Towards a healthier U.S.

The Healthy People 2020 priority list was announced last week, and guess what? It’s a thoughtful and comprehensive list that encompasses a wide range of issues that help contribute to – or detract from – overall health.

The priorities include many of the usual suspects, such as weight, physical activity, diabetes and heart disease. But it’s interesting to note some of the new areas that will be focused on over the next decade. Many of them, such as genomics or health care-associated infections, reflect emerging and important issues.

The priority list indicates a new emphasis on health care needs at various stages of life, such as early and middle childhood, the teen years and the geriatric years.

I was a little surprised to see sleep health is now a goal of Healthy People 2020. I’d assumed this was either already one of the priorities or wasn’t deemed important enough to make the list. I say it’s about time we started paying more attention to how we’ve become a nation of the chronically sleep-deprived and what this is doing to our well-being.

I also like the fact that health-related quality of life and the social determinants of health have been added to the list of goals.

All told, Healthy People 2020 has nearly 600 objectives to accomplish over the next decade. This initiative by the federal government was launched in 1979 to help set the framework for health promotion and prevention activities in communities across the U.S., decade by decade. For Healthy People 2020, multiple federal agencies spent months developing the priorities and obtaining public input to come up with the final plan – a hefty document it describes as “ambitious, yet achievable.” Preliminary data suggest that about 71 percent of the goals for Healthy People 2010 have been met.

I don’t expect to hear people avidly discussing Healthy People 2020 while they wait in line at Starbucks for the barista to take their order. Perhaps they should, though. Too often, health is reduced to “stop eating junk food and get off the couch.” While nutrition and physical activity do make a difference, they’re by no means the only factor that contributes to health. Income levels, the social and physical environment, food safety, occupational safety, immunizations and access to health care services are among the many other things that matter as well.

Healthy People 2020 might be huge and rather daunting, but it’s only by dealing with the big picture that improvements can take place so more Americans have a shot at living longer and healthier lives.

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