On Dec 19, 2013, The Atlantic published the story, Living Sick and Dying Young in Rich America--Chronic illness is the new first-world problem, by Leah Sottile. It wasn’t about autism specifically, but everything about it related to what the autism epidemic is doing to our kids.
The writer started by telling us about her husband, Joe Preston, 30, and his struggle with having Ankylosing Spondylitis, a serious inflammatory condition. From there she expanded into the broader picture. “But here’s the thing: We recently realized we weren’t alone. Almost all of our friends are sick, too. When we met our friend Missy Narrance, Joe found solace in talking to her about his health. She’s 29 and has been battling lupus and fibromyalgia for the past 10 years.”
Sottile asked the question, “Do we know so many people who are dealing with pain because people are just getting sicker in general?” And, as she discovered, the answer is, YES, THEY ARE. Chronically ill people, like her husband are “one of America’s biggest health emergencies. And it’s one that many people say we’re not prepared to deal with.” (That last line reminded me of what we often say about the impact of autism.)
Sottile cited a grim statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Almost half of American adults had at least one chronic condition in 2005.” I’m sure that number has only gotten worse in the last nine years. We’re talking about everything from autoimmune diseases like arthritis and lupus, to obesity, fibromyalgia, heart disease, and diabetes. Incredibly, one in five Americans now has arthritis, according to the CDC and the numbers are increasing. Officials project that today’s 46 million arthritis suffers will be 67 million by 2030. (No wonder we’re seeing all those Humira ads on TV.)
If this situation isn’t bad enough, Sottile went on to tell us, “It’s not just that Americans are getting sicker—it’s that young Americans are getting sicker. A 2013 report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine echoes the shock of that fact. ‘The panel was struck by the gravity of its findings,’ it reads. ‘For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high income countries.’”
The story noted that the state of America’s health was the subject of a US Senate hearing last month. At the hearing, as shown on the video link, Senator Bernie Sanders stated, “When we found that female mortality rose in 43 percent of US counties between 1992 and 2006 that is a profound reality that has got to be dealt with right here in the nation’s capital, Washington DC.” The hearing strongly linked Americans' poor health to poverty.
The bleak reality that America is now the land of the chronically ill and disabled can no longer be denied and it doesn’t involve just poor people. Sottile pointed out, “Women are less likely to live to age 50 if they’re born in the United States than other high income countries.”
Sottile quoted Dr. Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, who helped prepare the NAC/IOM report:
‘We analyzed the data by a variety of social classes and have found that the problem is pervasive. Rich Americans die earlier than rich people in other countries. College-educated people die earlier than college-educated people in other countries. It’s misguided for people who are better off and doing well to think that this is someone else’s problem.
‘It’s very concerning. We are living shorter lives than people in other countries. We’re sicker than people in other countries.’
Sick Americans also affect our economy. Experts are worried that sicker workers mean less production.
Dr. Enrique Jacoby at the World Health Organization attributed this situation to a variety of things: bad diet (including processed foods with addictive additives), lack of exercise, air pollution, genetics and the push to be too clean with anti-bacterial soaps.
Sottile talked about several theories to explain what’s wrong. One was from Dr. Frederick Miller of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Miller explained that because we’ve eliminated so many infectious diseases that used to kill off a lot of people, maybe the problem is that the weak are surviving. People with compromised immune systems now survive to adulthood when they develop these chronic conditions and they live with them for decades.
‘One of the unique things about autoimmune diseases, as opposed to cancer, is that these are more likely to be long-term. You’re not just dealing with the immediate problems, but the entire lifelong implications of that.’
Despite the Senate hearing that blamed poverty for bad health, Sottile cited the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation: ‘Diseases of poverty, such as communicable, maternal, nutritional and newborn causes, have decreased universally while non-communicable conditions traditionally associated with wealthier countries have risen. As people live longer and die at lower rates, the number of years spent living with disability… has increased.’
Sottile acknowledged that Dr. Woolf (who worked on the IOM health report) gave us a ray of hope in this dismal situation. ‘We’ve known for many years what needs to be done about this. The problem is not a lack of knowledge about what to do, but a lack of resolve and resources for how to do it… For each [issue], there are major blue ribbon reports that have outlined precisely what needs to be done about it.’ And the reason nothing has been done is because Americans are resistant to health legislation, according to Woolf.
He also believes that the latest findings aren’t really being made public and ‘the general media … haven’t been briefed about this sufficiently.’
It’s interesting that The Atlantic published this. Officials and experts do seem concerned about our declining health. What’s lacking here are any real solutions. Why isn’t this being talked about everywhere in the press?
I think there may be a number of reasons for that. There’s now a large segment of our economy dependent on us being sick—from the drug industry to all the clinics springing up everywhere—sick people mean jobs and profit. Doctors don’t cure us; they medicate us.
Our country has willingly accepted a two percent autism rate, no questions asked, so why should anyone demand to know why everyone else is getting sick too? The IOM and the CDC may come up with statistics and publish reports, but nothing ever changes. I have long felt that autism has to be seen in the context of all the other health issues out there. For decades we’ve been pushed aside with the official explanation that all the autism is just better diagnosing of a condition that’s always been around. When autism is talked about along with the other things disabling our kids, the truth can’t be hidden. The epidemic increase in autism is just as real as the frighten rise in seizures, bowel disease, allergies, and asthma among our children. And guess what? Doctors can’t explain why any of it’s happening.
Maybe when there are just too many people out there like Sottile’s friend, Missy Narrance, 29, who has had lupus and fibromyalgia for the past 10 years and can’t work, we’ll be forced to face reality. There is no future for a country where we’re just getting sicker and sicker.
Anne Dachel is Media Editor of Age of Autism.