Now, more than ever, people are wondering how they can maintain or improve their health to prevent disease. Whether you currently experience disease yourself, have experienced it in the past, know a loved one with a disease or have lost loved ones to disease, it’s safe to say that all of us in some capacity, have experience with it. So, what are diseases and why is good health so important? Well, the latter is self-explanatory – no one wants to be diagnosed with a disease and we all want to maintain our health to live long lives, but what are they specifically and what can we do to ward off poor health?
What is it?
Disease is defined in the dictionary as “a condition of the living [human]…or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” (16) There are 2 main categories of disease: chronic and acute. Chronic diseases are conditions that last 1+ years and require ongoing medical treatment. They can also be defined as conditions that limit activities of daily living. (7) Acute diseases are illnesses or conditions that have a rapid onset and last a shorter period and are usually caused by viruses or infections. They can also represent short term conditions such as required hospitalization after an accident. (8)
We’ll focus on the prevention of chronic diseases
In the United States today, chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer account for most of the health issues, according to the CDC. Many of these diseases are preventable as they are linked to lifestyle choices such as lack of physical exercise, excessive alcohol use, unhealthy diets and tobacco use. According to the CDC and World Health Organization chronic diseases are the leading cause of disability and death in the US and by 2020, two-thirds of all disease will be from lifestyle choices. (4) The 3 top major chronic diseases recognized by the CDC are diabetes, cancer and heart disease and stroke. Other chronic diseases include obesity, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, epilepsy and tooth decay. The major risk factors for these diseases recognized by the CDC include tobacco use, poor diet, lack of physical activity and excessive alcohol use. (7)
What happens in the body when disease occurs?
While diseases have many etiologies and can be influenced by factors outside our control such as genetic predisposition, about 70% of diseases in the US are caused by lifestyle factors. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body no longer recognizes the insulin hormone, or the pancreas stops producing insulin. Insulin is needed to control blood sugar levels in the body. Without insulin being produced or recognized blood sugar levels go uncontrolled which can have dangerous consequences. Cancer, in general, occurs when there is unchecked cell division and growth although there are numerous types with different behaviors of spread and treatments. (10) Heart disease encompasses many different heart conditions, but the most common is when there is a decreased blood flow to the heart which can lead to a heart attack. This can occur due to plaque buildup in the arteries. (11)
How Is It Prevented?
There are 3 types of prevention when it comes to diseases: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention is defined as intervening before health effects occur. This action is taken before a disease is present. This can include things like getting vaccinated and changing lifestyle habits to mitigate risk. Secondary prevention also takes place before a disease is present, but it includes regular screenings to identify a disease in the early stages of it. Examples include mammograms or regular blood draws. Tertiary prevention is when the disease is already present and includes management to stop or slow progression. This can include chemotherapy, additional screenings or surgeries. (17)
Primary prevention for the most common chronic diseases: taking action & mitigating risk
Factors such as age, genetics, family history, carcinogen exposure, environmental factors and race among others are outside of our control and all may have an influence on disease development. Since these are uncontrollable let’s focus on what we can control:
- Exercise: Aim for 30-60 minutes of moderate physical activity or 15-30 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day. Your total minutes of exercise per week should equal 150. (9) Your risk of developing diabetes is higher when your activity is low. Physical activity helps to maintain your weight, makes your body more sensitive to insulin and uses glucose as energy. (9) Studies have shown that those who engage in 150 minutes of exercise per week also have a reduced cancer risk. (14) Exercise also increases and supports cardiovascular health which can reduce heart disease and stroke risk.
- Eat Healthy and manage weight: Focus on a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat and dairy. Overweight and obesity have been linked to at least 13 different types of cancer. (15) Eating a diet high in fiber, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and dairy helps to manage weight and gives your body plenty of antioxidants and nutrients to maintain health and reduce risk.
- Avoid or reduce smoking: Avoiding smoking or tobacco use entirely is ideal, but reducing use can also have health benefits. Smoking and tobacco use has been clearly linked to certain kinds of cancer so it’s best to completely avoid or find a solution that works for you by working with your healthcare provider.
- Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption: Alcohol has been linked to many different types of cancer such as breast, kidney, liver and colon among others. Women should only consume 1 drink per day and men should only consume 2 drinks per day to follow the dietary guidelines. (12) Find a solution that works for you and work with your healthcare provider on ways to reduce alcohol consumption.
Disease prevention is extremely complex as there is no one size fits all approach and there are many factors outside of our control. While we can only control so much, there are many choices people have that can help mitigate their risk. Since no one can entirely prevent disease the best route of action is to prioritize your health through activities and choices that make you feel fulfilled such as finding an exercise you love or ways to incorporate healthy foods into your diet.