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Understanding chronic disease

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The power of prevention to manage your risk

The list of chronic diseases – long-lasting conditions that can be controlled but not cured – is a long one that encompasses everything from asthma, allergies and cancer to depression, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and stroke. Chronic diseases account for 70 percent of all deaths in the U.S. (with heart disease and cancer totaling nearly 48 percent of that), and as of 2012, about half of all adults – or 117 million people – had one or more chronic health conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Globally, the total number of people dying from chronic diseases is double that of all infectious diseases, maternal and perinatal conditions and nutritional deficiencies combined.

As devastating as chronic diseases can be, many – especially diabetes, obesity and heart disease – are preventable and can be effectively controlled when addressed early.

“As a nation, we spend 86 percent of our healthcare dollars on the treatment of chronic diseases,” Genevieve Brauning, MD, of Novant Health South Park Family Physicians said. “We need to start shifting the focus to prevention. Many of these deaths could have been avoided.”

Who’s at risk?

The statistics of those at risk for chronic diseases are staggering. During 2009-10, more than one-third of adults were obese and nearly 1 of every 5 youths ages 2 to 19 were obese, according to BMIs. Nearly half of U.S. adults have at least one of the following major risk factors for heart disease or stroke: uncontrolled high blood pressure, uncontrolled high LDL cholesterol, or are current smokers, according to the CDC. Ninety percent of Americans consume too much sodium, increasing their risk for high blood pressure. And a whopping 86 million Americans over age 20 had prediabetes, according to the CDC.

“These are terrifying statistics and there’s more where that came from,” Dr. Brauning said. “The bright side is that these are all highly preventable things that people can work on to avoid major health problems – and even early death – down the road from chronic disease.”

What can be done?

“It’s impossible to talk about chronic disease without discussing the three behaviors that feed most chronic conditions: lack of exercise or physical activity; poor nutrition; and tobacco use,” Dr. Brauning said. “Non-modifiable risks of age and heredity aside, this trio of modifiable behaviors drives most of the chronic health threats we face today, most notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.”

It’s notable that these risk factors are the same for men and women, regardless of age or location in the world, according to the World Health Organization. “No matter who you are or where you live, if you aren’t exercising or eating right and if you smoke, you’re setting yourself up for the biggest chronic health conditions out there,” Dr. Brauning said.

She added, “It’s important to get screened to know your numbers and your associated risk. You should know your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and BMI and what they mean. From there, you can work with your physician on a plan of action to reduce your chronic disease risk. Your doctor can help you quit smoking, establish a feasible exercise plan , and determine the right nutrition plan for you. Exercising 30 minutes each day, losing weight, eating healthier and quitting smoking all add up to big health gains.

“Small changes make a really big difference. For instance, even losing as little as five to 10 pounds has been shown to have a huge impact on blood sugar levels. For many people, that can be accomplished just cutting soda from your diet,” Dr. Brauning said. “Incremental changes over time can make the difference between a long, healthy life and one that’s cut short by chronic disease.”


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