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Economic burden of chronic disease

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This article was originally published by the Siteman Cancer Center on the August Gateway Region YMCA blog

[side_car urls=”/scholars/su-hsin-chang/,”]By  Su-Hsin Chang, PhD, SM, assistant professor of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.[/side_car]

It comes as no surprise that healthcare is expensive. Anyone who has been to a doctor may recall being charged a co-pay, receiving bills for lab work or paying for appointments not covered by insurance. And all of this likely is on top of paying your health insurance premiums.

It can certainly add up quickly, and not only for individuals and their families but the nation as well, especially as the population grows older and, yes, sicker.

More than half of Americans have been diagnosed with some sort of chronic illness. The seven most common are: cancer; diabetes; high blood pressure; stroke; heart disease; mental health disorders; and lung conditions. Roughly $217 billion is spent on treating these seven conditions each year. And they cost another $905 billion annually when you factor in things like lower job productivity, lost work hours, and other work-related issues that come up when living with a chronic disease.[1]

Unfortunately, the United States does not have a healthcare system that covers everyone, and there is certainly room for improvement to lower the economic burden of disease at a global, systematic, and individual level. Improving clinical and administrative processes, or reducing excessive prices are examples of broader changes that need to be addressed. Also key, focusing more on prevention. Obesity itself contributes to $190 billion per year in medical costs in the United States, accounting for 21 percent of national health expenditures.[2] Tobacco use costs almost $170 billion in healthcare costs, and another $156 billion for time off work.[3] Multi-level, broad-based approaches need to be put into place in cities, states, and across the nation to tackle these and other important chronic disease risk factors. Such public health programs have been shown to have a very good return on investment.

Outside of these large efforts, what can you and your family do to improve overall health and lower the risk of chronic disease? Try these simple steps:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Start by maintaining your current weight, then slowly work towards losing weight. Consider changing your diet or exercising.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes per day. Easy activities could include walking after work, cycling or gardening. Join your local YMCA branch for even more options. Just remember to choose something you enjoy doing so you’ll stick with this new routine.
  • Don’t smoke. If you do, now is the best time to quit as smoking increases your risk of stroke, heart attack and at least 15 different types of cancers. There are many resources available to help you quit today. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit for help.
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These foods help you feel full for longer, which aids in weight control, and they can lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. Think of simple ways to add more into your diet, such as adding fruit to a salad or eating whole-grain bread instead of white.

For more tips on lifestyle behaviors to help you stay healthy, visit Siteman Cancer Center.

Su-Hsin Chang, PhD, SM, is an assistant professor of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Dr. Chang’s research focuses on health and economic consequences of obesity and surgical treatments of obesity. Her research uses economic and econometric/statistical modeling to evaluate program and treatment effects. Dr. Chang’s research areas include treatment effect and policy evaluation; cost-effectiveness analysis; meta-analysis; and comparative effectiveness.