New generations of Americans are expected to live longer than any generation prior. In fact, over the past century, the average life expectancy for Americans has increased by over 25 years, meaning that today, healthy individuals can expect to live well into their 70s or beyond.

While the increase in life expectancy is admirable, Americans still have some of the lowest life expectancies of anyone in the developed world. Additionally, Americans spend far more on healthcare each year. It’s hardly surprising. Americans have some of the highest rates of infant mortality, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions when compared to the rest of the developed world.

The root cause? Public health experts posit that a lack of preventative healthcare might be a source of the issue.

Disease prevention is one of the most common and least costly ways to keep individuals healthy, but in the United States, the healthcare system functions in such a way that preventative care is largely unavailable, unaffordable, or inaccessible for a majority of the population. By and large, the healthcare system operates in a way that addresses issues only after they have already progressed.

“A disproportionate share of the $2.6 trillion we spend on healthcare each year goes toward treating the sickest people–covering mostly high-cost hospital care for preventable chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer,” health expert Risa Livizzo-Mourey tells The Atlantic.

Livizzo-Mourey goes on to provide statistics linked to specific behaviors and the symptoms that result from those behaviors. Her data indicates that by targeting specific high-risk behaviors such as smoking, drinking, diet and exercise, as well as addressing mental health and chronic conditions, Americans could save billions on healthcare each year, and ultimately live longer.

“Healthcare spending and lost productivity tied to smoking alone, for example, totals over $193 billion a year. It is estimated that obesity rates are responsible for $34.3 billion and $27.6 billion in additional spending in Medicare and Medicaid respectively, and 74.6 billion in higher spending by private insurers,” Livizzo-Mourey argues.

In contrast, strategies that are dedicated to helping prevent chronic illnesses are woefully underfunded. For every dollar that Americans spend on healthcare each year, less than four cents goes to preventative measures.

While health insurance often dominates the national narrative when it comes to solving health issues in America, insurance is only one portion of a very complex healthcare puzzle. Moving forward, prevention, public education, and disease prevention must be equally prioritized.

Over 50 percent of Americans live with chronic illnesses. In order to address this issue, more must be done to ensure that individuals have access to services that will not only help them once they are diagnosed, but will also help prevent chronic illness entirely. This will help individuals and families better manage their health, and will also help to ease the burden that healthcare costs have on the economy.

Investments in preventative healthcare measures have been proven to work, and they pay off over time. According to recent research by Trust for America’s Health, an investment of $10 per person per year in programs that help to educate the public have the potential to save $16 billion each year. Promoting physical activity, nutrition, and promoting programs that aim to reduce drug and alcohol use really do work in the long term.

Keeping preventative health on the forefront of the national dialogue will require a number of changes. Doctors and nurses will need to be prepared to talk about preventative care with their patients, especially when speaking to young people who are generally adverse to seeking preventative care. Patients also need to be more informed about proper diet and nutrition, and have a better understanding of the potential risk factors that come with an inactive lifestyle.

In addition to continued education, the shortage of medical professionals must also be addressed. Employment for individuals trained in the medical field is at an all time high, but at the same time, there is a drastic shortage of trained and certified individuals to fill these roles.

There are clearly a lot of obstacles to overcome when it comes to addressing preventative healthcare in the United States, but it’s important when moving forward that a more robust healthcare model is necessary.

It’s unclear what will become of the American healthcare system in years to come, but what is clear is that preventative and holistic care works and actively benefits individuals. If we want Americans to continue to be able to live long, happy, and productive lives that are free of the risk of chronic illness, it’s important that we develop a more inclusive model of healthcare that prioritizes this kind of care.

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