Americans are getting healthier.
That’s the surprisingly optimistic take away from this year’s America’s Health Rankings report, an annual nationwide analysis conducted by the United Health Foundation.
Despite the flurry of attention on rising rates of obesity and the ongoing epidemic of the sedentary lifestyles of many adults, the report uncovered several promising trends:
We‘re not smoking as much: There was nearly a two percent drop in the national smoking rate—from 21.2 percent in 2012 to 19.6 percent in 2013. This improvement wasn’t driven by one or two areas. In total, seventeen states saw the frequency of smoking in their population decline substantially.
More of us are managing to keep obesity at bay: For a decade and a half, the percentage of Americans at least 30 pounds overweight has increased each year. But in 2013, the number stayed constant.
We‘re making efforts to exercise: The number of individuals leading sedentary lives—not engaging in non-work-related physical activity for more than 30 days—also declined this year. Over a quarter of American adults were inactive in 2012, but 2013 saw this percentage drop to 22.9.
These positive developments may help today’s younger adults fend off a few of the chronic conditions that plague so many seniors, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, yet there is still much to be done if the country is to improve upon its 26th-ranked position on the worldwide life expectancy list.
Improving the outcomes and reducing the cost of American healthcare is one piece of the puzzle, but it won’t fix everything says Harvey Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D., president of the Institute of Medicine. “Regardless of how efficient and effective we can make medical care, we will never be able to cure our way to a healthy society. The only way to succeed is by intensifying our focus on prevention of disease.”
Fineberg points out that most ailments are caused by a confluence of factors including lifestyle behaviors, environmental elements and genetics. While genetics and even environmental causes may be out of the control of the average American, lifestyle behaviors are modifiable.
And a few small changes can have a big impact.
Researchers from the United Kingdom followed the habits and health of a group of individuals over the span of 35 years and concluded that there were certain lifestyle choices that may significantly reduce a person’s risk for cognitive decline in old age:
- Keeping alcohol consumption moderate
- Maintaining a low bodyweight
- Engaging in regular physical activity
- Abstaining from smoking
- Sticking to a healthy diet
Consistently sticking to at least four of these practices could slash dementia risk by 60 percent and cut a person’s chances of having a stroke, or developing diabetes or heart disease, by 70 percent, according to study authors.
The conclusion that leading a health-conscious lifestyle translates to better overall health may not be a groundbreaking revelation, but these figures indicate the true potency of personal choice on future health.
Making the right choices today may cut down on the amount (and cost) of care needed by aging adults in the future—thankfully, though we still have a long way to go, it looks as though America is headed in the right direction.
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