LiveWell®

Wellness and prevention information from the experts at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing

The state of health in the United States

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By Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published the latest data on the health of the United States. Unfortunately, compared to our peers in other developed countries, we aren’t doing so hot.

The data looked at 34 countries from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 1990 to 2010. Although our life expectancy has increased and death rates have decreased, the incidence of disease and chronic disability now account for over half of our health burden in the U.S.

There are a variety of metrics this journal article used to help measure “disease burden.” One was the years of life lost (YLL), which measures premature deaths. The top causes for YLL that are similar to years past include: coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and car accidents. Causes for YLL that are rising include: Alzheimer’s disease, drug use and falls.

Another measure for “disease burden” was diseases with the largest number of years lived with disability (YLD). These remained the same from 1990 to 2010: low back pain, major depressive disorder, other musculoskeletal disorders, neck pain, anxiety disorders, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, drug use disorders and diabetes.

The leading risk factors related to disability-adjusted life years (DALY) were:

  • dietary risks
  • tobacco smoking
  • high body mass index
  • high blood pressure
  • high fasting plasma glucose
  • physical inactivity
  • alcohol use.

An individual’s diet composition accounted for 26% of the deaths and 14% of DALY. Tobacco is now being replaced by diet and obesity as the number one cause of preventable death.

What does all of this tell us? Compared to other wealthy countries, we are less “well.” In the United States, we do a great job of intervening and pouring resources into the last six months of an individual’s life. We continue to enhance our technology and ability to deliver acute care. But our ability to keep people well is weakening. We spend 18 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on health care, which is in the highest bracket of spending for developed countries, yet our health reports fair much worse.

Reports like this cause many in health care to pause and ask if we are using resources in the most effective and efficient manner. It also calls out the importance of political policies and plans that help support the individual and community in making good choices around healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco and alcohol use.

A report like this emphasizes the important work that the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing is doing to help transform health care. We take a mind, body, and spirit approach to working with these challenging chronic conditions. I’m proud to say we continue to:

  • promote care to keep people healthy
  • produce innovative, holistic programs to help people experiencing stress, anxiety and depression, as well as those dealing with physical pain – these programs complement and are integrated with conventional, Western medical treatments
  • work with insurance companies on new reimbursement plans.

With that … keep eating your veggies, and be well!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, practices at and is the vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. She was interviewed by TV news station KARE 11 on this topic. View that news segment.

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