A recent LA Times headline caught my attention: “CDC targets needless deaths due to poor lifestyle habits.” I thought of my mom and dad’s lifestyle choices. Committed smokers (mom refused to go anywhere they wouldn’t let her smoke) they both died of lung related diseases that might have been avoided if they’d quit–or better yet–never started! It wasn’t for lack of effort. I remember mom trying any number of extreme methods, including tying her pack of smokes up in a maze of rubber bands to limit access.

The CDC study refers to “avoidable deaths” as those which could be prevented by better medical care or healthier lifestyles.  Death itself is unavoidable. We all come into life with a genetic predispositions for disease that will eventually contribute to our bodies wearing out and dying. But the onset and progress of disease is complicated by many things, including: availability and quality of medical care, nutrition, activity level,  social support and geographic location. The CDC study indicates higher rates of avoidable deaths in the South. Even your zip code plays a role in how your genetic predisposition for disease manifests!

Mom died because her lungs gave out, but I bet her cholesterol levels were still healthy.  In spite of a diet consisting of a lot of butter, eggs, half & half and sugar, mom never had problems with cholesterol. I probably inherited that from her. My doctor once remarked that she’d never seen a “good” cholesterol number so high! Genetics is on my side with that one–thanks be to God (and my Irish ancestry apparently)!

Disease is part of life. Genetics loads our system for certain potentials, but lifestyle impacts how they play out. A coaching client reported that in spite of a very healthy diet, active lifestyle and limited stress in her life, she has high blood pressure. “Both my parents had hypertension, so I’m not surprised that in spite of all I do right, it still runs high.” Imagine the problems she might have if she weren’t conscientious about maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The CDC reports that nearly one fourth of all deaths from cardiovascular disease are avoidable through lifestyle changes. But those changes could also eliminate other “needless” physical, psychological and relational problems.  Smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet and excessive use of alcohol (the primary lifestyle factors in heart disease) also contribute to limited energy, strength and mobility, depression, relational stress, isolation and feeling like a burden to family and friends–among other things.

The study also points out the need for systemic change–like improving access to quality health care and providing physical and social  environments to support healthy lifestyles for people in economically and geographically challenged locations. Other suggestions include improving community design to increase access to sidewalks and providing bike lanes, improving the local food environment, enhancing worksite wellness programs, and improving insurance coverage.

Local school breakfast options

What about improving the quality of school lunches? As my friend massage therapist and health minded mom Erin Wrutemberg pointed out when she posted a lunch menu for a local school district, “I wonder if test scores would be higher if all kids were eating real, whole, nourishing food for breakfast. Its no light bulb realization that the epidemic of childhood type II diabetes, heart disease, and obesity IS linked to diet. If your typical lower income kid who qualifies for free and reduced meals at school eats off this menu they are beginning the day at a disadvantage.”

For many people it may take a village to create and sustain healthier lifestyles. Kids who eat funnel cake and bacon cheese eggstravaganza’s for breakfast are starting out with a weak foundation for later disease manifestation.

Mom might never have quit smoking, even if she’d had a village behind her. Many of the friends she smoked with in earlier decades were able to quit when it became clear in the 60’s and 70’s that smoking was hazardous to your health.

Who is in your village and what are you doing to support health in your spheres of influence?

What small changes might you make in your lifestyle or advocate for in your community to support better health for yourself and others?

Death isn’t avoidable, but some of the pain and suffering of it’s precursors can be alleviated by small choices we make each day. May we all have compassionate wisdom and strength to make small choices now that may minimize suffering later.