NPR's new series is called Living Better: How Americans can take back their health
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
So this week, NPR is launching an ongoing series of stories called "Living Better: How Americans Can Take Back Their Health." Americans rank poorly on many health outcomes compared to other nations, and things only got worse during the pandemic. So what can be done about it? NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about the project. Good morning.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: So give us a preview of the series. Why this focus now?
AUBREY: You know, you might remember how many times my colleagues and I came on this program during the pandemic with the COVID death count - a thousand deaths a day, 2,000 deaths a day, and everyone was horrified. Well, the reality is the U.S. has a similar death toll from preventable diseases. Nearly a thousand deaths a day are linked to diet-related disease - heart disease, complications from Type 2 diabetes, liver disease. Now, these deaths are not as dramatic, but I think the great tragedy is that despite having here in the U.S. the most sophisticated health care system in the world - great doctors, top-notch hospitals, lots of medical breakthroughs - we as a nation are not getting healthier.
FADEL: I mean, just hearing that number - a thousand deaths a day from diet-related diseases - if I had heard you say that every day for months, it really impacts you. When you put it that way, it does sound awful. So where do we start to turn it around?
AUBREY: Well, we start by recognizing who is falling behind. It's not everyone equally. If you take a fairly wealthy ZIP code - let's say Princeton, N.J. That's 08542. People who live there can expect to live into their late 80s or 90 years old, but not too far away in Camden, average life expectancy is lower - about 74 years. That's a big difference. So where you live influences how long you live.
FADEL: So it's not necessarily access to a doctor as much as access to a safe place to live and resources.
AUBREY: Absolutely. So we want to tell some stories of hope. Despite these challenges, there are communities coming together to prioritize health. We plan to visit Muskegon, Mich., where they are scaling up evidence-based programs such as the Diabetes Prevention Program. There's lots of data to show that this disease can be prevented or reversed with healthy eating and exercise. And the YMCA in Muskegon is showing that a community approach to diabetes prevention can be less expensive compared to one-on-one counseling and can also help bring people together.
FADEL: And community programs, as you point out, are important. What about doctors and the health care system?
AUBREY: I think one of the criticisms of our system is that it's not so much health care as it is disease care. You know, we wait for people to get sick and then try to fix them with surgeries and drugs, which of course, can help, but it's very expensive. At a time when the U.S. spends about $4 trillion a year in health care each year, only 4 or 5% of that is directed toward public health and prevention.
FADEL: Wait, what? Out of $4 trillion, only 4 to 5% is about the prevention that stops us going to the hospitals?
AUBREY: Yes, single digits.
FADEL: So then when it comes to prevention, are there things that people can just do for themselves?
AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, our big levers are what we eat, how much we sleep, how we manage stress. Do we make time for exercise, movement, for socializing with friends? I think it's not always easy to make the healthiest choices. Earlier this week, I was at Starbucks with my daughter, and she was eyeing the cake pop and a pink drink, and I said something like, oh, that's more sugar than you should have in a day. And she just gave me this side eye. She kind of shrugged. She said, Mom, like, everyone eats this kind of stuff. So here I am feeling like the bad guy because everywhere you look, there's sugary and salty, ultraprocessed foods. It can be kind of frustrating.
FADEL: Right. And that's if you have the choice to actually get to a place that has healthy, fresh food.
AUBREY: That's right. So one of the things we want to do in this series, Leila, is to look around. We're going to look around in Paris, Calif., for example, where supermarkets have been told they must swap out candy and junk food for healthier items in the checkout lines, just to see how small tweaks, policy changes, can help nudge people to healthier choices.
FADEL: Thanks, Alison. I'm looking forward to hearing this.
AUBREY: Thanks, Leila.
FADEL: You can hear more "Living Better" stories this Wednesday on MORNING EDITION and All Things Considered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.