Actually, the wellness agenda is surprisingly uncluttered, says Dr. W. Smith Chandler. Let me show you how to break it down, he says, by asking a simple question: “Why do people die?”
The answer is not as complex as people might think. Forty percent of all Americans die of cardiovascular disease, primarily heart attack and stroke. So almost half of us die from clogged up or broken blood vessels, and 90% of those deaths happen younger than necessary.
The process that leads to all this illness and death often starts surprisingly early in life. A lot of teenagers already have the beginnings of what will become coronary artery disease. And that means that it's never too early to become interested in wellness.
The good news is, we now know the risk factors that cause cardiovascular disease, and we're getting a lot better at controlling them. Although there are a lot of risk factors, the major ones that matter in workplace wellness programs are smoking, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, and lack of physical exercise.
Depending on their severity, each one of those risk factors has the potential to increase cardiovascular death by up to 50%. So, for instance, regular exercise for decades can reduce cardiovascular death by 50%, and if a person is excellent on all of the risk factors, then it's exceedingly unlikely that he or she will die of the diseases that kill almost half of us.
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And it gets better. The benefits of cardiovascular wellness go far beyond living longer. Cardiovascular wellness also helps people to live better, so it increases quality of life, not just quantity of life.
For instance, starting at about age 35, you get a little bit stupider every year. (I'm 53, so I can say that, quips Chandler.) And I'm not talking about wisdom, but rather raw intellectual power like the ability to memorize a series of numbers. Well, it turns out that if a person has an excellent cardiovascular risk profile, there's still a gradual decline in intellectual capacity, but the slope of the decline is cut in half.
When you're young, feeling good is free, and you can abuse your body relentlessly, and still feel happy and energetic. As the years pass, this situation changes, but it changes so slowly that most people hardly notice it. They actually forget what it's like to truly feel good. As you age, if you want to continue to feel good, you've got to earn it. The main risk factor that influences this effect is exercise.
And exercise has additional benefits. For example, another thing that decreases quality of life is the steadily increasing joint discomfort that often starts around age 50 (something that has important impacts on productivity at work, especially for office workers). Exercise, especially yoga, by the way, is really good for this problem. In fact yoga can be as effective as drug therapy for joint discomfort.
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Or take depression. Depression is extremely common, and it has a huge impact on quality and quantity of life. And it's especially relevant to productivity at work. And exercise, again, is as effective as drug therapy for depression. (By the way, says Chandler, none of my comments are intended to criticize medications—they are very often helpful even when lifestyle is perfect.)
So, cardiovascular wellness is good for your brain and your personality as well as your heart, and that has a lot of relevance for employers.
In the next issue of the Advisor, we'll take a look at the #2 area for wellness, and we'll look at the ADA issues that wellness programs face.
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