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COMMENTARY – Health, life expectancy and Oklahoma

Sen. Ervin Yen
Sen. Ervin Yen

By Sen. Ervin Yen

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a new study about U.S. life expectancy, and it was not good news.

People born in 2015 are expected to live an average lifespan of 78 years and nine and a half months —that’s a month less than those born in 2014. It’s also the first decline since 1993, a decline that was tied to the AIDS epidemic. In 1983, AIDS claimed more than 2,000 lives in the U.S., but just ten years later, that number had exploded to nearly 42,000.

You may wonder why after so many years of gains, we saw a drop in life-expectancy last year. There were 10 leading causes of death in 2015, the same as 2014, but while cancer death decreased slightly, deaths as a result of heart disease increased last year. I think we need to look closely at the increase is deaths due to obesity, liver disease, accidental overdoses and suicide.

By profession, I’m a doctor — more specifically, a cardiac anesthesiologist. Much of my work involves patients undergoing heart surgery, including heart transplants. While there are certainly some heart conditions a person can be born with as well as heart problems caused by factors beyond an individual’s control, many of the patients we see are there because of life-style choices that ultimately damaged their heart.

Smoking, substance abuse, obesity and lack of exercise are all factors that can dramatically shorten a person’s life, and greatly diminish an individual’s quality of life. We’ve worked hard to educate citizens about how these can negatively impact health and crafted legislation to address some of these issues when appropriate, particularly in the area of prescription drug abuse. Still, when it comes to smoking, obesity, substance abuse and the diseases they cause, including heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, cancer and more, we have a long, long way to go.

Obesity contributes to heart disease as well as diabetes, liver disease and several types of cancer.  Unfortunately, it’s one of many areas of health where Oklahoma ranks poorly.  People fail to get enough exercise, they eat too much food that’s high in fat and calories, and we’re one of the worst states in terms of consumption of fruits and vegetables.

As far as substance abuse and suicide rates, I believe as a state, more resources are needed for mental health and substance abuse treatment. It’s an investment that will save lives and improve the quality of those lives.

Yes, personal responsibility and being your own advocate are a critical part of addressing many of these health issues — but there is much we as a state can do in terms of policy and resources that can make a tremendous difference.

Poor health and preventable deaths have an incalculable cost in terms of the human toll.  As far as the cost to all of us as a state, in terms of direct and indirect costs, we can safely say it’s in the billions—and it’s far too high for us to ignore.

Dr. Yen, a Republican from Oklahoma City, represents Senate District 40 in the Legislature.

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