The burdens of disease, and death

Smallpox poster (Credit: Centers for Disease Control)

Smallpox poster (Photo Courtesy: Centers for Disease Control)

In my lifetime a handful of diseases have been eradicated – like smallpox – or tamed a bit – like HIV/AIDS. I grew up wanting to believe that hope was part of the methodology in scientific research, hope part of the solution.

∫∫ Crunching Global Health Numbers ∫∫

In Seattle, our global health experts just published research findings on the latest global causes of death and disability – the DALYs – in developed (rich) and in developing (poor) countries. There’s hope, perhaps – but a bit of kick-in-the-pants reality, too. It’s called metrics – visualized metrics (view here). It grabs you: global-health eye candy screaming “Pay attention to this!”

These findings and visualized metrics are from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation (IHME), with funding from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. IHME’s “Global Health Burden of Disease Study” is a five-year study in 50 countries by 500 researchers. Predictably, HIV/AIDS, infant illnesses, and infectious diseases loom largest in developing countries, while richer countries like the U.S. are faced with growing threats of noncommunicable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and drug/drink disorders.

∫∫ Remembering Alzheimer’s ∫∫

Five million and rising: Americans with Alzheimer's disease. (Photo: On Being/Creative Commons)

Five million and rising: Americans with Alzheimer’s disease. (Photo courtesy: On Being/Creative Commons)

The Alzheimer’s news is most troubling to me – not because it’s rampant among my relatives, but because I’ve often witnessed the living-dead destruction it wreaks on patients as well as their families, including a former KIRO-TV colleague.

One of my first jobs was as a nurse’s aide at age 18 in a county-run rundown hospital – the highest-paying work for a girl I could find in my town. (That’s how much I wanted to go to college.) One of my duties was watching people die and then cleaning their bodies for the morgue. As depressing as that sounds, what disturbed me more was strapping aging patients into adult high chairs, where they sat all day long drooling, their minds dying a slow death with Alzheimer’s plaques and fibers twisting their brains: no therapy, no assistance, simply left to babble until their last breath.

A decade later when I worked in TV news covering medical/health stories, I found a young 32-year-old mother and wife trying to juggle the needs of her family and newborn baby with the needs of her wheelchair-bound, nearly catatonic father, dying at age 54 of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She cradled her infant’s head in hope, her father’s in despair… He died not long after after our interview.

∫∫ Making Change ∫∫

I still hold hope that, although we in the U.S. are dying more from noncommunicable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, there is so much we can easily change in our lifestyles to help ward off preventable risks for diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, and even that dreaded Alzheimer’s disease. If simple lifestyle warnings to take action don’t do the trick–exercise, healthy weight, clean eating, and no smoking–then perhaps those entertaining yet sobering IHME visualized metrics will shock us into action, these global health sentinels warning us of the burdens of disease, and death.



Recommended: “Jan’s Story: Love Lost to the Long Goodbye of Alzheimer’s” by Barry Peterson. (Jan was my KIRO-TV colleague who recently died; Barry was her husband and a CBS Network correspondent.)