When we are diagnosed with high blood pressure, we take the pills we were prescribed. When our blood work shows elevated cholesterol, we go on a diet; often without giving much thought to what led to those diagnoses. Most of us don’t think about what could have been done to prevent them.
Chronic diseases: a companion of an unhealthy lifestyle
Countries all over the globe are battling an epidemic of chronic diseases. Despite gaining a grim title of the leading causes of death and disability in the developed world, there is a silver lining; they can be avoided or minimized with a healthy lifestyle, awareness, and preventive measures.
The World Health Organization has estimated that if we eliminate the major risk factors for chronic diseases, at least 80% of all heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and more than 40% of cancer cases would be prevented. This is indisputable proof of the power of prevention.
Chronic diseases are causing countries unimaginable costs, and not only due to direct medical treatments. They reduce the quality of life, which leads to absenteeism from work or even a complete inability to work, and that often results in poor financial status. Both the sick and those unable to work, rely on the state for medical and financial help.
Preventive healthcare is not new. The thought that we should prevent rather than cure has been around since ancient times. Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the “father of medicine,” has taught people that diseases are not caused by gods as it was then believed. He even went a step further and promoted preventive over curative: “The function of protecting and developing health must rank even above that of restoring it when it is impaired.”
While in Europe, participation in preventive programmes is relatively high, there are still exceptions. According to Eurostat, in most EU Member States, the majority of the population aged 50–74 had not been screened for colorectal cancer. In 2014, 11 % of women in the EU aged 50 to 69 years never had an x-ray breast examination, while 14 % of women aged 20 to 69 years never had a cervical smear test. Statistics for the same year show that almost half of the EU population didn’t have their cholesterol measured during the previous year. Those numbers indicate a significant untapped potential for preventive.
Gene-based preventive healthcare
Imagine buying a dress. Nothing fits – size small is too short in the sleeves; medium is too loose in the waist. The solution? Have one custom-made! Why does this one suddenly fit perfectly? Because the seamstress has taken your personal measurements and applied them to the cut of the dress, creating a garment with not the size S or M, but size “you.”
Can you believe the same approach can be applied to your healthcare? It can, and it does.
One of the things that fundamentally changed modern medicine is The Human Genome Project. According to Dr. Lee Hood, co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), it gave us “access to all the variability in the human genome.” This monumental undertaking has opened the floodgates to research on genetic technology. The field rapidly advanced to a stage where, today, it enables us to do quick and cost-effective DNA tests.
Because our genetic material is basically an instruction manual for making each of us unique, the instructions written on those pages can be used to evaluate and predict an individual’s health status and create wholly personalised recommendations.
What can you do?
There are many measures you can include in your everyday life to reap the benefits of preventive healthcare.
- Join early detection and screening initiatives. At your doctor’s invitation, join the screening programs available for colorectal, breast, and cervical cancer. Get your bloodwork done regularly to check important blood parameters related to the risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
- Learn your genetic predispositions and adapt your life accordingly. Genetic variations play a significant role in determining how susceptible you are to certain illnesses, including many chronic conditions. Take a DNA test.
- Avoid four health risk factors that are entirely under your control and contribute the most to the onset of common chronic diseases:
- Physical activity. Adequate physical activity helps control weight, reduce risks for cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Regular exercise also strengthens bones and muscles, improves mental health and mood.
- Nutrition. WHO cites a poor diet, which can escalate to overweight and obesity, as the main contributing factors of cardiovascular diseases and cancer, the two main causes of death in Europe.
- Smoking. Smoking increases your risk of developing more than 50 serious health conditions, their consequences ranging from long-term health damage to death. They include stroke, heart attack, damage to blood vessels and other cardiovascular conditions, cancers (lung, throat, stomach, etc.), impaired lung function (COPD, asthma, pneumonia), impotence, and infertility.
- Alcohol. WHO reports that alcohol intake in the European Region is the highest in the world. The harmful use of alcohol is related to premature death and is a major avoidable risk factor for neuropsychiatric disorders, cardiovascular diseases, cirrhosis of the liver, and cancer.
Take those steps, and you will already be utilizing what the European Society of Preventive Medicine describes as 21st-century medicine or the P4 healthcare: predictive, preventive, personalised, and participatory. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!