A chronic illness is a disease that has a prolonged course, does not resolve spontaneously, and is rarely completely cured. An estimated 99 million Americans currently live with one or more chronic illnesses. According to the CDC, chronic diseases are the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., accounting for 70 percent of all deaths, totaling 1.7 million annually, and causing major limitations in daily living for nearly one out of 10 Americans, or about 25 million people. In addition, Americans with common chronic health conditions cost the U.S. economy more than $1.3 trillion a year, a figure that could jump to nearly $6 trillion by 2050 unless individuals take steps to improve their health.

The economic impact goes far beyond the expense of treating disease. It takes an even greater toll on economic productivity in the form of sick days, reduced performance and other losses not directly related to medical care. Given this rapidly expanding burden, efforts to control expenditures, arrest or slow deterioration, and prevent disability from these illnesses will be among the paramount issues facing public health organizations for the foreseeable future.

According to An Unhealthy America: The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease, a new report released by the Milken Institute, the eight most common diseases that afflict Americans are:

While chronic diseases are among the most common—and costly—health problems, they are also among the most preventable. Adopting healthy behaviors like eating nutritious foods, being physically active, obtaining routine health screenings and avoiding tobacco use can prevent or control many of the devastating effects attributable to these diseases. But we are currently losing this vitally important battle.

Our national health promotion efforts are woefully inadequate. In 2001, the food industry spent $25 billion in the United States promoting unhealthy foods, soda and candies. At the same time, the federal government’s “five-a-day” fruit and vegetable campaign spent just $1 million. It is easy to see which messages are more influential on us and our children.

While the United States spends more on healthcare than any other industrialized nation, we are far from the healthiest. Only three percent of the National Institutes for Health (NIH) research budget is devoted to prevention. Our research and medical communities continue to overlook the tremendous potential of disease prevention in favor of costly medications, diagnostic testing and interventional procedures. Instead, we continue to proudly point to the past century’s advancement in medical technology, which has enabled better diagnoses and more effective, life-preserving treatment. These advances, however, do not come cheaply, accounting for roughly 60 percent of the increased costs of healthcare in this country.

The individual, cultural and environmental forces preventing us from adopting and maintaining health behaviors are much greater than the forces that encourage us to be healthy. The CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System estimates that Americans have more body fat, metabolic syndrome and diabetes than at any other time in human history. As for other chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer, there are few nations in the world with a higher prevalence than the U.S.

Chronic diseases don’t just happen, they are almost entirely the result of decades of unhealthy living. As a consequence, children, teenagers, young adults and seniors who eat a typical American diet, don’t exercise regularly and avoid preventative medical screenings continue to develop these chronic diseases at an alarming rate.

The Good News

Evidence indicates that with appropriate education, influence and social support, people can and will take charge of their health. We have an obligation as business and community leaders to aggressively promote programs that focus on individual responsibility and behavior change such as:

At the turn of the 20th century, the major causes of illness and death were infectious diseases such as pneumonia, influenza and tuberculosis. Thanks to a united effort in the development of vaccines, environmental enhancements, social improvements and technological developments, these diseases have been controlled and pose a much smaller threat to our nation’s health. The same outcome is possible for chronic disease. We have the need, capability and expertise to meet the unique challenges we face in this battle against the leading causes of death, disease and disability.

Why does wellness make sense in the worksite?

Worksite wellness is defined as an organized program in the worksite intended to assist employees and their family members (and/or retirees) in making voluntary behavior changes which reduce their health and injury risks, improve their health consumer skills and enhance their individual productivity and well-being.

Over the last decade, wellness programs in the workplace have begun to assume a new significance, particularly with the intense pressure to prevent large increases in annual healthcare costs. As a consequence, health promotion in the workplace continues to grow rapidly. Roughly 80 percent of all employers with 50 or more employees offer some form of health promotion program.

Why should companies invest in wellness programs?

Worksite wellness programs provide employees with a consistent, comprehensive and powerful level of health awareness and education that they have probably not been exposed to at home, school or even their Primary Care Provider’s office. And companies have much at stake, given that they bear the responsibility to protect and nurture their greatest asset—their employees. IBI