When someone says “public health,” what do you think of? Do underpants, shoes and hand washing come to mind? How about trash removal, water treatment and safe food handling practices? These are examples of some of the most effective public health interventions in the last Century, when infectious, or “communicable,” diseases were the top killers in the U.S.
One hundred years ago, in 1916, pneumonia, influenza tuberculosis and syphilis were among the top ten causes of death; most of the other leading causes of death—diarrhea, for instance—resulted from infections caused by poor sanitation or food handling practices. The public health sector has made tremendous progress eradicating these killers through immunizations, environmental regulations, sanitation, and education. Today, the only infectious disease that is still a top 10 killer is pneumonia/influenza, but it dropped from #2 (11.8 percent of total deaths in 1916) to #8 (2.2 percent of total deaths in 2013).
That’s a lot of progress! But people die today just like they did 100 years ago, so what’s killing us in the 21stCentury? Chronic disease. Conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity and cancer cannot be passed from person-to-person and last three months or more. Today, chronic diseases cause 7 of 10 deaths per year and account for 86 percent of health care costs.
The environment still plays a role in keeping us healthy or making us sick, just as it did when poor sanitation practices lead to outbreaks of communicable disease, but it’s likely harder to see. For example, the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in a neighborhood and how safe it is to walk or bike in a given community affects the rates of chronic disease among residents. Additionally, individual behaviors such as tobacco use, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to what ails us.
Many chronic diseases are preventable. Although it is difficult for one person to change the environment in their neighborhood or city, individuals can take small steps to prevent the onset of chronic diseases. Here’s what we know, via the Centers for Disease Control and Promotion:
- Individuals who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk for developing a chronic condition
- Losing just 5-10 percent of your total body weight can significantly improve your overall health
- Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity weekly (e.g., a brisk walk) and two sessions of muscle-strengthening activity. These activities can be done in 10 minute increments—that’s two 10 minute walks a day and you’re done!
- Incorporating both healthy eating and physical activity into your daily routine not only reduces your risk for developing a chronic condition, but can improve the health and quality of life for those already living with a chronic condition
- Tobacco use is directly correlated to life expectancy: use less, live longer.
Adopting small lifestyle choices—increasing physical activity, eating healthier foods, and quitting tobacco—significantly reduces your chance of developing a chronic disease. Changing the built environment (can we hyperlink to a blog about the built environment) to make the healthy choice the easy choice at home, at work, and in the community, we can reduce the number of lives lost to preventable chronic diseases.