Making a choice to be healthy

This is the third in a series of articles breaking down the recently released Western Upper Peninsula Health Department study of the health status of residents in its coverage area of Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties.

HANCOCK – There are many illnesses and diseases to which humans can fall victim, many of which are fatal, but health professionals are concerned so many of them are caused by lifestyle choices and are preventable.

Dr. Teresa Frankovich, Western Upper Peninsula Health Department medical director, said in the past, most illnesses and diseases were caused by infectious diseases, but now the main causes of death in the United States are chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Although there is a genetic component for some people related to those diseases, most people who acquire them have done so because of lifestyle decisions, such as tobacco and alcohol use and improper nutrition and lack of exercise.

“The majority of it is preventable,” she said. “A small change can reduce your risk in all these areas.”

Some of those illnesses are related to aging, also, and Frankovich said in the western Upper Peninsula there is a large elderly population.

“Because of our aging population, the burden for us will be tremendous,” she said. “We’re about 10 years ahead of the country on this curve.”

Frankovich said there is a perception by many residents in the Upper Peninsula that there is a higher level of cancer in the area than the rest of the state, but statistically that is incorrect. In the United States, about 40 percent of men and women will develop some sort of cancer, which is about the same rate in the western U.P.

“We don’t seem to have a unique risk,” she said. “Our rates reflect the national and state rates. The majority of those are skin cancers.”

As with cancer, Frankovich said the rates for diabetes in the western U.P. are about the same as in the rest of Michigan and the United States. On the survey, 10 percent of respondents reported having diabetes.

What’s especially concerning to her, Frankovich said, is that at current rates, about one third to one half of children today will develop diabetes at some time in their lives.

“That’s phenomenal when you consider the health effects of diabetes,” she said.

Those effects include heart disease, eye and kidney disease, nerve damage and depression.

Frankovich said the rate for death from heart disease in the western U.P. is 28 percent.

“It remains the leading cause of death for men and women nationally,” she said.

Nationally, the estimated cost of heart disease is $109 billion, Frankovich said.

Although the statistics for chronic disease may seem grim, Frankovich said with education there is hope.

“They are the result of a lifetime of accumulated health and lifestyle choices,” she said.

“The earlier in life we change, the better. We can completely turn this around for your children and grandchildren.”