By Frank Wessling
It has been said and written often that we Americans have the best health care in the world. This assertion refers to the web of medical facilities and personnel available to us when we’re sick or injured. It does not mean that we are good caretakers of our health.
In fact, we may lead the world in abusing our own health.
Sure, our average lifespan of around 78 years is longer than that of previous generations or of people in many societies around the world. But we can claim very little personal credit for that. Most of the benefit comes from the way public health laws protect us with clean water, clean air, pure food and vaccination of children.
The American way of medical care is good at keeping us alive despite poor personal health care. A recent study attempting to measure the average healthy lifespan in this country — not the total of our years alive but the time of full health — came up with 48 years. This means that we gain, on average, almost 30 years of living with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and other chronic conditions.
The cost in money of these medically-demanding years is something we can’t sustain. It is the heart of the political wrangling over the federal budget, Medicare and Medicaid.
Medical care costs rise faster than everything else. We look around for a way to fix that social and political problem – everywhere but to ourselves and our habits, much as we do when we don’t feel well personally: look for a fix in a pill or an operation, not to what and how much we eat and drink, not to how sedentary we are.
It’s a great irony that the medical profession has the formula for a revolution in personal health care, preaches it year in and year out — eat and drink in moderation, with a diet high in fresh vegetables and fruit, cut the salt and sugar, exercise regularly, don’t smoke — yet there is very little change. We go on with unhealthy habits.
The worst of those habits show up in a list of the classic sins. This should be no surprise, since virtue and sin relate to healthy and unhealthy ways of being human. Gluttony is first, probably our national capital sin, with sloth, or laziness, a close second. About two-thirds of us are considered overweight. We take in far more fuel than needed for the little energy we generate.
Too many of us eat like an older generation of farmers while we work in chair-bound jobs and do most of our moving only from the chair to the car and back.
Why do we do that? There could be a long list of reasons, but a misplaced hunger is near the top of that list. A hunger for meaning and purpose; a hunger never fully satisfied by material goods acquired and consumed; hunger for comfort, for love; hunger for spiritual beauty and goodness.
Some people seem genetically designed to be larger than the statistical ideal. Some come out of infancy carrying a propensity to excess fat. These conditions can make life a different struggle for health than anything experienced by naturally lean folks. But every one of us is affected by the advertising and other cultural pressures pushing us to eat too much and too thoughtlessly while we spend too little time in healthy physical activity.
The news again brings us pictures of starving African children, their dry skin taut over bony frames. Meanwhile in America, millions of chubby children sit with little video games exercising their thumbs between gulps of sugared drink.
Maybe our fundamental health care problem is that we don’t put those two pictures together and keep them in sight. Somehow they are connected. If we don’t look up and away from our own appetites we will never overcome their tendency to weigh us down in excess.
If we don’t stop our busyness to let a holy quiet into our lives, unhealthy hungers will continue to rule. No amount of medical care will ever be enough to overcome spiritual bankruptcy.