A new study says lifestyle choices such as smoking and overeating may play a bigger role in the development of disease than even aging does.
"High-risk people have the highest medical costs and the most disease," says study author Shirley Musich, a senior research associate at the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center. The study appears in the August issue of Disease Management and Health Outcomes.
Musich and her colleagues studied information from health-risk appraisal questionnaires given to more than 135,000 current and retired employees of General Motors Corp. The researchers measured health-risk level by assessing how many risk factors each individual had. Risk factors for disease included smoking, lack of exercise, being overweight, not wearing a seat belt, excessive alcohol use, high stress, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, dissatisfaction with life, poor perception of health, presence of medical problems, and absences from work due to illness.
People with two or fewer risk factors were considered low-risk, three to four risk factors indicated a medium risk for disease, and having more than five was considered high-risk.
The researchers found that people under 45 who were high-risk had nearly the same rate of disease that low-risk adults over 65 did.
For adults under 45, only 3 percent of those in the low-risk group were ill, but for those in the high-risk group, more than a quarter reported having a disease, such as heart trouble or diabetes.
Just over 10 percent of the 45- to 64-year-olds in the low-risk category had any disease, compared to 56 percent of those in the high-risk group.
About 26 percent of the low-risk people over 65 had any disease, while a whopping 80 percent in the high-risk group did.
The researchers also found that even for people without disease, more health risks translated into higher health-care costs.
"Increasing attention is being directed at the importance of behavioral and preventative medicine," says Dr. Bruce Rabin, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health Enhancement Program. "The original concern was to improve quality of life. Now there's increasing attention being directed to the cost savings. Health-care dollars can be saved by addressing what we know are risk factors."
Rabin says its a combination of things that keeps people healthy, but most important are keeping physically active, being optimistic, being socially active, and reducing stress.
What To Do
To learn more about preventing disease, go to the Personal Health Guide from the U.S. Agency for Health Care Research and Quality or the Healthy Living section of the American Academy of Family Physicians' Web site.