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Dr. Derek Yach

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Poor Diet, Tobacco Use and Lack of Physical Activity Taking Toll on Nation's Health

Posted: 07/15/2013 4:01 pm

By Derek Yach, executive director, The Vitality Institute, and a former executive director of the World Health Organization (WHO), and Will Rosenzweig, institute commission chair and managing partner, Physic Ventures

While we're living longer, poor diet, tobacco use and inadequate physical activity are negatively impacting our health. These are some of the findings of research released this week by the U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators, prompting much discussion and debate. To those of us on the front lines of promoting workplace health this comes as no surprise. This study should only add to the sense of urgency that we as a nation must have in solving this crisis.

There is a direct link between the health of the U.S. workforce and the overall wellbeing of the U.S. economy. Currently, greater than 50 percent of Americans live with one or more chronic disease. With this rising burden of chronic disease comes rising costs within the health care system, and increased premiums at a cost to employers. Compounding this, employees with chronic disease take more sick days and are less productive on the job. Workplace health is of significant importance to the economic productivity of the nation and critical to reducing the national debt. The U.S. is slipping behind its major Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Countries (OECD) competitors regarding improvements in population health. Specifically, the U.S. falls in the bottom 20 percent of the 34 OECD countries for the following chronic diseases: ischemic heart diseases (rank: 27), lung cancer (28), COPD (32), diabetes (31), cardiomyopathy (31), chronic kidney disease (31), and hypertensive heart disease (27). Poorer health today could translate into lower productivity tomorrow.

This is the first major analysis of the health status of the U.S. population in more than 15 years, led by a global collaborative of scientists from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. The study found that while Americans are showing progress in reducing death rates (adjusted for age, across a variety of diseases), we aren't living healthier. Additionally, death rates from illnesses associated with obesity, such as diabetes and kidney disease, as well as neurological conditions like Alzheimer's disease, are on the rise. Poor diet, tobacco use and physical inactivity are driving the disease burden.

The negative impact on our health care system cannot be understated as people who live longer and unhealthier lives are costly -- not only in terms of health care spend, but the impact on the productivity of our workforce and the ability of U.S. businesses to compete in a global economy. A point made recently in the Bipartisan Policy Center's recent report.

None of this is news to The Vitality Institute, a global health think tank focused on reducing chronic disease risk. In fact, we recently released new data indicating a dangerous gap in the chronological age of Americans and their risk adjusted Vitality Age, as calculated based on a variety of factors including those cited in this new report.

So now that we so clearly understand the problem, what are we going to do about it? To that end, we've recently assembled The Vitality Institute Commission. We're bringing together prominent thinkers in health and business including: Dr. Rhonda Cornum, with deep expertise from the Department of Defense; Susan Dentzer, with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Ginny Ehrlich, with the Clinton Health Matters Initiative; Jeff Levi, with Trust for America's Health; Ellis Rubinstein, with the New York Academy of Sciences; Dr. Dennis Schmuland, with Microsoft; and Dr. Kevin Volpp, from the University of Pennsylvania. All with the urgent goal of placing the power of evidence-based prevention at the center of health care policies and actions in the U.S. Better evidence, smarter laws and higher levels of innovation we believe could make a difference.

There is strength in numbers, and we are working with corporations, associations, federal, state, and local government to identify multi-stakeholder solutions that will address the issues facing our nation's health in bold and transformative ways.

For the U.S. to maintain its economic competitiveness, our health policy efforts need to address the risk factors of preventable chronic diseases that disproportionately affect the U.S. population (e.g., physical inactivity, diet, and alcohol and tobacco consumption) by effectively investing resources to ensure that each individual has the opportunity to make beneficial contributions to society and therefore progress the economy. We will soon issue a call for wide participation to harness the myriad of great ideas and actions already making a difference at the community, city or state level to ultimately improve America's health.

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