Knowing What We Can Do About Health

Pam Linn

The world is in crisis, from Ukraine to Iraq to Gaza/Israel. If we feel helpless to do anything about these conflicts, we become frustrated and angry, blaming politicians and world leaders with no hope of influencing their actions or the outcomes. 

So, I put down the periodicals that deal with war and turned instead to Scientific American and a 15-page newsletter called Nutrition Action, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In their most recent editions, both magazines deal with issues we can do something about: health. And no, it’s not about Ebola, the virus that has spread to three African countries and has killed several hundred. We can’t do anything about that either. 

They address the millions of premature deaths — and astronomical healthcare costs — from chronic diseases for which there are treatments available once diagnosed. Nutrition Action devotes six pages of its July/August issue to type 2 diabetes, a precursor to heart disease and a complication for those who often are unaware they are afflicted. 

The numbers are astonishing: One out of 10 Americans has diabetes and the numbers are climbing. One out of three adults is pre-diabetic and 90 percent of them don’t know it. And up to 70 percent of those will develop diabetes in their lifetimes. But they needn’t. A simple blood sugar test can spot the condition, easily corrected with those old standbys: diet and exercise. 

The Nutrition Action piece is easy to read, the information accessible through well-designed sidebars and boxes. The best is titled “Are you at risk for type 2 diabetes?” Answer seven questions and figure out your ideal weight according to your height. If your total score is five or higher, you are at increased risk for prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. I scored a four on the test (three points were for my age) and one point was for blood pressure, which rose with increased heart rate from accidentally ingesting caffeine. 

Reading the special edition of Scientific American, “Promoting Cardiovascular Health Worldwide,” is more daunting and includes 12 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, all aimed at chronic or non-communicable diseases. It stresses that one size does not fit all. What works in one setting will not necessarily work in others and culture may be the deciding factor. 

For instance, heart attack, hypertension and stroke are rising with the obesity epidemic, and developing countries are not immune. “Some people in South Africa strive to be overweight because they view thinness as a sign of HIV/ AIDS,” Raila Odinga, the former prime minister of Kenya, noted. “A hospital bed is more expensive in Nairobi than a bed in a five-star hotel.” 

In Turkey, before 2008, nearly half of all men and one out of every six women smoked, among the highest rates in the world. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a meeting of the National Tobacco Control Program in Ankara that tobacco products were “literally murdering our future generations.” 

As economies in the developing countries improve, people are eating more meat, fat, sugar and salt, causing obesity rates to rise and with it cardiovascular disease, diabetes and lung diseases once found mainly in wealthy countries. But part of the problem rests with policy makers. Food-producing companies, in competition with one another, resort to highly addictive products containing copious quantities of salt, sugar and fat. 

On page 2 of Nutrition Action, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest writes, “The Food Lobby has been out in force to thwart the government’s efforts to improve the public’s health.” 

Food companies, for instance, are fighting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposals to lower sodium levels in processed foods. 

“Never mind that halving sodium consumption would save about 100,000 lives and tens of billions of dollars annually,” Jacobson writes. 

Also, food manufacturers want to weaken, if not kill, FDA proposals to revoke approval of partially hydrogenated oil, the main source of heart-damaging artificial trans fat. Argentina, Austria, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland have already done so, he notes. 

In 2006, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg got the Board of Health to outlaw the use of artery-clogging trans fats in approximately 24,000 city restaurants. His proposal to limit the size of sugary sodas didn’t fare as well, but at least he put public health over the vested interests. 

So, let’s quit gnashing our teeth over wars and all those things we can’t control and turn our energies toward improving health. It’s a gift we can give to others and to ourselves.