We’re Living Longer, Sicker, As Unhealthy Lifestyles Trump Medical Advances

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Everyone’s been writing about the new state-by-state health rankings released yesterday by the United Health Foundation. The best 5-word summary of the 2012 American Health Rankings might be “Americans are living longer, sicker.” It seems Gen X, Gen Y and the next few generations will be the first to grow up with both an expectation of obscene longevity and habits/unhealthy lifestyles that make us sicker, earlier, than any previous generation*.

I was looking yesterday for some interesting tidbit to pull out and write about, but what ended up standing out to me was the first bullet point in UHF’s press release:

“Advances in medicine can’t offset Americans’ unhealthy lifestyles.”

There’s something kind of profound in that. For how long have advances in medicine been offsetting our unhealthy lifestyles? Longevity gains, advances in medicine and technology, increasing processed food dependence and a more sedentary lifestyle have gone hand in hand through the 20th century, camouflaging the full effects of our growing unhealthiness.

But now Boomers and older generations — who’ve had half-a-lifetime or less of in the food, office, car, chemical and medical cultures we’ve grown up in — are so totally sodden with obesity, cancer, Alzheimer’s and metabolic diseases that it’s not uncommon for 60-somethings to take half a dozen prescription drugs just for maintenance. It’s kind of at the point where younger Americans have to significantly change things or face the bleakest f**king future ever.

UHF is calling the report a “call to action,” and I believe it is. Do we want to fare worse than our parents in terms of disease and disability (and bankrupt Medicare, spend all our money on health care costs and lead generally miserable lives) or, you know … not do that. Figure out what personal changes and changes to the system need to be made to prevent it.

“As a nation, we’ve made extraordinary gains in longevity over the past decades, but as individuals we are regressing in our health,” said Reed Tuckson, medical adviser to United Health Foundation and executive vice president of UnitedHealth Group.

“We owe this progress not only to medical breakthroughs, but to public health advocates who are working tirelessly to advancewellness on the community level. But our public health heroes cannot do it alone. Longer lives need notbe sicker lives, so we must all come together to do more to prevent the risk factors within our personal control.”

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    • Lastango

      Someone once advised, “Don’t outlive your money.” Unfortunately, that’s another problem the big cohort of aged Americans is already starting to smash against. Incomes and net wealth are both dropping. That’s why we’re seeing increasing numbers of elderly in the workforce. (Employers like them because they’re reliable, and Medicare makes them cheaper to hire.) Being poor is closely associated with bad health.
      And what are the elderly with no children to help them going to do, especially if they’re carrying a load of chronic diseases? That’s a growing group, on both counts.

    • http://twitter.com/JoannaMPH Joanna

      It was actually public health efforts and not “medical advances” that were responsible for > 80% of the life expectancy gains seen in the 20th century. Medicine didn’t produce the increases, so maybe we should stop asking it to be a panacea for our problems now.