Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Other Piece Of The Puzzle Is Stress

The release of the Federal Government’s Preventative Health Taskforce report has presented a range of recommendations to deal with the big three health challenges which confront our nation. They are the continued rise in obesity, the abuse of alcohol and the impact of tobacco smoking. But the authors of the report insist that it is much more than simply a collection of recommendations. They say that it is a plan to reverse one of the most alarming trends of our time, which will, if unchecked, will see our children experiencing a reduction in life expectancy from one generation to the next for the first time in our history.

For much of the twentieth century, a combination of improving medical technology and unprecedented prosperity has meant that both quality of life and life expectancy have improved dramatically. One hundred years ago, average life expectancy was less than 50 years. Now it is more than eighty. Along with that, improvements in medicine have kept most of us in good health for longer. But unfortunately, it appears that the same prosperity which has made that possible has also made people less active and more likely to eat too much, or just too much of the wrong foods. If the research is right, it would appear that we are at a tipping point where we can either continue in the same way, allowing our children to become fatter and confront the prospect of declining health and a shorter life, or change they way we do things and turn the trend around.

While the proposal to increase the tax on cigarettes and put them into plain packaging has received a great deal of attention, that is only one aspect of the report and one which is likely to meet the least resistance. There is nothing good that can be said for cigarettes, so it’s hard to argue against measures which make them more expensive and less attractive. Changes in the treatment of alcohol may meet with more objections, but ultimately will probably come to pass. Restrictions on the advertising of junk foods, and improvements in food labeling are likely to be welcomed enthusiastically by parents, while manufacturers and vendors may be less enthusiastic. All of these measures are likely to have positive health impacts, but is there a piece missing from the puzzle?

A big part of the challenge for ordinary everyday people is to not only make ends meet in the user pays world of economic rationalism, but to even find the time to be more healthy. Part of the price of our apparent prosperity is that, on average, we all work more hours than almost any other country, leaving less time to get out and enjoy a brisk walk in the fresh air. Lower income people, who may have more time but less money, can’t always afford healthier food when the junk food alternative is so often actually cheaper. Increasing levels of social anxiety only contribute to the inability of people to relax and enjoy a more healthy lifestyle, while some of us relieve the stress of surviving the modern world by having a big night out, which might be bad for us in the long run, but makes us feel good at the time.

While the recommendations of the report are all very worthy and for the most part worthwhile, the real solution to lifestyle related health issues won’t be found until we also find a way to make achieving that lifestyle a little less demanding and stressful.

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