Small Lifestyle Changes Can Yield Big Benefits for Chronic Disease Patients

Published January 1, 2008

Even slight lifestyle adjustments can help avert the major negative economic impact chronic diseases are expected to have on the U.S. economy by 2023, according to a study by the Milken Institute’s Center for Health Economics.

Using data from the 2003 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), Ross DeVol and Armen Bedroussian, research economists at the Center for Health Economics, note the number of cases of pulmonary and heart disease, hypertension, and mental disorders is expected to increase by 42 percent by 2023. The hike from 192 million cases in 2003 to 230.7 million nationwide in 20 years is projected to cost $4.2 trillion in treatment expenses and lost economic output.

With moderate lifestyle improvements such as losing weight and exercising more, Americans could avoid 40 million chronic disease cases, boosting gross domestic product by $905 billion and saving $218 billion in treatment costs annually.

The Santa Monica, California-based Milken Institute is a nonprofit economic think tank founded in 1991.

Effects on Productivity

“We were challenged to quantify how chronic disease affected the American economy not only in treatment costs, but in the loss of business due to missed work and poor performance as a result of chronic health issues,” Bedroussian said of the study, titled “An Unhealthy America: The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease” and released in October.

Bedroussian and DeVol also studied how future medical advancements may affect the nation’s health and economy by 2023.

“We took into consideration medical trends and technologies,” Bedroussian said. “For instance, early detection through screenings has had a dramatic effect on the prognosis of colon cancer patients, greatly reducing the disease’s morbidity rate.”

Changes Recommended

The study recommends three key changes in the nation’s health care system:

  • Health care expenditures should be reported by condition, in order to accurately determine the costs of specific chronic diseases.
  • Health care systems should provide incentives promoting prevention and early intervention,
  • Americans should recommit to achieving a “healthy body weight.”

Unless the nation’s health care system rewards healthy living and disease prevention, chronic diseases will continue to grow dramatically, the authors say.

Lifestyle Adjustments

According to Andrew Pelosi, vice president of marketing and consumer engagement at Virgin Life Care, part of the Virgin Group, a conglomerate of 200 British companies owned by Sir Richard Branson, perceptive companies are picking up on these statistics and beginning to adjust their health care emphases.

“Historically, companies have focused on controlling health care costs through secondary prevention,” Pelosi said. “They target people with certain risk factors or pre-existing conditions and put programs in place to help minimize the financial burden on both the employee and the employer.

“Today,” Pelosi continued, “the focus is shifting to primary prevention–helping people lead healthier lives, reducing risk factors, and preventing the initial onset of chronic health conditions.

“Only 26 percent of Americans are getting the recommended level of physical activity in their lives,” Pelosi said. “And regular, moderate physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, and many forms of cancer,” he said. “We’re thrilled at the success our members have seen from the standpoint of both sustained behavior change and positive health outcomes.”

Rising Costs

Without the needed changes, health care will cost more–not only for state and federal governments, but also insurers and employers who provide medical benefits, the Milken study says.

“Encouraging a wellness program is a good investment for insurers and employers,” Bedroussian said. “Employers such as Safeway and Marriott are encouraging their employees to adopt healthier lifestyles and are finding the program leads to less health absences and more productivity.”

Fran Eaton ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.

For more information …

“An Unhealthy America: The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease–Charting a New Course to Save Lives and Increase Productivity and Economic Growth,” by Ross DeVol and Armen Bedroussian, Milken Institute, October 2007: