Are Americans Inching Their Way Toward Healthier Lifestyles?

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"Are Americans Inching Their Way Toward Healthier Lifestyles?"

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Americans are notoriously unhealthy — and just about everybody knows it. The World Health Organization (WHO) published a report earlier this year ominously titled, “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.” It found that Americans pay more money for mediocre health care, yet still suffer the consequences of sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits.

Nevertheless, there have also been a few recent reports suggesting that Americans are making positive health changes in their personal lives. And if that trend holds, it could foretell a seismic shift for the U.S. health care system.

The latest bit of good news comes from a new survey conducted for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). It found that 58 percent of American adults are now paying more attention to their personal health than they have in the past. Now, 57 percent of Americans are concerned with eating a healthier diet, 54 percent want to achieve a healthy weight, and 45 percent are vying to reduce stress in their lives.

Of course, good intentions don’t always translate to healthy behavior. But there’s reason to believe that real progress is being made. In June, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that adult obesity rates had only risen by 0.2 percent between 2011 and 2012. That’s almost statistically insignificant considering that obesity rates have ballooned by more than 10 percent in the last 15 years.

In Mississippi — the most obese and least healthy state in America — childhood obesity rates plummeted by 13 percent between 2006 and 2011. Some have speculated that promising results like that are part of the reason that U.S. health care spending is rising at its slowest rate in 50 years.

So what’s driving the slowdown? The changing attitudes reflected in the PhRMA survey are likely an important part of it. But when it comes to curbing obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other preventable chronic illnesses, regulations speak louder than resolutions. Mississippi’s success with childhood obesity is largely a consequence of aggressive school nutrition and physical education programs that were passed in 2007. Employers have been expanding workplace wellness programs and in-house clinics to encourage their workers to live healthier lifestyles and give them convenient resources for medical care — moves that are incentivized by the Affordable Care Act.

There’s also cause for optimism that the shift towards health-consciousness will increase in the future as several important policies fo into effect. Obamacare provides $15 billion in funding for local preventative health care and wellness efforts, like healthy food campaigns and community-based physical activity programs, over the next decade. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that it’s going full steam ahead on enforcing new rules requiring public schools to swap out sugar-laden treats like donuts for healthier options like fruits and whole grains in vending machines and cafeterias. That’s especially important since children who form unhealthy habits early on in life are likely to struggle with them well into adulthood.

Americans still face a difficult landscape when it comes to improving their health. Underfunded medical clinics that serve the poor, “food deserts” where Americans can’t buy fresh and healthy produce even if they want to, and the multi-generational medical effects of struggling to overcome poverty all hurt Americans’ mental and physical health. But shifting public wellness is a titanic enterprise — and there is finally some cause to believe that shift is actually beginning to happen.

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