Sixty percent of Maryland residents had a chronic disease in 2015, costing the state $21.6 million in healthcare spending, and more importantly, resulted in 18,500 deaths, according to the most recent health data available.
With those sobering statistics, the city of Baltimore has devised a plan to reduce those numbers by increasing access to healthy foods and fresh produce for city residents.
Programs like Baltimarket, a suite of community-based food access and food justice programs through the Baltimore City Health Department, have teamed with neighborhood corner stores to stock shelves with healthier food options.
Health experts say this is important because individuals who are overweight are two to three times more likely to develop heart disease or hypertension, and 10 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who maintain a healthy weight.
“The higher your BMI— body mass index— the greater your risk of developing chronic disease,” said Dr. Ken Thorpe, a health policy expert who serves as chairman for the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.
“Being overweight can also put you at a higher risk of developing cancer, especially endometrial cancer,” Thorpe said, citing one study that revealed lowering BMI by just one unit can lead to 28 fewer cases of certain chronic diseases including hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes, asthma and osteoarthritis, per 1,000 people.
Beyond causing chronic disease, excess weight can exacerbate symptoms. Maintaining a balanced, nutrient-heavy diet of fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, grains, and oils is the best way to prevent chronic disease, Thorpe added.
“Fruits and vegetables are especially important. Research has shown that consumption of fruits and veggies can reduce one’s risk of stroke, hypertension, and heart disease,” he said.
To minimize chances of developing chronic disease, it’s equally important to cut out foods with added sugars, sodium and saturated fats from your diet. Replacing high-fat foods with ones packed in nutrients is a great way to maintain a healthy weight and impede the development of chronic disease, Thorpe noted.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also makes for a great resource to learn more about healthy eating, especially as it pertains to chronic disease.
Exercise is also important. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults aim for 150 to 300 minutes of physical activity each week.
Those who can commit more time to exercising will reap greater benefits, but, for example, just 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week has been shown to reduce one’s risk of heart disease.
“What’s just as important as the frequency of exercise is the type of exercise you do. To reap the full benefits of exercise, it’s important to vary your routine and be sure to break up cardio with some weight-lifting, or give yoga or even dancing a try,” he said. “It's important to note that exercise is just as important for people living with chronic disease as those who are trying to prevent it. For example, moderate aerobic activity and strength building exercises have been proven to help those with osteoarthritis and type 2 diabetes.”
Getting enough sleep, seven to nine hours per night also helps. People who sleep fewer than six hours heighten their risk for heart disease and can exacerbate pre-existing hypertension, he said.
Clinical preventive services are just as important in the fight to manage or prevent chronic disease.
“In this setting, you can receive immunizations and screenings that can help you prevent, detect, and manage chronic disease,” Thorpe said.
Community-sponsored classes and information sessions about chronic disease management are another great resource, he said, noting that the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program is one workshop available nationally in which participants meet once a week to discuss all aspects of living with a chronic disease— pain management, family interaction, exercise plans, diet, future treatments, and medications.
“The program is offered in Baltimore at Total Health Care,” Thorpe said.