Chronic Disease in Women: Deadly and Costly

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Women are more likely than men to have a chronic disease. In fact, 38 percent of American women have at least one chronic health condition, compared to 30 percent of men. Of the 10 leading causes of death for women, six are chronic diseases.

That’s enough to make you curl up in a ball and hide. But it’s important that we don’t, because there are things we can do as individuals and as a society to prevent these chronic diseases.

Root Causes

One of the primary causes of the rapid increase of many preventable chronic diseases is obesity.

“About 40 percent of the adult population is considered to be obese and that’s doubled since the 1980s,” said Ken Thorpe, chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Diseases, a global non-profit organization in a telephone interview. “The reason that’s so important is that obesity is linked to a whole host of chronic healthcare conditions.”

Thorpe explained that specifically the rates of type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and bad cholesterol are increasing rapidly, following the increase in obesity. Moreover, “roughly 80 percent of those new cases of diabetes and heart disease are potentially preventable,” he said.

The Cost of Chronic Disease

Living with a chronic illness is difficult. Many types of chronic illness affect every aspect of your life — relationships, level of independence, finances, and career. “With the onset of a disease, your income goes down, your hours of work go down,” said Thorpe.

But the cost of chronic disease is not just experienced by the person, but also by society.

“Chronic disease accounts for 86 percent of what we spend on healthcare,” Thorpe said. The Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease has projected that in absence of significant change, “the projected spending on both healthcare and lost productivity is about $42 trillion.”

What Women Can Do to Prevent Chronic Disease

If you ask your doctor how to prevent diabetes and heart disease, you’re likely to get a fairly standard answer involving no smoking, exercise, and eating a healthy diet. And that can be really hard to do on your own. The good news is that now you may also get a referral to a diabetes-prevention program.

Partly through the advocacy of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, Medicare has added a diabetes prevention program for overweight pre-diabetic individuals into the benefit package.

“The significance of that is that all the private health plans that participate in the Medicare program will also have to offer it,” Thorpe said.

Participating in such a program has been demonstrated to have a significant effect.

“The program has on average reduced the number of new cases of diabetes by 58 percent in a year and ... the average weight loss was just under seven percent,” Thorpe said.

The low cost of processed foods makes it easier to eat something that is not good for your body. As well, there has been a significant decline in the amount of time spent active.

“You particularly see that among school-age girls,” Thorpe said. “If you look at physical activity minutes over the last 20-30 years, they’ve continued to go down.”

The earlier you start educating yourself and your family about the importance of making good food choices and physical activity, the better. Thorpe said: “Ideally you should really start in elementary school.”

Acting now to prevent chronic disease in several decades can seem overwhelming and, let’s face it, hard to prioritize. But there are things you can do every day that can help you protect the person you’ll be in the future. I’ll take a look at those in part two of this series.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.