It’s not always easy defining “the American way.” Is it a life of hiking and yoga and kale salads for lunch? Or is it sitting all day at a desk, in a vehicle or in front of the TV, all the while downing nuggets and fries?
Coloradans are renowned for their fitness, but less healthy ways have been sneaking up on them. Once home to superior mortality statistics, three metro areas just east of the Rockies — Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Greeley — have seen some of the biggest increases in death rates, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal.
The obvious reason is a rise in sedentary living and poor diets. This booming urban corridor may still offer stunning mountain views and proximity to the best in outdoor sports, but many of its residents see this world chiefly through their windshields. They live in new subdivisions built for cars, which they drive to the big-box stores and chain restaurant meals loaded with salt, fat and sugar.
That, health officials say, is why local doctors are seeing a surge in local cases of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The South and other regions have long reported high rates of death from these conditions. Now much of Colorado is joining them.
“People say, oh, Colorado, we’re so healthy,” David Rosenbaum, a cardiologist in Colorado Springs, told the Journal. “Not so much.”
These aren’t the so-called Deaths of Despair. Mainly plaguing whites who’ve suffered the loss of jobs, pay and status, such deaths are driven by a wave of alcoholism, suicides and drug overdoses.
But a study reported in JAMA two years ago found that a drop in American life expectancy has become very much equal opportunity. Heart failure used to target mainly those 65 and older. Obesity and diabetes increasingly afflict younger people of all colors — in city, suburb and country alike — and are pushing death rates higher in the 25-to-64 age group.
Interestingly, Colorado’s newer residents seem to have lower rates of being overweight than the long-timers, according to the state Department of Public Health & Environment. A possible reason is that newcomers were attracted there by the very opportunities for healthy living that locals falling into sedentary living and fattier diets ignore.
The decline in good health certainly isn’t for a lack of bike trails and fabulous skiing. It’s probably more about a lack of sidewalks. People must plan to do sports. They don’t have to think much about walking when that’s how they travel to schools, offices and stores.
An earlier study published in JAMA found that people living in walkable communities enjoyed better weight control and general health. The researchers had assigned a walkability score to more than 8,770 Ontario neighborhoods with similar demographics. They recorded obesity and diabetes rates that were significantly lower in the more walkable neighborhoods.
Cutting to the chase, anyone living anywhere in the United States who’s determined to exercise can find a way. What can’t be found everywhere is an infrastructure conducive to moving one’s body without having to make special plans or drive to a health club.
How has COVID-19 affected the rates of heart disease? Not for the better. A Cleveland Clinic survey found that 41% of Americans have had at least one heart-related issue since the pandemic began. Some of this may have to do with a reported drop-off in walking. Some 77% of respondents said they often or sometimes sit throughout the day. Added stress caused by the pandemic certainly didn’t help these numbers.
An epidemic of not moving seems to be spreading the despair to more U.S. territory. But in the end, Americans get to choose their way of life.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.