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Easing the Human Costs of Chronic Disease

They say everything in life has its price—but some costs are harder to measure than others. That’s certainly true when it comes to the costs of chronic d­isease, for individual Oregonians and for our state as a whole.

Woman-Shake-Ts-86508705We can, of course, put a number on the big dollar costs for medical treatment of chronic diseases such as asthma, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Take just two—heart disease and stroke—which are the most costly to Oregonians. In 2011, there were 37,601 hospitalizations related to heart disease and stroke, with an average hospital bill of nearly $71,000. The total price tag: more than $1.3 billion.

But dollars and cents aren’t nearly sufficient to measure the full toll of chronic disease. As of 2013, more than 1.7 million of our adult family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors in Oregon had one or more chronic diseases. That’s over 40 percent of all state residents. The harder-to-measure human costs of their conditions are all around:

  • the grandfather whose heart disease prevents him from taking walks in the park with his grandson
  • the neighbor who loves to sing but whose arthritis keeps her from attending church choir practice
  • the adult daughter who quits a job she loves to take care of a parent with cancer
  • the friend recently diagnosed with diabetes, scared about what the future holds

That last example is, in fact, my friend—a woman about my age (45). She has watched unchecked diabetes hobble her relatives, and she knows how bad it can get if she doesn’t manage her new condition. When she shared her diagnosis with me over coffee recently, she was worried about how she will make the changes necessary for her to live with this disease for the next 30-plus years.Couple-Hike-Ts-78620745

By definition, chronic diseases are long-lasting conditions that can be prevented and managed, but rarely cured. When they aren’t prevented or managed, they harm Oregonians in every community and diminish their opportunities to live healthy lives that contribute to the health of our state.

The good news for my friend, and for Oregon, is that there are proven methods for managing diabetes. They include the same tools that the rest of us can use to prevent diabetes and other chronic diseases in our own families and communities: Eat a healthy diet. Get more physical activity. Avoid tobacco.

Sounds simple. But if it were, Oregonians wouldn’t be facing such high costs from chronic disease. As of 2013, 79 percent of adults in our state had a risk factor for a chronic disease—such as tobacco use, physical inactivity or poor nutrition. A big reason for that high percentage is that nutritious food, places to play and be active, and smokefree air remain out of reach for too many Oregonians.

  • If you live in a community where parks and other safe places to play are a car ride away, that is a barrier to your family’s ability to get outside and enjoy the fresh air.
  • If you don’t have a full-service grocery store near your home—stocked with affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy—that’s a barrier to eating healthy food on a daily basis.
  • If you live far from where you work, and you spend a lot of time in a car or on a bus to get there and back, that takes away from time that you otherwise could spend walking, gardening, going dancing or taking part in another physical activity.

I feel incredibly fortunate to live close enough to my work that I can bike there, on safe streets, to an office that provides a place to store my bike while I’m working. So no matter what, five days a week, I get about 45 minutes of physical activity, just making a trip that I have to make anyway to get to my job.

When we provide similar access to healthy options for more Oregonians, we reduce the costs of chronic disease to our state and to the people we share it with. We save money, but just as important, we improve the quality of our lives.

Both ways, Oregon prospers.

Curious about a chronic disease topic you’d like to see covered here? Interested in writing a guest blog? Keep the conversation going by leaving a comment below.

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