Move prevention to the top of every nation’s health care agenda, health expert urges

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal

September 28, 2011 — The world needs a prevention revolution, Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal told an HSPH audience on September 15, 2011. A leading health advocate and spokesperson for the administrations of four U.S. presidents, Blumenthal kicked off the 2011-2012 Dean’s Distinguished Lecture series by delving into the science and politics of obesity, and calling for comprehensive government action to turn around this expensive and deadly epidemic.

Chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer, now account for 63 percent of deaths worldwide, Blumenthal said, and sedentary lifestyles fueled by unhealthy foods are a primary source of the problem. Obesity and its health complications cause health care spending to skyrocket, harm economies, and even threaten national security as more and more young people are judged “too fat to fight.” But the problem is too complex to blame solely on personal responsibility, Blumenthal said. Countering the web of influences that has worked to increase waistlines over the past 30 years—from pervasive junk food advertising aimed at children to agricultural subsidies that keep unhealthy food cheap—will require a comprehensive “health in all policies” approach from all branches of government.

“Very few infants are born obese,” Blumenthal said, which gives policy makers a new cohort every year and a new opportunity to sustain healthy weight over time. The rewards will be great if there’s even a small improvement in the nation’s body mass index (BMI) in coming years, Blumenthal said. She cited recent findings that a one percent BMI reduction across the United States would reduce the number of cases of diabetes by 2.2 million, heart disease and stroke by 1.5 million, and cancer by more than 100,000.

Getting to that point will require the power of prevention. The current focus on personal responsibility for maintaining a healthy weight and medical treatment for obesity has obviously not worked given the many alarming statistics, Blumenthal said. Incidence of type 2 diabetes has risen by 50 percent over the last 20 years, and half of Americans are predicted to be obese by 2030. Blumenthal urged the students in the audience to contribute their ideas and energy to help develop new solutions, calling it their generation’s “moon launch moment.”

“We have to move prevention to the forefront of every nation’s health care agenda,” Blumenthal said. “So much heath care spending is due to preventable lifestyle factors, but very little is spent on prevention. That’s like waiting for your car to break down before you take it in for maintenance.”

—Amy Roeder

Photo credit: Aubrey LaMedica/HSPH