A View from the Editorial Board: Memphis at center of obesity epidemic
August 29, 2010
by Richard Duszak
The Commercial Appeal
Emma Brown (not her real name) died far too young, just six days after giving birth to her second daughter. She was 23.
Emma's health was always poor. Even as a teenager, she got winded just walking a flight of stairs. Throughout her pregnancy, she endured insulin injections several times a day. And shortly after her Caesarean section, she developed a nasty wound infection.
Even with routine blood thinners, a huge blood clot grew silently in the deep veins of her legs. When it broke apart and sailed to her lungs, her fate was sadly sealed, despite the heroic efforts of so many.
Bad luck? Maybe.
But the fact that Emma weighed 340 pounds probably contributed quite a bit to her demise. Obesity is a risk factor for each of the ills that plagued her, and has become one of the greatest health challenges of our times.
Throughout modern history, we've witnessed the life expectancy of each generation of Americans surpass that of its predecessor. Unless society succeeds in tackling the scourge of obesity, however, that trend will end.
Obesity is an exploding epidemic, and Memphis is at ground zero. Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas make up three of the nation's eight fattest states, according to an annual report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Too much barbecue and sweet tea? Not enough bike lanes? The reasons aren't entirely clear, but the results are. Just look around.
Fat, sadly, has become the new norm, here in the Mid-South and all across the country.
Like most Tennesseans and a lot of other Americans, I'm not a big fan of the health care legislation that passed earlier this year. It will change a lot of things, but few that would have impacted Emma. She had great insurance through her husband's employer, unimpeded access to fine doctors and great nurses, and received her care at a first-rate hospital.
As Americans continue their conversation about health care reform, many, unfortunately, are talking only about premiums and taxes, and laws and regulations. Few are talking about personal responsibility. That's where, as a country, we've lost focus.
Far too many Americans want their doctor, or their hospital, or their insurance plan, or the president, or Congress -- anyone but themselves -- to keep them healthy. But they can't. The only person who has absolute control over my health when it comes to obesity-related ills is me. The same holds true for everyone else. Good health starts with self.
The solution to obesity at the individual level, we all know, is conceptually quite simple. Decrease your intake of food, and increase your activity. But until together we as a society make this a lifelong priority for each and every citizen, families like the Browns will continue to suffer and mourn.
What's the better choice? A greasy half-pound cheeseburger, or a turkey sandwich on whole wheat? An evening on the couch with a bag of potato chips, or a bike ride with the kids? This isn't rocket science.
It's a matter of choice, and as a society, we're making lousy ones.
In a world in which super-sizing and remote controlling have become far too comforting enemies, the right choices are not always easy choices. I know from personal experience. Ten years ago, despite a bunch of pills, my blood pressure, like my cholesterol, was sky-high. No life insurance company was interested in gambling on an actuarial time bomb.
That was 35 pounds ago. Now my cholesterol is normal, and so too is my blood pressure. I buy life insurance at the lowest rate, and my health insurance plan is saving a lot of money by not having to pay for expensive medication. And most important, I feel great. All without an iota of government intervention.
No reform out of Washington or Nashville can make me eat less and exercise more. Only I can do that.
Fixing the many problems with our country's health care system is a daunting challenge. There will always be disagreement on how best to proceed. If each of us as an individual, however, takes primary responsibility for our own well-being, the problems we must solve collectively will surely be less Herculean.
Obesity now contributes to more illness and death than ever before. It's an epidemic of staggering proportions. Fortunately, it's one that each and every person is empowered to overcome, one calorie at a time.
Easy? Not necessarily.
Worth it? Go ask Emma's family.
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