The other day, I had the opportunity to meet a very kind gentleman in his mid-forties, not one year younger than me. And like most people in our forties, we eventually got around to talking about our health.
During our chat, he pulled out a pack of miniature cigars and began puffing quite vehemently on one of them. I was surprised, and asked him why he smoked at his age.
"Well, I've been smoking two packs of these cigars every day for about 15 years and don't want to quit. I have a chronic cough that just won't stop, and I bust a rib every few weeks because I cough so hard."
I asked him if the coughing bothered him, and this was his reply.
"You see, I'm diabetic, so I'm not gonna live that long anyway. So why give up smoking now?"
I was shocked, and our conversation continued from there.
"Just a few minutes ago, you showed me some photos of your grandchildren," I told him.
"Yeah, that's right."
"Don't you want to live to see them graduate from high school? Don't you want to be there for them?"
"Hell," he said. "I don't control my sugars that good, anyway, so whether I smoke or not, I'm still gonna die. So what's the difference? I won't make it to their high school graduation no matter what I do."
Stunned into silence, I went about the business at hand, and I ruminated on what he had said. Basically, this man chooses to not focus on controlling his sugars, and he adds insult to injury by inhaling at least 10 of those cigars every day. Slightly overweight and sedentary, his ratio of body fat is also not doing him any favors. He is a walking time-bomb, and as he ages, his risk of blindness, amputations, kidney disease, and serious respiratory illness increases exponentially.
There are millions of Americans like this gentleman, millions of people who simply don't understand how (or why) to take care of themselves. Apparently ignorant of the proactive choices that they could make in order to halt (or even reverse) the forward march of their respective chronic illnesses, these individuals are destined for disability and/or institutionalization, costing taxpayers billions of dollars in health care costs that could have been altogether preventable had they willingly engaged in their own self care.
Nursing homes and hospitals are crawling with people who oftentimes make lifestyle choices that fly in the face of logic, poisoning their bodies with cigarettes, nutritionally unsound foods, excessive amounts of alcohol, and a sedentary lifestyle that certainly contributes to their eventual demise.
We are all footing the bill for people like my new acquaintance who simply choose to eschew their own well-being by pursuing a lifestyle that contributes to personal ill health as well as a society-wide health care crisis. When such a critical mass of people are drugged into oblivion by cigarettes, alcohol, TV, bad food and the mushrooming effects of ill health, it is a recipe for a nationwide disaster as well as a personal form of suicide.
Ben Franklin was prescient in saying that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", but his admonition regarding the importance of prevention has apparently lost it's impact through the subsequent centuries. Most Americans seem to simply want a pill that will help them to eat less, quit smoking or lose weight, and that reliance on an outside source for the answer to one's personal health concerns is misguided and serves as a poison in the veins of the society.
Our health care system is in crisis, and our population is aging and growing more obese and ill with each passing year. As costs rise and quality of care decreases, a small few profit from the mess as most of us suffer the collective consequences.
The smoking diabetic described above is one of millions of Americans who choose to take the path of least resistance when it comes to their health, and if I explained to him that his choices are actually driving up the cost of health care around the country, he probably would have looked at me as if I had two heads.
Americans may be obsessed with health on one hand, but on a very deep level we seem to have basically given up the ghost. My diabetic acquaintance certainly sees no reason to change any of his habits, and as he slowly commits suicide, his care will consistently tax the system, adding to the sorry statistics that paint a picture of American health care that is anything but rosy. His premonition that he won't live to see his grandchildren's high school graduation is probably accurate, and when his grandsons wonder why Grandpa couldn't be there to watch them accept their diplomas, will anyone use his story as a cautionary tale? Most likely not, and the cycle will probably repeat itself in the next generation in a form of suicide that is, for all intents and purposes, more common than any of us would like to believe.