American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What really kills us

Heart disease is not the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. Cancer, stroke, pulmonary disease, diabetes, and dementia are not the other leading causes of early mortality and/or chronic malady either.

Don’t get me wrong, these are the very diseases immediately responsible for an enormous loss of years from life, and an even greater loss of life from years. In that context, heart disease is indeed the most common immediate precipitant of early death among women and men alike. Cancer, stroke, and diabetes do indeed follow close behind. It’s just that these diseases aren’t really causes. They are effects.

We got this message loud, clear, and first, at least in the modern era, in what really should have been a culture-changing research paper published in JAMA in 1993 entitled “Actual Causes of Death in the United States.” In that analysis, two leading epidemiologists, Drs. William Foege and J. Michael McGinnis, looked into the factors that accounted for the chronic diseases and other insults that immediately preceded premature deaths. When they were done crunching numbers, they had a list of 10 factors that accounted for almost all of the premature deaths in our country every year.

Let’s digress to note we cannot “prevent” death. But what makes death tragic is not that it happens, we are all mortal, but that it happens too soon. And even worse, that it happens after a long period of illness drains away vitality, capacity, and the pleasure of living. Chronic disease can produce a long, lingering twilight of quasi-living, before adding to that injury the insult of a premature death. And that, we can prevent. We can preserve vitality, and we can postpone death to its rightful time, at the end of our full life expectancy.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program. There were two astounding things about McGinnis and Foege’s list of 10 factors. (The list is: tobacco, diet and activity patterns, alcohol, microbial agents, toxic agents, firearms, sexual behavior, motor vehicles, and illicit use of drugs.) First, we as individuals have substantial control over everything on the list, and virtually complete control over most of the entries. Second, just the first three factors on the list, tobacco, diet, and physical activity, accounted for fully 80% of the action. In other words, the actual, underlying “cause” of premature death in our country fully 8 times in 10 comes down to bad use of our feet (lack of physical activity), our forks (poor dietary choices), and/or our fingers (holding cigarettes).

I trust you immediately see the upside to this. If bad use of feet, forks, and fingers accounts for 80% of premature deaths (and a bounty of chronic disease), it stands to reason that optimal use of feet, forks, and fingers could eliminate up to 80% of all premature mortality and chronic illness. This proves to be exactly true. Feet, forks, and fingers are the master levers of medical destiny.

We know this not just from McGinnis and Foege’s seminal paper, but from a steady drumbeat of corroborating research spanning the two decades since. Scientists at the CDC replicated the findings in the original paper in an update a decade later. Population-based research published in 2009 showed that people who ate well, exercise routinely, avoided tobacco, and controlled their weight had an 80% lower probability across their entire life span of developing any major chronic disease, heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, dementia, etc., than those who smoked, ate badly, didn’t exercise, and lost control of their weight.

Flip the switch on any of these factors from bad to good, and the lifetime risk of serious chronic disease was reduced by nearly 50%. But firing on all four cylinders produced a greater net benefit than perhaps any advance in the history of medicine. These very findings have been replicated again, and again, and have been shown to extend that same influence over the expression of our very genes. DNA is not destiny, and to a substantial extent dinner is. By changing what we eat and how we live, we can alter the expression of our very genes in a way that immunizes us against chronic disease occurrence, recurrence, or progression.

And so it is we have the knowledge to eliminate fully 80% of all chronic disease and premature death. The contention isn’t even controversial.

But knowledge, alas, isn’t power unless it is put to use. And for the most part, we have not leveraged the astounding memo we first got in 1993. Not only have we failed to slash rates of chronic disease, we are actually seeing them rise, with onset at ever-younger ages. We could bequeath to our children a world in which 8 times in 10, heart attacks and strokes and cancer simply don’t happen. Instead, should current trends persist, we will bequeath to them a world in which they and their peers succumb to just such preventable calamities more often and earlier than we.

So current trends cannot persist, and that, bluntly, is why I wrote Disease Proof. As a society, we clearly know the “what,” but as individuals and families; spouses and siblings; parents and grandparents, most of us, just as clearly, don’t know how. How, despite the challenges of modern living, do we adopt, maintain, and enjoy a healthful diet? How, despite those same challenges, do we fit fitness in? How do we navigate around other challenges, from sleep deprivation and lack of energy, to overwhelming stress, to chronic pain?

These questions have answers, and I know them. I know them not because I’m special, but because it’s my job to know them. Pilots know how to fly planes; nuclear physicists know how to split atoms. I am a health expert, and I know how to get to health and weight control from here. Like any worthwhile thing, it requires a skill set, but we are used to that. We had to learn how to read and ride our bikes. We had to learn how to drive our cars and use our smart phones. Every worthwhile undertaking in our lives has involved someone who already knew how teaching us. Our job was to learn, and apply.

Health and weight control are exactly the same. In Disease Proof, I share the full skill set I apply myself.

We could, as a culture, eliminate 80% of all chronic disease. But my family and yours cannot afford to keep on waitin’ on the world to change. By taking matters into our own hands, we can lose weight and find health right now. We can reduce our personal risk of chronic disease, and that of the people we love, by that very same 80%. We can make our lives not just longer, but better.

What really kills us prematurely, and all too often imposes years of misery beforehand, isn’t a list of chronic diseases, but the factors that cause those diseases. What really takes years from life and life from years is a willingness to know what, yet neglect the opportunity to know how. What really kills us is the failure to turn what we know and have long known into what we do. We can change that, and substantially disease-proof ourselves and those we love, any time we’re ready. I hope that’s now, because waiting is really killing us.

David L. Katz, MD, FACP, MPH, FACPM, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University's Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, Conn.; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. This post originally appeared on his blog at The Huffington Post.

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Blog log

Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

Everything Health
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

I'm dok
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

Just Oncology
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.

Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

MD Whistleblower
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

More Musings
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.

Reflections of a Grady Doctor
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

Technology in (Medical) Education
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

Peter A. Lipson, MD
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.

Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

Interact MD
Michael Benjamin, MD, ACP member, doesn't accept industry money so he can create an independent, clinician-reviewed space on the Internet for physicians to report and comment on the medical news of the day.

PLoS Blog
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.

White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

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