By Andrew Morse -
HealthSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Americans, fatter
and lazier than they've ever been, can reduce the risk of developing a
debilitating illness simply by dropping a few pounds, occasionally breaking a
sweat and kicking smokes.
Though 125 million Americans -- close
to half the country's population -- suffer from some preventable chronic
condition, many of those could be avoided by simple changes in behavior,
according to the American Public Health Association, which opens its annual
meeting in San Francisco on Sunday.
Helping people head off those health
problems -- which account for 70 percent of all deaths in the country and
nearly 75 percent of healthcare costs -- will be the focus of the four-day
meeting, which features a keynote address from David Heymann of the World
About 12,000 healthcare professionals
are expected to attend the conference, which will include hundreds of seminars
on topics ranging from public health policy to the benefits of chiropractic
Although infectious diseases like
West Nile Virus and SARS have captured headlines, experts say the bulk of the
discussion will center on obesity and tobacco. Even as Americans steadily give
up smokes, they're getting fatter, raising the risk of diabetes, heart disease
and some cancers.
"The prevalence of massive obesity
has exploded in this country," says Richard Atkinson, president of the American
Obesity Association. "The problem has gotten great enough and the consequences
big enough that they can't be ignored."
Until recently considered a cosmetic
issue, obesity has become one of the nation's leading killers. Nearly 60
million Americans now meet the medical definition of obesity and more than
300,000 deaths annually are directly linked to obesity, according to the AOA.
About $100 billion is spent annually treating obesity.
COSTS FALL AS WEIGHT
The cost of treating diabetes, a lack
of insulin often caused by obesity, falls dramatically if patients shed excess
weight. That's because the drugs diabetics take often cause other health
problems that require still more drugs. Get rid of one and you get rid of the
"There's a huge drop in costs and it
comes with a concomitant rise in well-being,' Carlo Michelotti, the CEO of the
California Pharmacists Association, who estimates expenses can fall to $30 a
month from $300.
Though Americans are now smoking less
-- about a quarter of the population is still puffing away -- cancer remains
one of the country's most deadly diseases. An estimated 1.3 million new cancer
cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2003, according to the American Cancer
Society. Almost 600,000 cancer-related deaths are forecast for the same
Many of those are avoidable, says
Michael Thun, the head of epidemiological research for the
"If we could apply what we know now,
we could prevent half of all cancer deaths," says Thun, says. "It's
In addition to kicking the habit and
adopting a lighter diet, Thun says Americans should be regularly screened for
the most prevalent forms of cancer. Caught early on, colon, breast, skin and
cervical cancer can all be cured, he says.
The meeting opens the day before
former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, possibly the world's most
fitness-conscious politician, is scheduled to be sworn-in as governor of
California. Health professionals hope he can help a nation of Homer Simpsons
put down the donuts and pick up the barbells.
"He's certainly getting a lot of
attention," says the AOA's Atkinson. "He could play a real role in bringing
awareness to the issue."© Copyright Reuters . All rights reserved. Any copying, re-publication or re-distribution
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