Chronic illness is one of the greatest public health issues of our time. I wrote In the Kingdom of the Sick in part to explore attitudes towards illness, and the influence of science, technology, and culture on the experience of being a patient. To have a meaningful conversation about the future of chronic illness in this country, we need to understand the complex variables that go into our perceptions of illness and wellness.
What might that future look like? In her new book, The Last Best Cure, award-winning health journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa brings us on her quest to find out how to awaken the healing potential of her own brain, with the hope of bringing about lasting change.
As a huge fan of her previous book, The Autoimmune Epidemic, and as someone who is very much aware of the state of chronic illness in this country, I asked Nakazawa why this particular book is so important at this juncture. Her response is below:
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One of the reasons that I set out to research and write The Last Best Cure is that the numbers of Americans with chronic conditions has been escalating so fast it’s frightening. Today in the United States, 133 million Americans – one out of two adults — suffer from at least one chronic condition. These include back pain, irritable bowel and digestive disorders, arthritic conditions, migraines, thyroid disease, autoimmune diseases, depression and mood disorders, cancer, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic pain. Experts predict that these numbers, which have been rising steadily by more than one percent a year, will rise 37% by 2030.
And most of us are women. We’re more likely than men to suffer from migraines and lower pack pain, twice as likely to suffer from depression, irritable bowel disease and arthritis. And women are three times more likely than men to suffer from autoimmune diseases including lupus, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disorders. Ninety percent of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. And women are more likely to suffer from a compilation of chronic conditions than are men. Lupus and migraines. Back pain and fibromyalgia and irritable bowel.
We may tell ourselves that Americans are getting sicker simply because we’re living so much longer. But a new study tells us that’s not the case. Americans of all ages up to the age of 75 live shorter lives and experience more chronic illness during their lives than in other countries. In fact, a recent study — a 378-page report convened by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences — shows that not only do Americans have a lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than most high-income countries, we are less healthy throughout our lives than citizens of 16 other wealthy nations.
And every year Americans are becoming less healthy than our counterparts in peer nations around the globe. The U.S. is experiencing a large and widening “mortality gap” among adults over 50 compared with other high-income nations. “What struck us — and it was quite sobering — was the recurring trend in which the U.S. seems to be slipping behind other high-income countries,” says lead author of the report, Dr. Steven Woolf.
We might think that this is due to gun violence, or poverty. But that’s not the case. Even Americans who possess good health insurance, are college-educated and are in upper-income brackets are in worse health than their counterparts around the world — a finding that no one quite comprehends. Woolf puts it this way, “People with seemingly everything going for them still live shorter lives and have higher disease rates than people in other countries.”
I wrote The Last Best Cure for every person who suffers from chronic conditions. We’re chronically ill and we’re getting more chronically ill as a country every minute. I wrote a great deal about why I think that’s the case in my last book, The Autoimmune Epidemic.
The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Activate the Healing Areas of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy and My Life is the natural progression after The Autoimmune Epidemic. It’s about participating in a reversal trend, to reclaim good and healthy lives. As a country, as people, as individuals. Isn’t it time?
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Indeed it is time. The Last Best Cure will be out in just a few weeks, and you can check out more of Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s writing on her blog. Be sure to “like” her FB fan page for book updates and events.