Are Americans getting healthier?
Yes and no. And it depends on what you define as healthy.
While Americans trend healthier in diet, the number of diabetes and prediabetes diagnoses is rising. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) reported this week that over 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes, the latter meaning they could develop diabetes type 2 within five years.
Not only that, but the American Psychological Association reported earlier this year that America’s stress level rose for the first time in ten years. Citing fears of terrorism, the political climate, and the nation’s future, two-thirds of Americans are more stressed out, moving from 4.8 on a scale from 1 to 10 to 5.1.
And the National Health Interview Survey recently released by the CDC shows that Americans are not getting enough exercise. Only 51.7% of American adults met the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic activity and only 21.7% met the Physical Activity Guidelines for muscle strengthening.
The good news? More people understand the correlation between diet and health.
So, Americans now eat more whole grains, nuts, seeds, and yogurt, while declining sugary drinks, starchy foods, and refined grains and sugar. However, most American’s maintain their meat, processed foods, and salt habits. And they’re not eating any more fruits and vegetables.
In fact, surveys find that millennials eat more healthy foods—but also indulge more.
For example, Twinkies (130 calories and 14.5 grams of sugar per Twinkie, only a little less than a cup of Coke) are a thing among this group. Sales are on the rise for the spongy-sugary treat. And that’s why Hostess and Chobani, the Greek yogurt producer, rank among the top mid-size company producers
According to national surveys, the number of Americans with “poor diets” dropped from 56% to 46%. However, improved diets appeared largely among white respondents, lesser so among non-white and low-income groups, which consumed more processed foods. And some groups increased unhealthy foods in their diets: white potatoes among African Americans and refined grain among Mexican Americans.
But some major healthcare players recognize what’s at stake if Americans–all Americans–don’t improve their health through preventative measures.
The CDC, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the CDC Foundation, started the 500 Cities Project in 2015 to track “chronic disease risk factors, health outcomes, and clinical preventive service use for the largest 500 cities in the United States. The purpose of the census estimates is to provide to cities a geographic snapshot of the health distribution of their inhabitants, so leaders can address prevention and care to those most in need.
Interested stakeholders in the nation’s health, like Humana health insurance, with more than 13 million customers nationwide, have conducted their own surveys to ascertain the health pulse, using the CDC’s measure of health. In its 2017 “Bold Goal report,” Humana reports the communities it serves in the midwest and south are getting healthier.
Partnering with local physicians, non-profits, businesses, and government agencies, Humana reports that it’s poised to achieve its goal of improving the health of its communities by 20%. Their aim is to give people opportunities to achieve better health.
The team measured the increase in Healthy Days, a CDC gauge to determine a person’s subjective experience of their physical and mental health, among six of Humana’s Bold Goal communities.
To ascertain the number of Healthy Days, Humana surveyors asked people two questions:
1. In the last 30 days, how many days have you physically not been well?
2. In the last 30 days, how many days have you mentally not been well?
To increase the number of Healthy Days, Humana targeted “social determinants,” such as “food insecurity, health literacy and transportation”in specific local communities to help create long-term behavioral changes for better health.
From neighborhood to neighborhood, Humana’s teams found particular challenges that needed intervention.
For example, in San Antonio, TX, food insecurity and limited mental health services posed a challenge to the holistic health of its residents. So, primary care offices offered telepsychiatry and food access to address these issues.
And diabetes management improved through a collaboration of Humana, the city’s Health Advisory Board, and the American Diabetes Association. More screenings and improved medication adherence also factored into better health outcomes.
Similarly, a team in Tampa Bay of a non-profit, the University of South Florida, and primary care physicians developed the Hunger Action Alliance to feed the hungry. Other cities, like Louisville, addressed depression, mental health, respiratory illness, and other ailments with collaborations to prevent suicide and provide equipment, education, and access. Each city has specific needs requiring a tailored strategy integrating multiple resources.
Humana plans to expand its push to tackle health city by city throughout 2017. The insurer knows that much of the $3 trillion spent annually on health care costs could be reduced by preventing and managing diseases. A key to prevention is getting food to those who don’t have adequate nutrition to lead healthy, active lives, like seniors, and services to those who don’t have access to mental health resources. Diabetes, depression, loneliness, and lack of nutrition literacy all impact Unhealthy Days.
Is the U.S. Getting Healthier?
In some respects it is. But old habits die hard. When stress levels rise, people forego nutritious food for comfort food, like Twinkies and ice cream or the savory snack alternatives. And though both public agencies and private businesses work hard to tackle the nation’s health care, there’s still much to be done.
Some believe we need stronger government policies about food nutrition and safety, just like current policies for car and product safety. Others say we need to regulate wasteful health care practices, like the 790 billion dollars in perfectly good medical supplies that get tossed out annually, to bolster ongoing efforts to educate and provide resources, like Humana’s project.
The best news? There’s much we can do to improve the nation’s health.