Poor lifestyle choices can pave the way for future health problems. Chronic diseases are responsible for 60% of deaths and 70% of cardiac-related deaths in the United States. Chronic disease also accounts for about 60% of all medical care costs. The most common of these diseases include heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes and lung disease.
The onset of these chronic conditions is linked to genetics to a small degree. However, the decisions that we take each day regarding nutrition and exercise, have the greatest impact on disease development. These include smoking cigarettes, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and obesity (1-4).
Because we have a choice in whether or not to adhere to these healthy lifestyle choices, risk of developing a chronic disease can be altered. By making healthy lifestyle choices, death from chronic disease can be avoided or at least delayed in some cases. The lifestyle factors that influence risk of chronic disease death are detailed below.
- Cigarette Smoking
Cigarette smoking results in a host of harmful effects to the body. Tobacco contains 19 different carcinogens and the smoke induces lung damage and forces the heart to work harder than normal. Any use of tobacco increases your risk of death from heart disease, cancer, or cerebrovascular disease. Even past smokers are at a higher risk than those who have never smoked, although current smokers are at the highest risk of dying from these diseases.
- Alcohol Consumption
Drinking alcohol in large quantities can have negative effects throughout the body but primarily in the liver. The liver prefers fatty acids for fuel. When excess alcohol is consumed, the liver metabolizes the alcohol first while the fatty acids build up. Chronic ingestion of alcohol leads to accumulation of fatty acids resulting in a fatty liver. Interestingly, alcohol consumption in any quantity is protective against death from heart disease. However, 2 or more alcoholic drink per day increases risk of dying from cancer.
- Poor Diet
As expected, diet plays a major role in the prevention of death from chronic disease. People with more nutritious diets are at lower risk for death. The nutrition factors that play a protective role include five or more servings of vegetables per day, four or more servings of fruits, one or more servings of nuts, predominant consumption of fish and poultry over red meat, more than 15 grams of fiber each day, low trans fat and saturated fat consumption and high polyunsaturated fat intake.
As body fatness rises, so does the risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, joint problems, respiratory problems and cancer. Being overweight, defined as a body mass index between 25 and 30, increases your risk of death by 46% for heart disease and 14% for cancer. Obesity has even more serious consequences as the risk of death from heart disease triples.
- Sedentary Lifestyle
Regular physical activity has numerous positive health effects including helping to maintain a healthy weight, lowering cholesterol and triglycerides, raising HDL cholesterol and stabilizing blood sugar. There is a direct relationship between the amount of time spent exercising and the risk of developing a chronic disease; the more you exercise, the lower your risk. People who are protected the most are those who exercise over 5 hours each week.
By modifying lifestyle attributes, the risk of death from chronic conditions can be reduced. If you drink, keep alcohol consumption to no more than 2 drinks per day. If you don’t drink, don’t start. Do not smoke. Even if you are a past smoker, you should concentrate on modifying other lifestyle activities, since you will remain at elevated cancer risk. Diet, obesity, and sedentary lifestyle are lifestyle habits that are often linked. Body mass index should be kept between 18.5 and 25. In order to achieve this BMI, greater activity levels combined with a lower-calorie, nutritious diet is the ideal combination. The diet should ideally include 5- 9 portions of fruits and vegetables each day. Several servings of oily fish such as tuna, salmon, or mackerel should be eaten each week. If taking vitamin supplements avoid synthetic vitamins and choose whole food vitamins instead.
Overall, chronic disease is largely influenced by the choices that we make every day. Even with all of the recent advancements in genetic research and medical technology, it appears that diet and exercise remain the mainstays of a long, healthy life.