than having your entire corn field flooded or vegetable crop destroyed when that represents your yearly food supply…), environmental toxins and a lack of exercise. The increase in obesity—tied to all the other factors, of course, tends to be the single most common factor in chronic disease.


At a recent symposium, some of the newest information on diet and chronic disease was reviewed by Dr Jeffrey Bland  a nutritional biochemist and widely recognized as one of the founders of the concepts of functional medicine.  Functional medicine is defined as a personalized form of patient-centered preventive medicine grounded in the principles of biochemical individuality, the existence of a balanced network of external and internal forces in the maintenance of health and the concept that health is not merely the absence of disease but is instead a vital functional state.  Dr Bland presented evidence and information supportive of using foods as medicine to prevent chronic disease and maintain health. Foods, for example, can be used to reduce inflammation, a central component of many chronic diseases.  Dr Bland also emphasized that nutritional deficiencies often precede the appearance of chronic disease.

So, what is the message from all of this? There are things you can control and things you can try to control.  You can control your diet—and try to control the amount of toxins you are exposed to. You can control the amount of exercise you get—and try to control your stress levels.

If you have decided to control your diet and want to try to control the toxins you are exposed to—the best approach is an organic, whole-foods diet.  Don’t eat any processed foods, instant foods or prepared foods—and eat a lot of vegetables and fruits.  If you have chosen to eat meat, grass-fed beef and buffalo, free-range chicken and poultry and fish are your best bet—the ratios of fats in grass-fed beef and buffalo are closer to the ideal. Try to increase the numbers of beans, rice and legumes like lentils in your foods.  Use olive oil rather than butter or another oil—steam your vegetables or have them raw. Bake instead of fry, and season with lots of herbs and spices. This doesn’t mean you never go out to dinner or you never stop for a quick hamburger—it just means that for MOST of your meals, they are cooked from whole foods with as little processing as possible and as fresh as possible. They don’t come pre-mixed and pre-measured and processed so that nutrients are taken out—and then added back in (does THAT make sense?) Obviously, this is easier when vegetables and fruits are in season and a bit tougher when they are not. It is easier if you like to cook—or if someone in your household likes to cook! It may take a bit of planning, because it does take a bit longer to cook lentils than it does to cook instant rice. It is possible, however, with just some little bit of planning.

If you are looking to control your stress levels—well, the good news is that you can help control stress by exercising! You can start with simple things like parking so that you have farther to walk and using the stairs rather than the elevator. Walk the dog a bit further every week.  Make two trips up the stairs instead of one.  It may be a good time to dig that bicycle out of the garage!  Perhaps you could take your partner dancing!  There are lots of ways to increase your level of exercise that decreases stress at the same time—be creative, eat well and have fun!

  • 1. http://www.ncoa.org/press-room/fact-sheets/chronic-disease.html
  • 2. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5311a1.htm
  • 3. http://ndep.nih.gov/partners-community-organization/campaigns/SmallStepsBigRewards.aspx
  • 4. http://www.worldometers.info/obesity/
  • 5. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081008184826.htm
  • 6. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2003/pr27/en/
  • 7. Olshansky SJ
  • et al, potential decline in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st century. N Engl J Med - 17-MAR-2005, 352(11): 1138-45
  • 8. Murray S., Doubling the burden: chronic disease. - CMAJ - 14-MAR-2006
  • 174(6): 771.
  • 9. http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/01/06/us-usa-chronic-idUSTRE5050S920090106?sp=true
  • 10. http://jeffreybland.com/content/home.aspx
  • 11. http://www.functionalmedicine.org/about/whatis.asp
  • 12. Mozaffarian D, Ludwig DS., Dietary guidelines in the 21st century--a time for food. JAMA. 2010 Aug 11,304(6):681-2.
  • Photo courtesy of docnutpictures on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/docnutpictures/3056301612/