“One of the unique things about autoimmune diseases, as opposed to cancer, is that these are more likely to be long-term,” he says. “You’re not just dealing with the immediate problems, but the entire lifelong implications of that.”
It’s a fact that the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation noted in its report: “Diseases of poverty, such as communicable, maternal, nutritional and newborn causes, have decreased universally while non-communicable conditions traditionally associated with wealthier countries have risen,” it reads. “As people live longer and die at lower rates, the number of years spent living with disability… has increased.”
Woolf says there is still much research to be done into what’s causing Americans to be so sick. But he says this future we’re headed toward is preventable.
“We’ve known for many years what needs to be done about this,” he says. “The problem is not a lack of knowledge about what to do, but a lack of resolve and resources for how to do it… For each [issue], there are major blue ribbon reports that have outlined precisely what needs to be done about it.”
So why hasn’t it happened?
Woolf says that legislation to create a healthier America—from improved nutritional quality of food to taxes on soda—is seen as an affront to personal liberty. “A willingness to implement public policies … often involves higher taxes that American taxpayers don’t want to spend, or a willingness to change personal freedoms.”
“We can still have a free society but accept some limits on what we do to try to promote good health,” he continues. “There’s such a visceral reaction to what is perceived as a nanny state … or what people think of socialized welfare states, that any semblance of that tends to get rejected.”
Right now, he says that so much research about American health—particularly women’s health—is very new.
“I just think it’s something that hasn’t been widely disseminated,” he says, pointing to the NRC/IOM report “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.” “The general media … haven’t been briefed about this sufficiently.”
And because of that, people aren’t ready to make healthy, infrastructural changes.
“It might be that we as a society make an informed decision that, yeah, we may pay the price for it in terms of poor health, but we get to live our lives the way we want to,” he says. “I feel that that’s okay, as long as we are making that choice as informed citizens. The problem is that I don’t think that the American public knows that that’s happening, or that American parents know that their kids will live shorter lives than in other countries.”
Jacoby, of the WHO, agrees, saying chronic conditions have become a top priority for his organization. “Chronic conditions are really, really stealing lives.”
Back at our house, Joe and I have been talking for hours about his condition and how it affects his daily life. I’ve been crying for most of the conversation, especially when we talk about the future. We talk about how our friend, Missy, can’t leave her house much. Catching someone’s cold could sideline her for weeks. Even fluorescent lights in grocery stores start to make her sick to her stomach.
We talk about how we hope that Joe never has to stop doing the things he loves because of his condition.
“I’m just sad for other people that they can’t do more. That would be the tougher thing. At least, I have very little that I can complain about,” he says. “But in the same breath, the thing that worries me about it, is that it would be one thing if I was 50 or 60. But I’ve got a long time to get worse. Time can be a friend and an enemy, I suppose. That’s just life, I guess.”