Experts now agree that the U.S. economy is in recession and likely to remain so this year; and most of us are monitoring the health of our bank accounts and the security of our jobs. Few of us, however, are paying attention to how the state of our health impacts the economy and vice versa. Public-health experts and officials worldwide have long emphasized the link between health performance and economic performance. They note that a poorly educated,  unhealthy population acts as a drag on economic growth and development.

“We focus so much on developing skills and talent and not on the essence of what makes us tick — our health.  It is critical that we examine the correlation of health, economy and family,” says Taese Snowden, a certified natural health counselor  and founder/director of Roots to Fruits Natural Health & Cultural Arts Center in Lithonia, Ga.

Difficult economic times are not an excuse for neglecting the health imperative, adds Florida-based chiropractor Brian Dawson. “Despite the intolerable condition of the economy, we must continue to make efforts to strive toward a more health-conscious existence that we may make more cognizant decisions that result in more useful and productive actions,” he says.

Because Americans already pay almost twice as much for health care per person than other industrialized nations but show a less-than-stellar health picture compared to those nations, U.S. officials and health experts are anxious to overhaul the system. President Obama’s “Plan for a Healthy America” promises to focus the U.S. health-care system on “preventing costly, debilitating conditions in the first place.”

“We spend less than four cents of every health-care dollar on prevention and public health even though eighty percent of the risk factors involved in the leading causes of death are behavior-related and thus preventable,” an official administration statement says.

Focusing on prevention means, in part, promoting individual responsibility. Among other steps, individuals should be encouraged to eat the right foods, stay active and stop smoking, experts say. Businesses can play a huge role in promoting individual responsibility. “If we educate the employers, they educate the employees, who, in turn, educate their children and families,” Snowden says.

Nowhere is education more emphasized today than in controlling overweight and obesity, which have reached epidemic proportions in the United States and caused related diseases like type-2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer and heart disease to skyrocket. Health-industry statistics show that up to 66 percent of the U.S. population is overweight or obese. Over the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rates of overweight have more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents.

The figures are worse among ethnic minorities, except Asian-Americans, who, according to the American Obesity Association, have a relatively low prevalence for obesity.

Among African-Americans, 60 percent of men and 78 percent of women are identified as overweight; and 28.8 percent of men and 50.8 percent of African-American women are considered obese. Black women lead the population both in the numbers who are overweight and obese. As a result, related chronic diseases are occurring at higher rates in African-American communities compared with white communities.

For example, in New York City’s South Bronx community, where more than 95 percent of the population is Black or Hispanic, 18 percent of residents have diabetes, 64 percent are overweight and 24 percent are obese. The death rate for heart disease is 17 percent higher for people living in the Bronx than for people living in New York State as a whole. According to the Institute for Urban Family Health, “women in the South Bronx are 20 times more likely to die of diabetes than women living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a 10-minute subway ride away.”

The CDC’s grassroots effort, Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health Across the U.S. (REACH U.S.), targets areas like the Bronx.  Coordinated by the Urban Family Health institute, the Bronx Health REACH Coalition develops and implements health-promotion programs in Black and Hispanic communities with emphasis on preventing diabetes and related conditions and mobilizes community leaders to make health equality a reality by addressing local and state health policies.

Health-industry research shows that improving nutrition, increasing physical activity, losing 5 percent to 7 percent of body weight and having better access to preventive care can prevent or delay the onset of diabetes or decrease the rate of poor outcomes. At the same time, health experts say, cultural factors related to dietary choices, physical activity and acceptance of excess weight among African-Americans and Hispanics appear to play a role in interfering with weight-loss efforts.

The Bronx coalition programs, which include faith-based outreach, nutrition and fitness initiatives, take a stab at these factors. According to its Web site at www.institute2000.org/bhr/, the faith-based initiative works with 22 churches to educate local residents and empower them to adopt healthy lifestyles. It includes a program called “Fine, Fit and Fabulous,” which helps people make positive and sustainable changes to their eating habits and activity levels.

Concerned about the high incidence of obesity among Blacks, the National Medical Association, the leading U.S. organization of African-American physicians, chose the theme “The Nation’s Obesity Crisis: Practical Solutions for the African American Community” for the Ninth Annual National Colloquium on African American Health for Local and State Society Presidents last March.  In July, it kicked off its 2008 Annual Convention and Scientific Assembly with a “Walk a Mile With a Child”
initiative to fight childhood obesity.

“Factors contributing to the obesity epidemic include greater overall consumption, increased sedentary behavior, and the wider availability of food, with fast-food restaurants and vending machines at seemingly every corner,” the association says. “If people would just reverse those trends — eat less, participate in regular physical activity and make wiser food selections — they would see significant health benefits.”

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